Residents react to the 1964 Civil Rights Act

FADED SIGN OF FORMER TIMES: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal to discriminate based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. The law also prohibited racial segregation in schools, employment and public accommodations. The image shows a former segregated public restroom located in Pack Square. Photo by Andrea Clark

On June 30, 1964, an Associated Press story featured in The Asheville Citizen reported that the United Church Women of North Carolina supported the civil rights bill, which the U.S. House of Representatives would soon debate. Part of the organization’s resolution declared:

“We reaffirm our belief that there should be national legislation enacted by Congress of the United States to insure for all our citizens their just and constitutional rights and needs in education, voting, employment opportunities, housing, and access to public places of accommodation.”

In addition, the group proclaimed: “[T]eachings of the Lord Jesus Christ reveal that we are all one family under God, the Father of us all, and that all people, regardless of race, should enjoy the blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

In response to the article, resident J.W. Boykin submitted a letter to the paper, published on Feb. 5, 1964. In it, he wrote, “We question if these women know what they are advocating. Undoubtedly the women have had only one side of the question presented them.”

Boykin, who continued his letter in the first-person plural, encouraged residents to read “Civil Rights and Legal Wrongs,” a pamphlet produced by the Virginia Commission on Constitutional Government.

“And finally,” he concluded, “may the thought be voiced, but not above a whisper, that the theology of the ladies may be slightly off balance? Perhaps a close reading of our Lord’s words in St. John 8:31-47 would be of help.”

Five days later, on Feb. 10, the House passed the civil rights bill, sending it to the U.S. Senate. Delays, including a 75-day filibuster, ensued.

During this period of uncertainty, several additional opinions and letters appeared in The Asheville Citizen. This included a March 21, 1964, editorial that featured excerpts from a recent writing published in The American Scholar. Its author, philosopher Gerald Johnson, characterized all civil rights (except for the right to vote), as secondary and therefore undeserving of constitutional protections.

The paper’s editorial team agreed. “We have defended the Negro’s rights to equal opportunity and have urged the voluntary removal of barriers that have discouraged his mass emergence to social and economic respectability,” the column declared. “But to force, by law, an employer to hire a Negro or a private restaurant to serve him violates the principles of law in a democratic republic.”

Similar messages followed, albeit far more hyperbolic. On March 24, reader George R. Hunt proclaimed: “If the Civil Rights Bill is passed there will be more chaos and confusion in this nation than there has been since the Civil War.” Later, he warned, “Many of the Southern people are leaving the Democratic Party for such radical things the party is doing. Nothing can be more radical than trying to get this bill passed.”

Hunt signed off by encouraging “all good men” to write, phone and wire their representatives “to fight against the passage of the Civil Rights Bill so we can pass on to our children the heritage our fathers passed to us — freedom.”

In the same day’s paper, one Fannie B. McCoy wrote, “This uncivil rights bill is unconstitutional to the extent of 100 per cent, and it is the most dangerous bill ever presented to the United States Senate.”

As the filibuster dragged on, Marion resident M.R. Smith bemoaned what he considered unfair treatment toward conservatives. According to Smith, whose letter appeared in The Asheville Citizen on April 25, 1964, those opposed to civil rights were deemed “die-hards, bigots, fanatics [and] extremists[.]” But, Smith insisted, “I rather suspect that these so-called die-hards are decent, responsible people who still happen to believe that they have, or should have, the fundamental freedom of association and freedom to do business with whom they choose.”

Despite efforts to prevent it, the U.S. Senate passed the civil rights bill on June 19, 1964.

The following week, Weaverville resident James L. Mooney wrote The Asheville Citizen, hopeful about the bill’s potential, despite many white citizens’ opposition to it:

“Education, forward thinking, restraint and, plain common horse sense can alleviate the mental disturbance of our people: A composite citizenry, prepared to work together, can arrive at a compatible solution, permitting each citizen to enjoy the true provisions of the Civil Rights Bill. “

On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the measure into law.

Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents.

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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6 thoughts on “Residents react to the 1964 Civil Rights Act

  1. T Davis

    You left out the voting results from the House and the Senate on this important Bill. House – 60% of Dems voted Yes, 77% of Repubs voted Yes. Senate – 69% of Dems voted Yes, 82% of Repubs voted Yes. The successful passage of the Bill overcame a lengthy filibuster by Senator Robert Byrd (D), former leader of KKK in West Virginia.

    • NFB

      Robert Byrd denounced his youthful involvement in the Klan many, many years ago and regretted his opposition to the Civil Rights Act. This is among the reason he earned praise from John Lewis:

      https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/lawmaker-news/106809-robert-byrd-a-true-statesman-rep-john-lewis

      Most of the Democrats who opposed civil rights became Republicans due to the national Democratic party’s support for it. Democrats like Byrd recognized and accepted the call for redemption, something former Democrats and later staunch Republicans like Jesse Helms did not.

      In political terms it is called realignment. There was a time when the Democratic party was the party of the Confederacy in opposition to the Republican party of Abraham Lincoln. Today it is Republicans, not Democrats who are the apologists for the treason of the Confederacy.

      • T Davis

        Thanks for citing the references for the data. I used the exact same sources to calculate the percentages in my comments (e.g., 153 out of 253 democrats voted Yes, or 60%). You gave raw numbers, I gave percentages (based on calculations using the raw numbers). Same data, different way of presenting it.

        • SpareChange

          What you purposely fail to mention is that across time party labels, and the parties themselves, come to mean and stand for very different things. The Democrats who voted against the Civil Rights Act were almost all Southern Democrats, linked to the same Democratic Party which had been dominant in the Jim Crow South after the Civil War. As you well know, almost all of those Democrats, who were staunch segregationists, left the party over the issue of race and became Republicans. This phenomenon was amplified by GOP nominee for President Barry Goldwater’s vote against the same Civil Rights Act in 1964, and Nixon’s “southern strategy” in ’68.

          Similarly, the Republican Party at that same time, was almost wholly made up of northern moderates and business conservatives who had little taste for, and (at that time) little to gain politically, by opposing expanded civil rights for blacks.

          Since then, the realignment has become complete – with the Republican Party’s strongest base of support being whites in the old “solid Democratic south.” In short, to conflate the parties, their changing coalitions of supporters, and what they stood for in 1964, with who supports them and what they stand for in 2020, is just intellectually dishonest.

  2. luther blissett

    Yes, the realignment began at that moment. According to Bill Moyers, the night after signing it, LBJ said “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican party for a long time to come.”

    It’s even more telling that the editors of the Asheville Citizen both defended racial discrimination by private entities and chose to grant space to (presumably white) readers who agreed. Meanwhile, both papers largely ignored the anti-segregation protests that included Commissioner Al Whitesides:

    https://diversityed.unca.edu/sites/default/files/With%20All%20Deliberate%20Speed%20%281%29_2.pdf

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