Kennedy was assassinated that November in Dallas, after which new President Lyndon B. Johnson immediately took up the cause. “Let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined,” Johnson said in his first State of the Union address. During debate on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, southerners argued, among other things, that the bill unconstitutionally usurped individual liberties and states’ rights. In a mischievous attempt to sabotage the bill, a Virginia segregationist introduced an amendment to ban employment discrimination against women. That one passed, whereas over 100 other hostile amendments were defeated. In the end, the House approved the bill with bipartisan support by a vote of 290-130.
The bill then moved to the Senate, where southern and border state Democrats staged a 75-day filibuster –among the longest in U.S. history. On one occasion, Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, a former Ku Klux Klan member, spoke for over 14 consecutive hours. But with the help of behind-the-scenes horse-trading, the bill’s supporters eventually obtained the two-thirds votes necessary to end debate. One of those votes came from California Senator Clair Engle, who, though too sick to speak, signaled “aye” by pointing to his own eye. Having broken the filibuster, the Senate voted 73-27 in favor of the bill, and Johnson signed it into law on July 2, 1964. “It is an important gain, but I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come,” Johnson, a Democrat, purportedly told an aide later that day in a prediction that would largely come true.