Last week, on July 2nd, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 celebrated its 51st anniversary. Originally pioneered by President John F. Kennedy and called for just a year earlier on June 11, 1963 in his Civil Rights Address, delivered from the oval office. In the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination in late November of 1963, his successor, Lyndon Johnson put his full support behind the passing of the act as not only the needed legislation that it was but also as a eulogy to President Kennedy. President Johnson was aware that the Civil Rights Bill would face resistance in the solidly Democratic South, however, there was one Democrat in the State of Florida with a long history of supporting progressive legislation; Claude Pepper.
Early in his career while a member of the Florida House of Representatives in 1929, Pepper alone, voted against a Florida State Legislature resolution condemning First Lady Lou Henry Hoover’s White House invitation for tea to Mrs. DePriest, the wife of the first black congressman since Reconstruction. 35 years later, Claude would again take a stand that many in his state deemed unpopular, and given that his constituency was well aware of his record, the old statesman was inundated with mail correspondence urging him both toward and away from a vote for the Civil Rights Bill.
These letter excerpts, both for and against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, are great examples of the political currents that flowed through the country during the 1960’s as the initial large scale push for Civil Rights in the United States was reaching its height. The correspondence below is dated mostly from February of 1964, when the voting for the act took place.
A firm believer in voting with one’s conscience, Pepper knew that the choice was clear. When the final votes were tallied, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 received zero votes from members from the Deep South and very few from those states on the periphery. The only vote in favor of final passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 from Florida was by Claude Pepper. The following year saw the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and ‘yes’ votes from six of Pepper’s colleagues who had voted ‘no’ the previous year. Pepper realized the significance of extending civil rights to all Americans, and consistently supported such legislation throughout his years in the U.S. House of Representatives.
For researchers interested in taking a closer look at Claude Pepper and his record on Civil Rights in the United States, please visit the Claude Pepper Library and Museum, Monday through Friday 9AM-5PM.