Written by Sarah Calise, Archivist
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed into law by President Johnson on July 2, prohibited the discrimination in public places, integrated public facilities, and made employment discrimination illegal. It was the most powerful piece of civil rights legislation since the Reconstruction era. This victory belonged to the Black activists and organizations that put constant pressure on our government for decades. So, how did Tennesseans feel about it?
Thousands of constituents wrote to Senator Albert Gore and Representative Richard Fulton in the months leading up to the bill’s passage. Gore received an overwhelming amount of letters against civil rights from citizens across the state, while Fulton’s more liberal-leaning constituents in the 5th District demonstrated a mix of feelings that swayed toward supporting the act.
Tennesseans against civil rights legislation used similar terminology to describe their opposition. The bill was “communist,” “socialist,” or “totalitarian.” White Tennesseans believed that greater civil rights for Black people, meant a loss in civil rights for white people, which was simply unfounded and illogical. Many of the letters were also filled with racist language and analogies in support of maintaining segregation.
Below are letters against the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Tennesseans in support of the bill cited the need for federal intervention to end discrimination and provide equitable education, housing, employment, and public facilities for Black Americans. It was time that everyone enjoyed the democratic ideals laid out in the Constitution. Quite a few letters of support written to Fulton came on the heels of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The tragic event urged constituents to support passing civil rights in honor of Kennedy’s memory.
Below are letters in support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, including one from Grafta M. Looby, who was the wife of notable Nashville civil rights lawyer Z. Alexander Looby.
Gore and Fulton were also on opposite ends of the fight. Although he voted in favor of previous civil rights legislation (in 1957 and 1960), Gore publicly stated his concerns about Title VI of the bill that prohibits discrimination in any program or activity that receives federal funds or other federal financial assistance. He expressed these views on the Senate floor during the end of the notorious filibuster that began in late March and lasted 60 working days. His motion to get the bill recommitted to the Judiciary Committee was easily defeated by a vote of 25 to 74.
While Gore was too moderate to be asked to lead any portion of the filibuster, he certainly did not attempt to stop it from happening. As political scholar Todd S. Purdum noted in his book An Idea Whose Time Had Come, Senator Gore tried to “have it both ways by blocking the bill without actually having to cast a clear vote against it.” In a reelection year, Gore was trying to save face. Ultimately, he voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the decision remains a stain on his record. He did, however, vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1965 (voting rights) and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (fair housing).
Also wanting reelection, Fulton was quite vocal about his support for federal civil rights legislation. He was one of the few Southern Democrats to vote in favor of the bill in 1964. In one response to a constituent, Fulton bluntly explained why he supported the bill:
Seriously, this is a matter of very vital concern to our Nation. For too many years we have looked away from this problem and failed to cope with it. I cannot in good Christian conscience stand by while some of our citizens are denied their Constitutional rights simply because of the their color, race or national origin. Therefore, I must support a meaningful Civil Rights Bill.
Both Gore and Fulton won reelection, and supported civil rights legislation in the latter half of the 1960s, despite growing opposition from white Tennesseans. Fulton resigned from the House of Representatives to become mayor of Nashville, while Republican Bill Brock defeated Gore in the 1970 election. By researching the congressional papers of these two men, you can see the political realignment that occurs between the Republicans and Democrats, as well as a shift toward conservatism in Tennessee.
It is also important to note this legislation is still incredibly relevant today, and everyone should make a conscious effort to learn and understand the history of civil rights. Just this June, the Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects LGBTQ+ employees from discrimination. Meanwhile, conservatives are taking action to undermine the Voting Rights Act of 1965 through strategic redistricting and voter suppression tactics. Our present is intricately tied to our past, and knowing our past is power for creating a better future.
The Gore Center remains closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but we are taking research requests via email. To research the Albert Gore, Sr. Papers or the Richard Fulton Papers, contact Sarah.Calise@mtsu.edu.
 Purdum, Todd S, An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (New York: Picador, 2014), 309.