“The Past Is Another Country”: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act

By Zach DorfmanMay 17, 2014

The Bill of the Century by Clay Risen

FROM THE END of Reconstruction in 1877 through the mid-1960s, the states of the American South behaved like a country within a country. The legal, political, and social systems that operated within these states made a mockery of the idea of the rule of law, political egalitarianism, and a whole complex of freedoms (such as those of association, movement, and contract) taken for granted then, and to this day, by almost all European-Americans. In truth, the Southern states — the core of which formed the erstwhile, seditious Confederacy — practiced a complex form of racial apartheid designed to systematically deny full personhood to African Americans. 

This system was buttressed by frenetic waves of European-American terrorism, often condoned by state and local authorities, if it was not explicitly perpetuated by them. A pogrom in Tulsa in 1921 killed at least 300 African Americans and dispossessed 10,000. Mob violence, directed in particular against young African-American males, was a constant threat — and often resulted in gruesome, public lynchings. White supremacist terrorists sometimes assassinated African-American political leaders, who urged integration and the end of Jim Crow. Harry T. Moore, a NAACP organizer, was murdered (along with his wife) in Florida on Christmas Day of 1951. (A bomb was placed under his bed.) George Washington Lee, a major civil rights leader in Mississippi, was killed in a drive-by shooting in May 1955. Medgar Evers, also an important NAACP activist, was shot in the back while entering his home in Mississippi on June 12, 1963 — the day that President John F. Kennedy made a pivotal speech supporting civil rights.

Such was the backdrop for what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a monumental piece of legislation President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law on July 2nd of that year. Clay Risen’s The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act tells the story of the 1964 bill — celebrating its 50th anniversary this year — which mortally wounded the formal Jim Crow system (the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would eventually help finish it off) from a self-consciously elite perspective: that of the leaders in Congress, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and to a lesser extent, civil rights and civil society organizations who helped shepherd the bill from its inception to eventual passage.

Risen argues persuasively that those most responsible for the bill’s passage are given short shrift, as the outsized ghosts of Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr., hover over the process. But, as Risen shows, both of their roles have been overemphasized. Johnson, while an enthusiastic supporter of the bill, wanted to hedge his bets in case negotiations collapsed, or if Southern Democrats in the Senate managed (yet again) to outmaneuver pro-civil rights forces. (Arguably, Johnson himself helped outmaneuver those forces as Senate Majority Leader in 1957 and 1960, when he oversaw passage of two, shall we say, modest, civil rights acts in those years). And King, while an important moral actor whose outside work helped catalyze support for a new bill, was not involved at all in direct lobbying for the 1964 Act or in helping write it.

The unsung heroes on which Risen focuses instead are Hubert Humphrey, the liberal Democratic Senator from Minnesota, who worked tirelessly to ensure the bill’s passage; the Republican Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, who helped secure crucial Republican votes for the bill in the Senate (the Democrats knew that opposition to the bill would be the strongest from the Southern wing of their own party, making passage impossible without significant Republican support); conservative pro-civil-rights House Republicans, such as Ohio’s William McCulloch, and liberal Northeastern Republicans such as New York’s John Lindsay; and mainstream, establishment civil rights activists such as Roy Wilkins and Clarence Mitchell of the NAACP and J. Irwin Miller of the National Council of Churches, who prodded, pressured, and persuaded members of Congress and the administration to support the bill.

Leading the opposition, of course, were the aforementioned Southern Democrats. Just as the South was a country within a country, Southern Democrats formed a party within a party. Their loyalty to the party was vestigial — it was still nearly impossible in the early 1960s to be elected as a Republican (the hated party of Lincoln) in the former Confederacy. (In 1961, John Tower became the first Republican elected to the Senate from Texas since Reconstruction.) Southern Democrats formed the most powerful wing of their own party. Crucially, the South had a rather conservative tradition of sending the same men (and they were all men) back to Washington for decades, which translated into the cherished weapon of seniority. In addition to helping bring pork barrel projects back to their states, this gave Southern Democrats control over the chairmanships of major committees in the Senate, which allowed them to stymie legislation, even if they were Democratic initiatives. Georgia’s Richard Russell led this segregationist coalition, which also included James Eastland of Mississippi (who held the key chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee), Strom Thurmond (who, because of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, changed parties — but not his “ideals” — in 1964) and a young Robert Byrd (who remained a Democrat, and eventually sought ablution for his earlier civil rights sins).

Risen does an excellent job of documenting and recounting how pro-civil-rights forces had to simultaneously contend with implacable Southern opposition, assuage the concerns of sympathetic conservative Republicans who were nevertheless fearful of federal overreach, and satisfy liberal maximalists, who wanted the bill to be as sweeping as possible. This led to a great deal of internal politicking, which occasionally appeared to put the entire bill in jeopardy. In the end, liberals got most, but by no means all, of what they wanted. The bill’s crowning achievement was its “public accommodations” provision, banning race-based discrimination (as well as discrimination based on religion, nationality, or national origin) in hotels, restaurants, movie theatres and concert halls, or any other businesses that affect interstate commerce, such as gas stations. (The bill’s Democratic drafters in Congress read the Commerce Clause in the most expansive way possible in order to justify its regulation of such businesses.) It also banned discrimination in all publicly-owned facilities, such as town pools; required the desegregation of public schools (and gave the Attorney General power to sue if districts did not comply); cut off all federal funding to segregated state and local programs; and banned employment discrimination, creating an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to investigate potential workplace discrimination cases.

The bill did not, however, address the manifold ways in which African Americans were disenfranchised across the South, where many were subject to everything from poll taxes to literacy tests to physical threats and intimidation. These issues were largely resolved by the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a monumental achievement in its own right. Nor did the bill address the long-term economic effects of a system of entrenched racism such as Jim Crow or the plight of African Americans outside of the South, where many faced insidious, albeit de facto, forms of discrimination. These issues were to be dealt with — incompletely — by Johnson’s War on Poverty initiative, and in particular the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which was signed into law in August of that year, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.(To this day, poverty rates among African Americans are 35 percent versus 13 percent for European-Americans, and nine of the poorest ten states in the country are in the South.)

Risen is certainly aware of the bill’s shortcomings and the increasingly desperate — and potentially explosive — social situation across the South and, indeed, the entire country. But in choosing to focus so intently on the legislative process that led to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the larger social and political picture at times seems obscured. The assassination of John Kennedy, an epochal event in American history, passes by almost as an afterthought. The simmering war in Vietnam — brought to boil by Johnson’s Gulf of Tonkin resolution in August of that year — bears nary a mention. Indeed, the narrativizing of the congressional debate and jockeying behind the bill often makes the whole process seem, well, small. Commenting on the strategy of pro-civil-rights forces in the Senate, who aimed to dilute the effect of a filibuster by Southern Democrats, Risen writes: 

By the time the Southerners began to speak, they hoped, the country’s focus would be elsewhere — after all, even a congressional debate as pivotal as the one about to begin was, in its day-to-day details, still a congressional debate. High drama it was not.

Alas, this dispiriting bit of truth applies to much of The Bill of the Century itself.

But perhaps this is a cynical take on the mechanics of legislative action in a republic. The abstruse maneuvering of congressmen and senators on points of parliamentary procedure is far preferable to the breakdown of the legislative — and perhaps governing — process entirely, even if the latter is more dramatic. Still, as much as we should laud the 1964 Civil Rights Act, it is not clear to me, as Risen claims, that “the bill demonstrated, more than perhaps any single piece of legislation before or since, the messy political genius of American democracy.” I think another reading of the historical moment is possible.

First, it shows the persistence of Southern counter-majoritarianism. Our legislative system was not designed to function with implacable minority opposition — and, as Risen himself notes, by 1964, Southern Democrats had succeeded in blocking 120 bills in committee or through the use of the filibuster in the postwar years alone. The Dixiecrats have all long since morphed into Republicans, but their use of legislative legerdemain for reactionary ends has remained strikingly consistent. Second, in the end, the unusual coalition that led to the bill’s passage proves the historically contingent nature of bipartisanship. Southern Democrats gave their party large majorities in both the House and Senate, but at great cost to Democratic liberals. And the Republican Party, all but locked out of the Southern states, contained an important, if minority, liberal contingent from the Northeast and West. Some of these figures, such as John Lindsay, helped push the Civil Rights Act to the left of what even many Democrats — including, at certain points, President Kennedy himself — wanted. Such a unique set of political cleavages is unimaginable today.

“The past is another country,” L. P. Hartley famously said. “They do things differently there.”But what of a single country that possesses two, mutually irreducible, pasts? The 1964 Civil Rights Act was a triumph of one vision — one history — of one America over another. The question today is whether these visions can be bridged, or whether they are separated by an impassable chasm, one that threatens to swallow up the republic in it.


Zach Dorfman is associate editor of Ethics & International Affairs, the journal of Carnegie Council.

LARB Contributor

Zach Dorfman is senior editor of Ethics & International Affairs, the journal of Carnegie Council. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The National Interest, The Awl, Dissent, The American Interest, and elsewhere.


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