In 1964 the American South was segregated. Separate seats on the bus; separate rooms in the hospital; separate schools, and of course separate drinking fountains. The Democratic Party had always defended the South’s right to “do things their way”, but at the same time were under tremendous pressure to change. Rick Perlstein describes Lyndon Johnson’s state of mind in the early part of 1964 in his book “Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus:
“But the price of political success in the South taxed Johnson’s conscience. “The Negro fought in the war”, he had been heard to admit in the 1940’s. “He’s not gonna keep taking the shit we’re dishing out.” …
Johnson had hardly returned from the Kennedy funeral when he surveyed the former Administration’s legislative calendar and made civil rights his strategic priority–the South in 1964 be damned. He called Martin Luther King and told him, “I’m going to try to be all of your hopes.” King’s head spun; the only times that Kennedy called him were to work him over to fire his one Communist-associated deputy. “Let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined,” he said at the State of the Union; congressmen exchanged knowing glances. They knew the bottom line. Of the bill’s seven titles, five would likely pass as is:… . Two programs would be shaved off as they were every time to win the swing votes of conservative Republicans like Goldwater and Carl Curtis: Titles II and VII, guaranteeing equality of in public accommodations and employment.
Then Johnson told his best friend Richard Russell, “I’m not going to cavil and I’m not going to compromise. I’m going to pass it just as it is, Dick, and if you get in the way I’m going to run you down. I just want you to know that because I care about you.”
Say what you will about LBJ and his fiasco in Vietnam; helping to end apartheid in America will be his most enduring legacy—risking the southern vote because he just couldn’t stomach dishing out more shit to “the Negro”.
By the same token 1964 will live in infamy for the GOP. The heirs to the party of Lincoln joined forces with the likes of George Wallace and the John Birch Society, eventually making them a key element of their coalition.