Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh speaking at the Illinois Rally for Civil Rights at Chicago's Soldier Field, June 21, 1964.
Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.

The Summer of 1964

The summer of 1964 was a pivotal time for the civil rights movement in America. As the year began, the proposed Civil Rights Act faced an uncertain future at best. President John F. Kennedy first proposed the legislation in a speech delivered on June 11, 1963. The act sought to outlaw discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It covered voter registration requirements and segregation in schools, at the workplace, and public facilities.

President John F. Kennedy and members of the Civil Rights Commission during a White House conference, November 22, 1961. Counter-clockwise, starting at far right: Robert S. Rankin, Robert Storey, Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, Spottswood W. Robinson II, Harris Wofford, President Kennedy, Berl Bernhard, Erwin Griswold, John Hannah.
Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.

President Lyndon Johnson meets with Civil Rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr, in the White House in 1964.
Source: Lyndon B. Johnson Library.

In the days following the November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson told Congress, "No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long." Johnson was a skilled politician, who used his long experience as a congressman, and later senator, to navigate the complicated political issues and complex workings of Congress. Johnson also depended on civil rights activists across the county. Activists responded with rallies, sit-ins, boycotts, and protest marches. A wide coalition of civil rights leaders and activists demonstrated in public accommodations, from beaches and swimming pools, to bars and restaurants. One of the crucial groups Johnson depended on for leadership of this movement was the clergy.

The Illinois Rally for Civil Rights was planned and held in the context of these actions. On June 21, 1964, Soldier Field in Chicago hosted the Illinois Rally for Civil Rights. The principal speakers were Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., President and founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, President of the University of Notre Dame.

Father Hesburgh, together with Martin Luther King, Jr. and others, during a 1964 civil rights rally at Chicago's Soldier Field.
Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.


The rally, whose operating costs reached $25,000, opened with two hours of jazz, gospel music, and entertainment, including a 5,000-voice choir led by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. Nearly 150 various organizations promoted the event, distributing 1.5 million flyers in Chicago, and brought their members to the rally by bus. A crowd, estimated to be between 57,000 and 75,000, endured early rain and later sweltering heat in Soldier Field, while standing in solidarity for racial equality.

First Page of the Civil Right Act.
Source: National Archives and Records Administration.

King addressed the crowd that day, "We have come a long, long way in the civil rights struggle, but let me remind you that we have a long, long way to go. Passage of the civil rights bill does not mean that we have reached the promised land in civil rights." He stressed that the proposed civil rights bill alone was not enough- "vigorous enforcement" was essential to success.

Civil rights workers who were murdered in Mississippi in June of 1964.
James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner (left to right).

Source: Federal Bureau of Investigation.

King's words would certainly ring true that night, as three civil rights activists, who were participating in "Freedom Summer" as members of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), were murdered in Neshoba County, Mississippi. James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael "Mickey" Schwerner, who were attempting to register black voters, were shot at close range by members of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and aided by officers from the Neshoba County's Sheriff's Office.

After much struggle and opposition, and the untiring support of Johnson, the 1964 Civil Rights Bill was passed by both houses of Congress. Amid a federal investigation into the murder of the three civil rights workers, President Johnson signed the bill into law on July 2, 1964. This bill would serve as a lasting tribute to those who had lost their lives fighting for freedom, and as a much needed catalyst for change in America.

Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Excerpt from Fr. Hesburgh's Oral History Interviews Fr. Hesburgh discusses life before the Civil Rights Act of 1964.


A black, one day in 1964, couldn't take a drink out of a water fountain, and of course the South is full of water fountains because there's warm weather all the time-a lot of the time. Couldn't go in a drug store and get a Coke or anything else at the bar. He could buy medicine but nothing that was served as food and drink. Couldn't go to most movies and just go in and sit down. He had to go up to the top gallery, if he could get in at all. Couldn't go in most restaurants, except black restaurants. Couldn't get a room in a hotel. Couldn't go to the toilet because they were all white toilets. One big problem blacks had was how to go to the toilet when they were downtown, because all the public accommodations were not open to them. Couldn't get on a bus and sit down, had to go to the back of the bus, the same with trains. Airplanes, fortunately-even in South Africa-they can't segregate them very well because they're too small. But anyway, in those days it was just DC-3s. Couldn't go swimming at a public beach. Couldn't go to church on Sunday except in a black church. And, if you can imagine this, couldn't even get buried in a cemetery if it was a cemetery where they buried white people. Of course, there were a lot of other subtle things. You couldn't get a haircut. You couldn't go in a store and buy a suit and try it on because you might contaminate it if you didn't buy it-or a dress if you were a woman.

Couldn't go to school where white kids went to school through elementary and high school and college and university, and the school you had to go to was always one-fourth as much money being paid for as was the education of white kids. You got about a fourth that much money for blacks. Couldn't get federal subsidies in things like agriculture because all the agricultural subsidies were put out through county committees, and there were roughly 150 to 200 counties in the thirteen states, each one of them had that many, and there was one black member on all the counties of all those states-one. And so the white guys gave the money to the white farmers. If you were black, you got arrested by a white policeman, if you were in trouble, you got thrown into a jail with a white jailer, you got arraigned before a white judge, you got tried before a white jury, and you had a white lawyer. That was the way-all of justice was administered by whites-and blacks had nobody who would take a special interest in them. The whole system was-your income was one-tenth, if that, of what the whites had. There wasn't a single state school in the whole South where you could go to take law or medicine. Every black doctor in the country was a graduate of Meharry in Nashville or Howard in Washington. That was it-dentists and doctors. In Mississippi when we had our famous hearing there for about twelve days, there were four black lawyers in the state and only three of them would take civil rights cases. And of the 2,000 white lawyers, none of them would take civil rights cases. Those three black lawyers went up and down the state like yo-yos, taking depositions like going up and down in an airplane.

Well, that was changed overnight.

Passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act

Excerpt from Fr. Hesburgh's Oral History Interviews Fr. Hesburgh discusses the effect of the civil rights act.


[T]he day the '64 law passed, and the word was out all across the country that it passed-and it passed because Lyndon Johnson got up and said "We shall overcome" to both houses of Congress. I don't think Jack Kennedy could ever have gotten that law passed, and maybe because he was shot it was easier to pass. But, in any event, Lyndon Johnson has got to be the hero of this tale, because he went to the mat on that, and he really got that law passed. He fought it through, and then he got the '65 law passed on voting, and then he got the '68 law passed on housing, which after all was only ten years after the year we really got started, in September of 1958.

I used to tell my South African friends it just proves that people get fed up with what is basically immoral and unfair. And the fact that we passed that law-I'm not taking credit for the commission being totally responsible for that. There were a lot of sit-ins, wait-ins and pray-ins and everything else. But the fact is that the American nation was ready to get rid of apartheid. We knew it was bad. It embarrassed us, it embarrassed foreigners who came to our country if they happened to be dark skinned. And we finally got rid of it, and we got rid of it in one day. And it will never come back again. It's gone. The mores of 200 years went down the drain with the 1964 law, and they went down that day it was passed.



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