Before Black Lives Matter, there was the summer of 1963 and the huge March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was the year, too, that pressure was building on Congress to adopt a civil rights law banning discrimination — an effort where a Cedar Rapids attorney would play a key role.
More than 200,000 people marched on Washington on Aug. 28 to demand passage of the civil rights bill and first-class citizenship for the nation’s 19 million blacks. It was there, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.
James Bromwell, a Republican representing Iowa’s 2nd District, supported the civil rights bill put forward by President John F. Kennedy that year but thought some of its provisions were “inadequate.”
Bromwell, a World War II veteran, agreed with two of the bill’s sections; civil rights cases needed to be heard more quickly in the courts; and the voting rights plank, which specified anyone who completed six years of schooling should meet the literacy requirement for voting — a device Southern states used to suppress black votes.
And while Kennedy wanted to extend the Civil Rights Commission’s life by four years, Bromwell believed it should become a permanent, independent agency overseeing civil rights issues in the United States.
In January 1963, Bromwell and other Republican members of the House introduced a stronger civil rights bill that would “1) continue the civil rights commission; 2) expand and secure voting rights; 3) end discrimination in employment for government projects, and 4) strengthen the hand of the attorney general in school desegregation by empowering him to institute civil actions in such cases,” The Gazette reported.
As the battle for civil rights legislation wore on in Congress, Bromwell said in July 1963 he doubted an accommodations section — outlawing discrimination in hotels, motels, restaurants, theaters and other public accommodations — would be included in any civil rights bill because of opposition from four factions: segregationists; those who believed that requirement was unconstitutional; state’s righters; and those who believed a section opening all public accommodations to blacks was an invasion of privacy rights.
Because 30 states, including Iowa, already had public accommodations’ laws, many since the Civil War, and many cities had already desegregated public facilities, Bromwell thought the urgency to pass the law had lessened.
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In August 1963, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the president’s brother, invited Bromwell and Rep. Fred Schwengel, a Republican from Davenport, and other lawmakers on Potomac River cruises to talk about the civil rights bill.
While Schwengel met with Kennedy on his assigned cruise date, Bromwell ended up meeting with Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach when Robert Kennedy was detained by railroad strike issues.
“To my surprise,” Bromwell said of the meeting, “the group I was with spent the entire one-and-a-half hours discussing the civil rights legislation.” The chief topic, he said, was the public accommodations section.
By October, Bromwell thought passage of any civil rights legislation was uncertain.
“For one thing, this is a very controversial bill which has been made more controversial by the subcommittee’s addition of certain provisions,” Bromwell said.
Those provisions included the fair employment practices clause, which mandated equal employment opportunities, regardless of race, for jobs involving interstate commerce and businesses employing 25 or more people.
Those provisions had passed three times in the House but died in the Senate, where they were met with filibusters.
Bromwell predicted the bill would be adjusted to its original parameters.
And then President Kennedy was assassinated Nov. 20, 1963, and his successor, Lyndon Johnson, a Southerner, succeeded in pushing forward a strong civil rights bill in Kennedy’s honor.
After casting a “yes” vote for that bill Feb. 11, 1964, Bromwell was back in Cedar Rapids.
He called the bill, passed Feb. 10 by the U.S. House on a 290 to 130 vote, “the most far-reaching civil rights development since 1884.”
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The Senate filibustered, but Senate leaders cut off the filibuster — the first time that had happened in the Senate since 1927 — and passed the bill June 19.
The Civil Rights Act — outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin — was signed into law by President Johnson on July 2, 1964.
“Some say it was politics in an election year. Others contend it was pressure of religious groups. And some, like (Senate Republican Leader Everett) Dirksen, believe it was the tide of history,” the Associated Press reported.
Bromwell, who lost his re-election bid to Democrat John Culver that November, regarded the civil rights legislation that he helped write and pass — and that contained the Civil Rights Commission plank that Bromwell championed — as one of his greatest accomplishments.