President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law 50 years ago today, just hours after Congress formally approved the bill on a dramatic day for America.
The height of that drama came when a then-36-year-old Congressman from Georgia named Charles Weltner explained in a “subdued voice and somewhat stumbling delivery” why he was changing his mind on civil rights, The New York Times reported at the time.
That sweeping law outlawed discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex, or national origin. It also ended segregation.
The bill contained 11 sections and was subject to the longest debate Congress had ever seen.
Weltner was one of just seven Southern lawmakers to support the Civil Rights Act and the only Southerner to switch his vote, according to The Times. Here is the most powerful section on Weltner’s powerful speech on why he decided to switch his vote from no to yes.
“I believe a greater cause can be served. Change, swift and certain, is upon us, and we in the South face some difficult decisions.”
“We can offer resistance and defiance, with their harvest of strife and tumult. We can suffer continued demonstrations, with their wake of violence and disorder.”
“Or, we can acknowledge this measure as the law of the land. We can accept the verdict of the nation.”
Ultimately, Weltner’s commitment to civil rights would cost him his political career, according to his New York Times obituary. He went on to become Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court before dying of esophageal cancer at the age of 64 in 1992.
Here’s the full section on his speech from The New York Times, which misspelled his name throughout the story.
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