Washington — On the afternoon of July 2, 1964, a frightened young congressman from Georgia named Charles Weltner found himself caught in history's grip. His voice as quavery as an old record, wishing he were back home in Atlanta, Representative Weltner stood and told the hushed House that he and the South could not be ''forever bound to another lost cause.'' He had changed his mind, he said, and would vote to pass the Civil Rights Act. Cheers swept the chamber. Weltner knew his voters would be much less pleased.
''There was never any question it was right,'' says Weltner, now a Georgia Supreme Court justice. ''The question was whether I had the nerve to do it.''
Twenty years ago today, mere hours after it passed the House, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law by President Johnson, on national TV. LBJ handed out so many commemorative pens (Robert F. Kennedy alone got six) that aides brought them out by the box.
It was a turning point in United States history. ''That bill has just changed the ground people walk on,'' muses Weltner. ''It laid to rest a lot of ghosts.''
Today the US still struggles with the legacy of segregation. The Reagan administration and its critics are debating one of the toughest rights questions: What, really, is the nature of equality among men? ''In our progress from slavery to freedom, the Civil Rights Act was only a step,'' says civil rights activist Vernon E. Jordan.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a product of the implacable protests of the civil rights movement, and of what one historian calls the ''picturesque'' brutality that pervaded the South in the early '60s. Such sights as Birmingham, Ala., police chief Eugene (Bull) Connor using dogs and hoses to attack blacks shocked the public, and prodded Washington to act, Robert Kennedy said in a mid-'60s interview.
The act did not, however, pass Congress easily. Powerful legislators from the South, such as Senate Judiciary chairman James Eastland (D) of Mississippi, fought it to a standstill for a year; it was enacted only after the longest filibuster in modern times.
A GOP presidential hopeful, Sen. Barry Goldwater, thought it unconstitutional. Among the prominent Democrats who voted against it were Rep. Jim Wright of Texas, today majority leader of the House.
Yet all this fuss was over something that dealt with ''simple acts - where blacks were going to eat, where they were going to sit, where they were going to live. Freedoms that white people took for granted,'' said Vernon Jordan at a recent conference on the bill.
The act explicitly outlawed segregation in public places and public schools. It strengthened voting-right protections. It prohibited discrimination by employers, and established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
''We have come now to a time of testing,'' said President Johnson on TV the night the bill passed. ''Let us close the springs of racial poison.''
The springs were not to dry up overnight. July was ''Hospitality Month'' in Mississippi, but on the day the bill passed FBI agents were combing the state for three missing civil rights workers, who would later be found murdered.
Throughout the South, civil rights workers moved to test the part of the law dealing with public places. Morrison's, the largest cafeteria chain in the South , capitulated and admitted blacks, as did 10 restaurants in Birmingham and a swimming pool in Savannah, Ga. In Texas, 23 blacks were arrested for trying to desegregate Lake Texarkana.
''At the time, human dignity demanded desegregation,'' Coretta Scott King said last Thurday at the Joint Center for Political Studies conference. ''In this area, (the 1964 act) was successful.''
But many civil rights leaders say US society is still riddled with subtle segregation that is caused by economic disparity. US cities, for instance, are only slowly becoming more integrated. About three-quarters of urban residents live on highly segregated blocks, according to the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, a bipartisan private group.
Progress in desegregating schools has stalled. Though 20 states have fully-integrated schools, and great headway has been made in the South, the battle over busing has essentially stopped desegregation plans in the North.
Black poverty, of course, is the root of this persistent split between the races. Poor people can't afford to move from the inner city to areas with good schools. And, relative to whites, blacks are no better off economically than they were in 1964.
''Black families are still three times more likely to be in poverty than whites,'' says Phyllis Wallace, a professor of management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and noted black scholar.
For blacks, poverty is proving a much more formidable opponent than were lunch counters and segregated bus seats. Proposed solutions to the problem can be highly controversial - as shown by the current debate over affirmative action and employment quotas.
The argument over quotas, fanned into flames by a recent Supreme Court decision, is, when boiled down to its basics, an argument about the nature of equality.
To the Reagan administration, equality means ''equal opportunity.'' Employers can hire whomever they want - so long as they are picking from a pool of applicants that is racially balanced, and are truly ''colorblind'' in their choices, according to Assistant Attorney General -William Reynolds. To black leaders, equality is something more extensive. They feel that employers not only must pick from a racially balanced applicant pool, they also must end up with a racially balanced work force.
''I opt for equal results over equality of opportunity,'' Dr. Wallace says.
This added boost for minorities, say Dr. Wallace and other civil rights advocates, is fair because it helps balance the effects of bad schools, poor city services, and other problems that afflict the underprivileged.
Through the '70s, the courts agreed with this view of equality, and for the most part sanctioned the use of numerical hiring goals. But Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act - the applicable law - is rather vague, and last week a Supreme Court decision on Memphis police layoffs appeared to limit the reach of quotas. The issue, civil rights advocates says, is sure to come before the court again.
''When the Civil Rights Act was passed, the big controversy was desegregation of public places. Today, it's equal opportunity,'' says Charles Weltner.
As it turned out, voting for the 1964 act did not end Weltner's political career. He was reelected that fall, with 55 percent of the vote.