Eyewitness to History: 1964 Civil Rights Act signed 60 years ago today. I was there.

It was a time of relative comity, when Senate Republicans joined with the Democratic majority to overcome a filibuster and pass the most significant civil rights legislation in a century.  Segregation had prevailed throughout the South and even in border states like Maryland ever since the end of Reconstruction with the corrupt bargain of 1877 that restored white supremacy to the defeated Confederate states in a contested presidential election.

This time the country was still reeling from the Nov. 22, 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, but the reaction to that terrible tragedy propelled his successor, a Texan, to seek and achieve what the martyred Kennedy sought to do but could not.  When LBJ signed the bill, I was there.

I was an accidental witness to history on July 2, 1964, at the White House, as Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the 1964 Civil Rights Act that outlawed discrimination of the basis of race, religion, sex, or national origin.  I was not quite 22 and had been at my first postgraduate job for less than a month as bureau librarian for the New York Herald Tribune. The bureau had long been ensconced on the 12th floor of the National Press Building but had just moved into new offices at 1750 Pennsylvania Avenue, in a penthouse suite with a panoramic view of monumental Washington.  Reporter Andy Glass was assigned to go to the White House for this momentous event, and I got to tag along.

“Last Thursday I had literally the thrill of my life,” I wrote to my parents on July 6. “I was in the East Room of the White House a few feet from LBJ when the Civil Rts Bill was signed into law over coast-to-coast TV. The reporters are so nonchalant — as if they go to the White House every day (which they do).”

The letter was written in pencil on letterhead stationery from “jester of Columbia,” the college humor magazine I worked on as an undergraduate. I don ‘t know why I have the letter, other than it must have been among the papers I found among my parents’ belongings after they died.  Mentions of my presence at this historic event has since met with some skepticism, but I’m happy to produce the proof to dispel any doubts.  Andy Glass, who later was the longtime Washington bureau chief for the Cox newspaper chain, confirmed my attendance in a Facebook exchange, noting that he had one of LBJ’s signing pens!

My trip to the White House to witness history came at the very beginning of what has turned out to be a six-decade career in journalism. There have been many other memorable moments, but none quite like this one.  In our own troubled time, when our very democracy seems to hang by a slender thread, it is of some comfort to remember a moment when the country dared at last to confront its ugly past and at least try to overcome it.  The current Supreme Court supermajority has in just a short span of time turned back the clock on progress.  It is not inconceivable that the 1964 Civil Rights Act will be next.

Let us hope and pray that never happens.  As the historic day of July 2, 1964 fades from memory, let it be commemorated and never forgotten.

Civil Rights Act of 1964 - Wikipedia


  1. Jane Brown on July 2, 2024 at 12:06 pm

    We are reeling from recent court decisions, the now delay by NY prosecutors to deliver recommended sentencing and worry of more to come.

  2. Joseph Drew on July 3, 2024 at 8:20 am

    This was a great event in the lives of many of us of our generation. Saint-Simon talks about history and alternating “critical” and “organic” periods. The 60’s constitute a critical period in American history, and this event, plus the signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, represents a high point for the country. How lamentable it is that the current Supreme Court is destroying many of the achievements and advancements made in the 1960s.

  3. Theresa L. Saxton on July 4, 2024 at 12:12 am

    Thanks for sharing that personal experience because sometimes we don’t recollect or commemorate the significance of historical events which may have occurred during our lifetime. Some of them, while not celebrated as national holidays, truly reflect the kind of spirit with which our Country should continue striving to “Make America Great Again.” Sadly, however, the opposite of that spirit seems more prevalent today; and as one who participated in the 1963 March on Washington, I have become increasingly concerned that our “national” conscience to sincerely address or correct injustices has gradually eroded to a point of being beyond restoration.

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