From the Archives: ADL & the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – Part 2

  • July 2, 2014


Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston Civil rights leaders pose with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson at a meeting at the White House on 22 June 1963. ADL National Director Benjamin Epstein stands to the right of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy

In January 1964, two months after President Kennedy’s death, ADL released its annual report on Congress and civil rights, declaring that because of President Johnson’s “unmatched knowledge” of Congress, “it is now more possible to pass” the Civil Rights Act that President Kennedy had introduced in a televised speech the previous year.

On January 31 Senator Edward M. Kennedy, in his first public appearance in New York since the death of his brother, addressed the 51st annual meeting of ADL. Senator Kennedy told the audience that the civil rights bill “will pass the House unweakened” and that only a filibuster could stop a Senate majority “ready and willing to vote for it.” Ten days later, the House passed the bill by a vote of 290 to 130 and sent it to the Senate, where it met a filibuster.

Soon after the filibuster began, Senators Abraham Ribicoff and Jacob Javits received ADL’s 1964 Human Rights Award. They spoke about the bill in their acceptance speech during the April 9 ceremony, expressing concern about the “‘so-called white backlash’ on civil rights in the North” and warning that “passage of the Civil Rights Bill would solve no problems unless ‘the ultimate responsibility for civil rights’ is accepted by individual Americans.’”

In late April, ADL National Chairman Dore Schary announced plans to convene a meeting of 120 Jewish business, professional, and civil leaders from all over the United States “to sound an alarm that time was running out” and “to urge that the Bill then under debate be passed without weakening deletions and amendments.” Said Schary of the Washington, DC, event:

“This meeting in the nation’s capital is an all-out effort by a group of leading citizens to aid their country in what they consider to be the most critical moment in one of the gravest crises in the past century. They believe that if the Civil Rights Act is not passed soon, the nation faces dangerous disorder in the coming summer months.”

The group, comprised of judges, municipal officials, performers in the arts, financial and industrial leaders from 30 states, first conferred with Administration and Senate spokesmen, and then called or met with their home-state legislators. The group also visited Arlington National Cemetery to “pay their respects to the memory of President Kennedy and leave a floral spray at the graveside.”

ADL National Director Benjamin R. Epstein later recalled the meeting in Not the Work of a Day, noting its success: “[B]y jiminy, it worked, and it was because it was an intelligent approach to lobbying, a perfectly legitimate way of achieving a purpose in a democratic society.” Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey wrote to say: “I am forever grateful … for the ADL’s visit to Washington on behalf of the Civil Rights Bill. The business leaders who gave of their valuable time … performed an indispensible service. I know from conversations with many Senators that their visits were truly effective.”

To be continued…

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