Witness to History: A Look at the Civil Rights Act

January 31, 2017

1964 Civil Rights Act signing

Harold H. Greene
The 1964 Civil Rights Act

Harold H. Greene served as chief of the appeals and research section of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, and later as chief judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. He also was involved in the drafting of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In a , 1996 interview with Bar ReportGreene recalled his time at the Justice Department, the drafting and passage of the Civil Rights Act, and working alongside Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Below is an excerpt.

The civil rights division was established when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 . . . and I was named to be the first head of the appeals and research section.

[The section] was a major force in drafting the bill that eventually became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. . . . In those days, things were much simpler than they are today. The big debate back then involved the public accommodations section of the civil rights bill that was designed to bring an end to the segregation laws then in force in the South. I didn’t see how any reasonable person could deny blacks the right to eat in restaurants, to sleep in hotels, to vote, to go to school, to shop in stores, and so on. There wasn’t any question about what side I was on. Both Robert Kennedy and I, and many others, were convinced that there was only one right side. It wasn’t like today where there are many differing opinions on affirmative action and quotas and set-asides. Back then, there was a very clear-cut dividing line between right and wrong. Segregation was wrong. It was that simple.

I do remember sitting in the Senate gallery on the day that the filibuster was broken. That was an historic moment because a Senate filibuster had never been broken on a civil rights measure. You needed a two–thirds vote to break a filibuster, and this time the pro civil rights forces got exactly 67 votes. Senator Clare Engle of California was on his death bed. He was dying of a brain tumor and could not speak. He was brought in on a stretcher and made a gesture with his hand, and that was the vote that broke the filibuster. So that was a major turning point. I remember feeling that I was witness to a very significant event.