The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and “We Shall Overcome”

On July 2 in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The important act, which had survived heated discussion in the Senate and the House of Representatives, made racial segregation in public places illegal.

The law had an even broader impact.  It also prohibited discrimination on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin in schools and in employment.

The Signing

President Johnson, who worked hard to push through the legislation after President John F. Kennedy’s death, used more than 75 pens to sign the legislation. He gave out the pens to many people who helped with the bill, including Martin Luther King, Jr. King later said the pen was one of his most cherished possessions.

The video below features President Johnson giving the pen to King. It also includes some of Johnson’s speech before the signing.

“We Shall Overcome”

One of the songs that played a significant role in the civil rights movement was “We Shall Overcome.” The song developed from an African-American hymn first used as a protest song by striking tobacco workers in 1945.

“We Shall Overcome” grew to help inspire changes that shook the world. Many continue to recognize its importance. In recognition of the song’s role in the civil rights movement, for the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, members of Congress joined hands and sang the song.

The video below is from a recording by a number of artists — including John Legend, Joss Stone and The Blind Boys of Alabama — for Soundtrack for a Revolution (2011), an album of songs from the civil rights movement.

One of the artists who helped popularize the song was folksinger Pete Seeger.  In this video, Seeger explains the history behind the song.

Of course, the Civil Rights Act did not end racial discrimination.  But it was an important step in the ongoing process.

One of the reasons “We Shall Overcome” is a great song is its timelessness. It is not a song of “we have overcome” about past accomplishments.  It is a song that reminds us that there are always more struggles ahead of us to overcome. And we shall.


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