I’m reading Clay Risen’s book, The Bill of the Century: The Epic Batter for the Civil Rights Act, an amazing reminder of how difficult, complex, and dangerous the fight for equal rights for black Americans was in the 1950s and 1960s. Risen, an editor at the NY Times and contributor to various publications, previously wrote A Nation on Fire: American in the Wake of the King Assassination.
The passage of the 1964 bill, 50 years ago today, was a near-miracle (just try imagine that happening today, for example). While some of the actors–Lyndon Johnson, for starters–have come down in popular history as heroes in the struggle, others–Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen, for example, and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. William McCulloch, and any number of Senate and House staffers–did much of the hard work. They overcame the deeply-entrench power of Southern racist Democrats in the Senate, breaking an historic filibuster in the process. The political maneuvering was byzantine and intense, yet it produced what was one of the most important pieces of legislation of the 20th Century. The political fallout–summarized in Johnson’s famous statement about delivering the South to the Republicans–is with us still, as is racism.
But the fact remains that, for a moment, at least, the apparatus of the federal government gave us all hope that E Pluribus Unum might mean something after all.
Some news summaries of the Act and its impact: