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Four American presidents are gathering this week in Austin, Texas to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act becoming law and to honor the legacy of former President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The landmark legislation banned racial segregation in public places including schools, hotels and restaurants, and established equal employment opportunity as law.
President Barack Obama spoke today at the summit, saying Johnson helped make it possible for him to become the nation's first black president. Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter will also attend the celebration held at the Johnson Presidential Library.
Fifty years ago, the public leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, including Martin Luther King Jr., had long been rallying for equality measures across the country and the bill was considered a major flashpoint in the movement.
In Washington, Johnson had pushed for the Act’s passage essentially since he became president, starting with his address to Congress after the death of John F. Kennedy. Johnson continued to advocate for the Civil Rights Act as it was filibustered by Southern Democratic Senators, causing the longest continuous Senate debate in History.
Eventually, on July 2, 1964, a smiling Johnson signed the legislation in front of a crowd that included Martin Luther King and Attorney General Bobby Kennedy. A Universal newsreel from that year marked the significance of the moment: “Congress passes the most sweeping Civil Rights Bill ever to be written into the law, and thus reaffirms the conception of equality for all men that began with Lincoln and the Civil War 100 years ago.”
You can watch the newsreel’s historic footage of Johnson’s remarks upon signing the Civil Rights Act in the video below, courtesy of NBCUniversal Archives.