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30 June, 2022

ON 2 JULY 1964, after signing into law the Civil Rights Act, the US president Lyndon B Johnson shakes hands with the activist Martin Luther King Jr. The comprehensive legislation—the widest expansion of civil liberties in nearly a century—prohibited, among other things, unequal voting laws, racial segregation and employment discrimination. 

The end of the Civil War, in 1865, was followed by the passage of several anti-discrimination laws and constitutional amendments, as radical Republicans won state elections throughout the former Confederacy and took control of the US Congress. However, during the disputed presidential election of 1876, the two national parties agreed upon a compromise that included the withdrawal of all remaining federal troops in the southern states. Since these soldiers had been crucial to protecting African Americans from political violence, their withdrawal allowed Democrats to return to power throughout the South and enact a series of segregationist measures.

As millions of African Americans left the South and, following the enactment of the New Deal in the 1930s, began supporting the Democratic Party, the administrations of Franklin D Roosevelt and Harry S Truman passed some integrationist measures. Then, in 1954, after decades of fighting segregation in the courts, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People secured a landmark victory in Brown v Board of Education. Over the next few years, the civil-rights movement organised non-violent protests throughout the country, culminating in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

The John F Kennedy administration introduced civil-rights legislation in the House of Representatives on 19 June 1963. Segregationist Democrats held up the bill in committee, but, following Kennedy’s assassination that November, Johnson successfully lobbied for its passage, by 290 votes to 130. A group of southern senators kept up a filibuster for 54 days, but a weaker version of the bill was finally passed, by 73 votes to 27, on 19 June 1964.