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. 

The Senate Republican chief Everett Dirksen joked that the bill’s supporters, in managing all these moving parts, were trying to “unscrew the inscrutable.” He was in a position to know: It was Dirksen’s own demand for several changes to the bill—changes that Humphrey, McCulloch, and others were smart enough to accept—that swung enough Republicans to overcome the Southern filibuster. LBJ even gamed the question of whether to sign the bill on the Fourth of July. (Purdum says that Attorney General Robert Kennedy favored a brief delay so that overenthusiastic Southern blacks would not go on a weekend campaign of provocatively entering business establishments.)

Purdum’s account is tightly focused on this story of politicians and pressure-group lobbyists. He tells it ably, breathing life into a number of protagonists and relating the suspense that somehow accompanied the dragged-out filibuster. He colorfully describes LBJ telling Robert Kennedy that opinion had moved in favor of the law: “Johnson summarized the favorable drift of the White House mail about the bill in Texas-sized, mathematically impossible percentages. ‘It runs about 70-50,’ he said.”

But Purdum’s focus on high politics in a narrow time period comes at a price. For instance, his epilogue mentions only in passing the remarkable fact that the desegregation of almost all public accommodations, which some feared would take years, happened almost immediately and virtually without incident, constituting a revolution in Southern daily life. And the act’s provision for cutting off federal funds helped desegregate Southern K-12 education once those funds became sizable later in the 1960s.

Just as important, his account leaves out a larger story about the 1964 law’s limitations. Purdum recognizes this when he notes, in a few swift pages, that progress toward racial equality only got so far after the heyday of the 1960s. He cites durable racial disparities in income and in other life opportunities, and he alludes to the Republican party’s turn to the politics of white backlash, rising opposition to affirmative action, and the current menace of voter ID laws. This is a conventional liberal narrative: It implies that if only bipartisan comity had lasted, other laws would have followed, ones that might have solved deep-running problems.

That is an easy thing to say; but for some time now, it has been a more difficult thing to believe. The 1964 act was a bundle of provisions because it was the product of sprawling conversations that were well underway in the early 1960s and have been continuing ever since. Those conversations recognize that African Americans have gotten the shaft in American history, and remain badly off in many ways, but do not propose how exactly to repair the effects of that history and overcome today’s challenges. Some reformers in 1963-64 thought progress would best be achieved by African Americans pursuing their own goals through the democratic process. So they emphasized voting rights. Others believed it more important to overcome the corrosive resentments that were institutionalized in the daily indignities of Southern segregation; they hoped that desegregating public accommodations could send a powerful signal about equality and inclusion. Yet others thought it would be more valuable to help blacks advance economically, motivating an emphasis on nondiscrimination in employment. 

These and other measures were mutually compatible and ended up in the 1964 act. But that did not necessarily mean that such provisions were the most effective means to achieving equality.

More important, the 1964 law neither acknowledged other possible obstacles to racial equality nor offered means to address them. It was in these same years that Daniel Patrick Moynihan first warned that family structure could impact social mobility; liberals ran from the issue. If Purdum calls the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts “the most important laws of the twentieth century,” should we call the breakdown of the two-parent family the most neglected social catastrophe of the postwar period? Crime and drug use went on to devastate inner cities, but civil rights advocates seemed to spend less time proposing possible solutions to these problems than parsing whether conservative commentators were “blaming the victims.” 

What about durable differences in credentials and skills? LBJ, Richard Nixon, and others tried to address such discrepancies with affirmative action hiring. Nixon also increased funds for historically black colleges. But decades later, important disparities in academic performance are still with us, confounding easy explanation or prescription. It turns out that affirmative action admissions practices that “mismatch” students and schools may have resulted in fewer, not more, minority lawyers, doctors, engineers, and scientists. Yet, in some circles, it remains taboo to discuss these perverse effects.

In retrospect, the 1964 Civil Rights Act was a long-overdue measure empowering federal efforts to smash daily segregation. That mission, while not easy, was straightforward. Other obstacles to progress have proved much more perplexing. It is remarkable, and depressing, to think that, starting from the founding of the United States, it took Americans 87 years to decide that slavery was unacceptable, another 100 years to debate whether equal treatment was called for, and now another 50 paralyzed over how best to achieve more equal outcomes. Some of the same figures and forces that most urgently pushed for basic civil rights went on to ill serve the national debate by attributing the basest of motives to political adversaries and interpreting every disagreement over means as a difference over ends. 

Nineteen sixty-four may have been a high-water mark not only for civil rights legislation but also for good-faith discussion on the subject. 

Gerard Alexander, associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia, is writing a book about race and conservative politics.