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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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.”