Wednesday, July 02, 2014


Fifty years ago today, on July 2, 1964, Lyndon Johnson signed into law what has been largely recognized as the most important piece of legislation passed by Congress in the 20th Century. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a response to the growing demand for black equality and was born of a belated, and perhaps grudging, recognition that an expanded Federal role was needed to defeat Jim Crow laws and institutionalized discrimination in both the Southern states and throughout the nation. It represented an effort to guarantee the full rights of American citizenship to all Americans. It reached deep into the legal and social fabric of American society, outlawing discrimination in public accommodations and public facilities, expanded the role of the U.S. Department of Justice and Federal Courts in enforcing civil rights laws and school desegregation, expanded the powers and authority of the Civil Rights Commission in enforcing laws, made equal employment and non-discrimination a criteria for the distribution of federal funds, and provided legal sanctions against employers who discriminated. It also barred unequal application of voter registration requirements (although significant changes in voting laws came only with the Voting Rights Act of 1965). The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was also at the nexus of a major shift in national political party demographics. It was the beginning of the end of the solid Democratic South, which had been the most significant regional block in American politics since the end of the Civil War. The implications of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (and subsequent legislation and judicial interpretations that supported its enforcement and expansion) still resonate in our society and national politics today.

Two fine books have been published recently that recount the story of the origins and legislative battle for this landmark law: Todd S. Purdum’s An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Clay Risen’s The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. These books are companionable. A reader interested in the subject would take away something illuminating from each of them.

Todd Purdum’s book, An Idea Whose Time Has Come, is comprehensive, and reconstructs the history of the Civil Rights Bill in a straightforward way. He uses quotes from the principals involved and deftly draws on archival recorded conversations to give us a sense of character and also the feel of being behind the scenes in the fight for the bill. Although he looks at the origins of the bill and its inception in the Kennedy White House, Lyndon Johnson and the fate of the bill after Kennedy’s assassination, particularly the drama of its passage in the U.S. Senate, tend to be the major focus of his book. His cast of characters consists mainly of the major party figures, Republicans and Democrats in the Congress. Purdum discusses the strategy of the bill’s proponents as well as that of those trying to defeat the bill, but engages in less analysis and speculation about those choices than Clay Risen gives us in his book.

Risen’s book, The Bill of the Century, has a better account of the inception of the bill in the Kennedy White House and looks in more detail at the bill’s early history in the House of Representatives. The Justice Department is a major player in both books, but where Purdum gives more attention to Robert Kennedy’s role, Risen views the actions of his assistants, Burke Marshall and particularly Nicholas Katzenbach, as central to the negotiations with Congress in both devising and moving the bill along. In Risen’s perspective, Lyndon Johnson’s role in the passage of the bill is one at a greater remove than Purdum’s, although both view the force of Johnson’s Presidential leadership as critical to the ultimate success of the bill.
The major difference in emphasis between these two books is that Risen looks more broadly at some of the organized groups that lobbied Congress for passage of the bill, and finds their efforts of major importance, particularly the campaign for passage of the Civil Rights Bill that was mounted by the National Council of Churches and the lobbying efforts of different religious denominations. He believes their efforts were critical in creating public support for the bill, particularly in the vital Midwest where the support of Republican members of Congress was determinative. Risen also gives us an account of the public relations effort of the major group that sought to defeat the bill, the Coordinating Committee for Fundamental American Freedoms.

Risen’s argument is that the passage of the bill depended on the involvement of many players other than just the major civil rights lobbies, figures in Congress, and Lyndon Johnson. His contextualization is much broader than Purdum’s, and he is also more willing to speculate on the broader political issues that were at play when it came to the strategic decision-making of both sides in the fight. Both authors focus on the major players in the House of Representatives: Emanuel Celler, chairman of the Judiciary Committee; William McCulloch, ranking Republican member on the Judiciary Committee; Howard Smith, Chairman of the Rules Committee; and Republican Minority Leader Charles Halleck. The list of major senate players is also similar, with Hubert Humphrey, the Majority Whip, playing a central role along with Everett Dirksen, the Republican Minority Leader, and of course Richard Russell of Georgia, who led the opposition to the bill. Clay Risen however, seeks to redress what he sees as the overlooked role of Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, who was determined to resist Johnson’s advice on how the debate on the bill in the Senate should be managed, and who made critical timing decisions and astute procedural moves that helped keep the bill intact and set the stage for the successful cloture vote that ended the Southern filibuster.

President Kennedy addressed the nation on June 11, 1963
on the need for action on civil rights.  Eight days after
his speech he proposed a civil rights bill to Congress.
The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 depended on bipartisanship, both in the House of Representatives, and particularly in the Senate, where the Democrats in favor of the bill had to build a coalition with liberal and moderate Republican senators to be able to get the 67 votes necessary to end a filibuster led by Southern Democrats on the bill. “Cloture,” the parliamentary term for ending debate on a filibuster, had never before been successfully achieved on a civil rights bill. How this was done is a remarkable story, one that has a particular drama in that there was always such great uncertainty that it could be done or that it could be done without having to make major concessions that would fatally compromise the bill. Both Purdum and Risen tell how that happened in a compelling way while giving us a remarkable civics lesson on how our system of government, and particularly Congress, works. Both authors are aware that, at this present time of partisanship and polarization of parties, they are giving us as well an object lesson about how bipartisanship can work, suggesting the spirit, political acumen, and statesmanship that are its necessary components. Clay Risen writes, “The story of the civil rights bill is about the interplay between elected officials, government officials, lobbyists, and countless thousands of activists around the country, pushing and pulling each other toward their common goal. If the bill did not satisfy everyone, it was broadly acceptable--and as such it demonstrated, more than perhaps any single piece of legislation before or since, the messy political genius of American democracy.”

Lyndon Johnson tells his old friend and mentor,
Georgia Senator Richard Russell, that this time
Russell will not be able to stand in the way of
meaningful civil rights legislation.
 The story of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is an uplifting one, one of hope for our democracy, for it was not only a moral triumph for equal rights and justice under the law, but a triumph of our democratic system of government. It is a story worth learning about, and learning from, as we commemorate this important anniversary.

President Johnson addresses the nation just prior to signing the Civil Rights Act
of 1964. In the front row are the major architects of the bill and the figures
who were critical to its successful passage, from left to right:
Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Republican Minority Leader Everett Dirksen,
Majority Whip Hubert Humphrey, and at the end of the row,
Representative Bill McCulloch, the ranking Republican member
of the House Judiciary Committee.


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