Washington (AFP) - Holding hands and singing "We Shall Overcome," US lawmakers on Tuesday marked the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act by conferring Congress's highest honor on the late Martin Luther King.
A 2004 resolution accorded the Congressional Gold Medal to the civil-rights icon and his wife, Coretta Scott King.
But King's wife died in 2006 and it was their children who accepted the medal on the Kings' behalf Tuesday in a ceremony in the rotunda of the US Capitol.
"Through their actions, their speeches and their writings, they have created the climate for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and President Lyndon Johnson signed these two pieces of legislation into law," said House Democrat John Lewis, himself a civil-rights icon who worked alongside King in the 1960s.
The Civil Rights Act, initially proposed by president John F. Kennedy, was adopted July 2, 1964, after intense political battles in the Senate, where southern lawmakers used all obstructionist tools at their disposal to block its passage.
Democratic president Johnson went on national television that very day and signed the bill into law, outlawing in a stroke all racial discrimination and segregation in schools, in the workplace, in hotels and restaurants, and any other public place.
"Without the leadership of Lyndon Johnson, we wouldn't be where we are today, and there would be no Barack Obama as president of the United States of America," Lewis said.
House Speaker John Boehner, standing beside a bronze bust of Martin Luther King that is on permanent display in the rotunda, said that in the Civil Rights Act, "Congress completed what may be the most fundamental, the most consequential legislation of our long history."
Previous recipients of the medal include Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, US astronaut Neil Armstrong, the victims of the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the four girls killed in the 1963 bombing of an African-American church in Birmingham, Alabama, in one of the most violent chapters of the US civil-rights movement.