The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed its first congressional hurdle 50 years ago this week

By Gary Walker

Freedom Fighters lead a civil rights protest near Santa Monica City Hall in 1964

Freedom Fighters lead a civil rights protest near Santa Monica City Hall in 1964

Fifty years ago today, the U.S. Senate adopted the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, gender, religion and national origin.

The 73-27 vote on June 19, 1964, after 83 days of Senate debate, was a watershed moment followed quickly by the act’s approval in the House of Representatives and President Lyndon Johnson signing it into law on June 2 of that year.

The act opened the gateway for other seminal equality legislation, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, commonly known as the Fair Housing Act for its prohibitions on discrimination in the financing, sale and rental of housing.

Pushed for by Johnson and President John F. Kennedy before him, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was “a challenge to men of good will in every part of the country to transform the commands of our law into the customs of our land,” Johnson said after the Senate vote, according to coverage by The New York Times.

On this anniversary and six years after the election of the nation’s first African-American president, Rep. Maxine Waters (D- Los Angeles) said a resurgence of state laws that increase voting restrictions — a consequence of a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year striking portions of the Voting Rights Act — is the greatest threat to the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement.

“We have to be vigilant and use whatever means that we can to fight these people, whether it’s in the courts or in the voting booths. Otherwise we could find ourselves in danger of losing much of the progress that we gained so long ago, where so many courageous people lost their lives trying to gain these freedoms,” Waters said.

While L.A.’s Westside did not experience the violence suffered in other parts of the country during the summer that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law, acts of protest and civil disobedience did take place here.

“There were a number of bank sit-ins in 1964,” recalled former Santa Monica Mayor Nathaniel Trives, who was one of the city’s first black police officers and was in his sixth year as a Santa Monica police officer in 1964.

“We sent women officers into the banks when there were protesters inside and, strangely enough, the protesters would come out walking peacefully with women officers. But if we sent male officers, they would have to be dragged out,” said Trives, 79, a still-popular civic icon who earned the nickname “Mr. Santa Monica” while serving on the City Council in the 1970s.

He recalled an April 1964 NAACP protest outside the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium while the Academy Awards were being held there.

“We learned about the protests and we decided to cite the protesters and release them instead of holding them at the station,” Trives said. “That way there were no confrontations. Ironically, the protests were about not having a lot of black actors in the film industry, and Sidney Poitier won [the Best Actor Award] that night,” he said.

Waters, who moved to Los Angeles in 1961, said the NAACP played an important role in the lives of African-Americans in L.A. during the 1960s.

“I recall vividly the water hoses and the dogs that we saw on television in the South that attacked the protesters, and I remember thinking how brave the marchers were. We didn’t see that in Los Angeles, but there was a lot of activism and civil disobedience here in the 1960s,” she said.

Heeding Johnson’s “challenge to men of good will” was Frank Soracco, a 35-year Venice resident, who in 1964 worked throughout the South with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which played a vital role in restaurant sit-ins and other protests during what would be known as “Freedom Summer.”

“I just kind of lucked into [the Civil Rights Movement],” said Soracco, 78, who formerly owned Fiasco restaurant in Marina del Rey, which was located where Café del Rey now sits.

A civil rights demonstrator lays in the street during a bank protest on July 3, 1964, in Santa Monica

A civil rights demonstrator lays in the street during a bank protest on July 3, 1964, in Santa Monica

While working as a teacher in Central California, Soracco was fired for coming to the defense of a group of students who were protesting the banning of a controversial book from their library. One of those students invited him to a conference in San Francisco, where a SNCC representative was speaking.

“My years in the movement are still the best in a long, varied and adventurous life,” Soracco said in a speech during an event four years ago that honored participants in the Civil Rights Movement.

“I still believe that, 50 years later,” he said this week. “I believed that everyone should have the right to live where they wanted to and vote for whomever they wanted to. Those are just basic human rights.”

Trives said he has been witness to a tremendous amount of change in society but feels there’s still more work to be done.

“We still have a way to go in terms of judging people by what’s in their hearts. Unfortunately, we haven’t lived long enough to recognize people as people based on who they are and not how they look,” he said. “These superficial things continue to determine, for many, how we look at other people. But I have seen a lot of things change, and I keep looking to the horizon for change.”