A project of the Center for Community Change

Immigration Movement should learn from the Civil Rights Movement

By Rich Stolz and Toni Holness- featured on New American Media

As the immigrant rights movement struggles and encounters the political maneuvering of the U.S. Congress, the civil rights movement, its history and lessons, figures prominently. Perhaps the first and most important lesson of the African-American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s is the length of time it took for that movement to win a resounding legislative victory – it took a decade after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision for Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This clearly proves that endurance matters. The African-American civil rights movement survived, and continues to this day. It also birthed a number of progressive movements, including today’s immigrant rights movement.

This year the immigrant rights movement has already experienced a gut wrenching debate that included a number of painful concessions and the defeat – at least for now – of a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the Senate. Over forty years ago activists and lawmakers rallied around an issue just as hotly debated as today’s comprehensive immigration reform: the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

As is the case in any legislation in Congress, ultimately there will be compromise, and enactment can only be assured through a bi-partisan agreement among Republicans and Democrats. Against this pragmatic backdrop, the civil rights movement brought its grassroots power, and the moral authority of its cause illustrated by the leadership of the faith community. These tactics safeguarded the bill’s eventual journey through the House and Senate.

Similar to 1964, America is home to a largely disenfranchised population whose dreams of integration, education and self-sustainability are being negotiated by distant lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Recent immigration enforcement raids underscore that the policing force of the government targets these vulnerable communities and their children. Back then, state and local police aimed their force at children who dared to enter whites-only establishments. Unsurprisingly, today’s targeted population is also, generally speaking, an economically disadvantaged one led by minority communities.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin in voting, employment, and public services; it was a landmark bill that would change the nation for future generations. The fight then is reminiscent of the reforms that today’s movement hopes to secure for immigrants – undocumented and documented alike. The political maneuvering of that era is also strikingly familiar to the maneuvering facing immigrant rights activists today – it raises the question, “How can a bill needed by so many survive the obstacle course created for it by a vocal and angry minority in Congress?”

The 1964 bill, endorsed by then-President Johnson, overcame a number of obstacles on its way through both the House and Senate in the last few months before its enactment. Initially introduced in the House Judiciary Committee, the bill was later referred to the House Rules Committee whose chairman, Representative Judge Smith, D-Virg., threatened to deny it a hearing. Fortunately, a bipartisan coalition of representatives, including a conservative Midwesterner, Clarence Brown, R-Ohio, was able to challenge the authority of Chairman Smith. But to avoid a showdown that he would lose, Smith finally allowed the bill to pass through the Rules Committee.

On the House floor, rabbis, priests and other religious leaders made a public statement of the faith community’s support for the bill and became moral watchdogs, reminding representatives that they would be held accountable for their role in the debate. Despite overwhelming support for the bill, Smith made a final attempt to prevent the bill from passing. Knowing that the bill’s supporters had not yet established a unified opinion regarding women’s rights, he amended the bill to include making employment discrimination based on sex illegal. Although jolted by this amendment, the bill’s supporters defiantly accepted it and the bill passed through the House on Feb. 10, 1964 with a 290 to 130 vote.

In the Senate, the bill faced opposition from Southern Democrats. To compensate for this loss in support, the bill’s proponents appealed to Republican senators. Also recognizing that Southerners dominated the Judiciary Committee, the Senate voted to place the bill on the Senate calendar, instead of referring it to the Judiciary Committee. Hubert Humphrey D-Minn., who was managing the bill, looked to Sen. Dirksen, R-Ill., to garner the remaining 20 Republican votes that were needed to get the bill passed. To entice Dirksen’s support for the bill, Humphrey compromised on a single issue; they agreed that the government would only sue in cases involving a pattern or practice of discrimination.

Toward the beginning of the 1964 debate, Sen. Dirksen, in an attempt to rally support for the Act, declared, “I come of immigrant German stock. My mother stood on Ellis Island as a child of 17, with a tag around her neck directing that she be sent to Pekin, Illinois. Our family had opportunities in Illinois, and the essence of what we’re trying to do in the civil rights bill is to see that others have opportunities in this country.” Today these words resonate with the many undocumented immigrants whose plight will be determined by Congress’s decisions.

When the Senate debate began, the Southerners—led by Richard Russell, D-Georgia, staged their expected filibusters, a familiar tactic they had used to weaken previous civil rights bills. With the recommendation of then-Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, the bill’s advocates were determined to outlast the Southern filibuster, and they did. On June 10, 1964, sixty Senators voted to shut off debate and on June 19 the Senate passed the civil rights bill with a 73-27 vote. On July 2, 1964, the House-Senate conference committee voted to accept the Senate version of the bill. During that same day President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the East Room of the White House.

Today, Congress faces an important test. Despite the Senate’s failure to move forward on comprehensive immigration reform and the angry anti-immigrant and nativist posturing that dominated the debate, Congress has an obligation to take up this issue once more. To fail to make progress on any bill this year represents a victory for America at its worst. Forty years from today, which politicians will be remembered for their courage, and which will be remembered for obstructing a movement towards justice? Millions of immigrants and their U.S. citizen family members should not have to wait. What matters most now is that despite our losses in the Senate, the immigrant rights movement will continue, and that in this case as in the past, justice will prevail.

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