The Magazine

Civil Rights and Wrongs

The stalemate was ended, but the debate goes on

Jun 23, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 39 • By GERARD ALEXANDER
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In the long, tortured history of race in America, there are few bright spots shinier than the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Democratic and Republican reformers from across the country overcame the resistance, mainly of Southern segregationists, to pass legislation that broke the back of Jim Crow. In time for the landmark law’s 50th anniversary, Todd Purdum offers a capable, sometimes exciting, account of the twists and turns of the bill as it was crafted and re-crafted, navigating the tangled politics of two administrations and both houses of Congress. In 1963-64, passage of the law appeared as complicated as it seems inevitable to us in hindsight.

After signing the Civil Rights Act, Lyndon Johnson hands a pen to Martin Luther

After signing the Civil Rights Act, Lyndon Johnson hands a pen to Martin Luther King, July 2, 1964.

For activists and lawmakers determined to shatter the enduring injustices of racial discrimination in the South, the first challenge was getting whites outside the South to care enough to support strong new laws. “Northerners” were hard to stir for several reasons. Many were simply indifferent. Presidents shied from antagonizing powerful Southern members of Congress. Even would-be reformers had to grapple with the trade-offs inevitably posed by specific civil rights measures. Did the federal government have the authority to meddle in state education policies? Didn’t the Constitution assign states the power to determine voting rules? Should Washington really be in the business of instructing private restaurant owners who to serve?

Presidents eventually cared. Harry Truman offered modest proposals and began desegregating the armed forces. Dwight Eisenhower pushed the 1957 and 1960 Civil Rights Acts, which were weakened in the Senate. John Kennedy initially made civil rights a low priority, but it moved up his agenda thanks to the growing civil rights movement, which appears mainly in the wings of Purdum’s account. That movement’s marches, sit-ins, and boycotts, and the violent repression they sometimes provoked, persuaded many hesitant white Northerners that something had to be done to resolve the South’s terrible tensions. At Kennedy’s urging, administration officials, congressional staffers, and civil rights activists pulled together a list of possible measures. In the wake of Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson took up the cause. Johnson, a supremely complicated person, championed the bill as a tribute to his fallen predecessor.

 The bill’s main features proposed to ensure the universal right to vote in federal elections; allow the attorney general to initiate lawsuits to desegregate public schools; allow Washington to cut federal funding to local programs that discriminated; and outlaw racial discrimination in private-sector employment and in access to “public accommodations” such as hotels, restaurants, and theaters.

The trick was to push a bill that was strong enough to satisfy reformers but able to survive a Senate that was often hamstrung by its vocal Southern minority. Purdum concludes that “the unsung hero of the tale” is William McCulloch, the ranking minority member of the House Judiciary Committee. This conservative Republican represented an Ohio district with few black residents and many voters who cared little about civil rights. But McCulloch believed equal treatment followed from a straightforward and faithful understanding of the Constitution. He brought along many House Republicans who respected him, helped craft a strong bill with pro-civil rights Democrats, and sent it off with a warning that he would oppose any substantially weaker version that might return from the Senate.

This is only one example of the complicated game of perceptions and calculations that shaped the bill’s prospects. McCulloch, in threatening to block any watered-down Senate version, was trying to convince weak-kneed senators that their only choice was to accept a strong bill or risk blame for failing to pass a law at all. The bill’s promoters in the Senate, organized by Hubert Humphrey, worked hard to give the impression that passage was inevitable in order to carry along senators who were otherwise skeptical of this or that provision. A sense of inevitability also undermined the flagging energies and morale of Richard Russell’s aging band of segregationists. And reform proponents had to calculate how much support they might lose from civil rights advocates if they offered concessions to Northern conservatives who had concerns about property rights and relentlessly growing federal power.