With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Partisans often try to claim July 4 as their own. It usually backfires.

... In 1964, for instance, the Fourth of July figured prominently in the fight over civil rights.

Pointedly, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act on July 2, the anniversary of the actual signing of the Declaration of Independence. He did so only hours after Congress had passed the bill, rushing the signing ceremony so he could lay claim to the historic date.

In his televised address from the East Room of the White House, President Johnson invoked Independence Day to link the new measure to the nation’s founding principles. “One hundred eighty-eight years ago this week, a small band of valiant men began a struggle for freedom,” he intoned. “Yet those who founded America knew that freedom would be secure only if each generation fought to renew and enlarge its meaning.”

Civil rights leaders echoed the patriotic rhetoric. Whitney Young Jr., head of the National Urban League, heralded “the new declaration” in his newspaper column that ran on the Fourth. “Signing of the new civil rights bill by President Johnson,” he began, “may prove to be a ‘shot heard ‘round the world’ as famous as the one fired nearly two centuries ago on the Lexington green.”

But, of course, segregationists heard the shot, too, and responded in kind. In Atlanta, segregationist (and future governor) Lester Maddox refused to comply with the Civil Rights Act, instead opting to shutter his fried chicken restaurant.

On the Fourth, segregationist leaders rushed to the city to make a dramatic stand with Maddox at a massive rally. “It was cruel irony,” Alabama Governor George Wallace thundered to the thousands assembled, that just before Independence Day, “the President of the United States has just signed into law the most monstrous piece of legislation ever enacted.” True patriots would resist this tyranny, Wallace warned, just as their forefathers had.

The crowd made clear its commitment to the cause. When three black men began booing a speech by former Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, the white crowd threw bottles and rocks at them and then followed up with fists, feet and folding chairs. Having bloodied the protesters, the mob turned on the policemen protecting them and a white woman seen as sympathetic to the civil rights cause. “They beat her up,” an eyewitness remarked, “but I wish they’d killed her.”

Both sides claimed to represent the true spirit of Independence Day. ...

Read entire article at The Washington Post