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How the Civil Rights Act pioneered anti-discrimination laws in America

April 10, 2014 at 6:13 PM EST
President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law 50 years ago. Gwen Ifill examines its legacy and unfinished business with President Johnson’s daughter, Lynda Johnson Robb, Shirley Franklin, the former mayor of Atlanta, Ranjana Natarajan of the University of Texas School of Law, and former House Republican aide Robert Kimball.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Earlier this week, I traveled to the site of the summit for this conversation.

We are joined now at KLRU studios in Austin, Texas, by four guests who bring different perspectives to the upcoming anniversary.

Shirley Franklin, former two-term mayor of Atlanta, was the first African-American woman to be elected mayor of a major Southern city. She is the Barbara Jordan visiting professor of ethics and political values at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. Robert Kimball is the former legislative aide to Republican Congressman John Lindsay of New York. As director of the Republican Legislative Research Association, he served as the chief aide to the House Republican leaders in the lead-up to the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Ranjana Natarajan is director of the Civil Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law. And Lynda Bird Johnson Robb is the daughter of President Lyndon Johnson and board director of the LBJ Foundation.

Welcome to you all.

Lynda Johnson Robb, was the Civil Rights Act your father’s most significant achievement as president?

LYNDA BIRD JOHNSON ROBB, Daughter of President Lyndon Johnson: Well, I would have to say all of the civil rights acts, because there were three, and even, say, the Immigration Act, which I think also is a civil rights act, maybe on a global perspective, that he cared very, very much about it.

He wanted to emancipate the whites as much as people of color, because he knew how, particularly in the South, but not only in the South, we were so restricted. And he wanted everybody to live up to the best that God gave them and use those tools of education and have good health care, to be able to do the things to make America great.

GWEN IFILL: I know, 50 years later here in Austin, one of the concerns of the LBJ Library is to try to reorder people’s memories of your father’s term in office. And do you wonder that Vietnam in many ways overshadowed that?

LYNDA BIRD JOHNSON ROBB: No question about it.

He hated the war. He hated having anybody put in harm away. But he believed that what we were doing is what we had to do for our commitments with SEATO, for many reasons. And he was carrying forth a policy that he had inherited. And he tried and got us to the peace table in 1968.

And then, as you know, the South Vietnamese were told that they could get a better deal under Richard Nixon, and they left the peace table.

GWEN IFILL: So much drama involving Vietnam, so much drama involving the Civil Rights Act.

Robert Kimball, you were 24 years old…

ROBERT KIMBALL, Former House Republican Aide: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: … an aide to John Lindsay, who went on to become mayor of New York, but at the time was a Republican congressman from New York.

People don’t remember that what happened in the House Republican Caucus determined the outcome of this act in many ways.

ROBERT KIMBALL: The Republicans played a crucial role. And it’s hard to believe today. But they were positive. They worked very closely with the administration, and we participated in the negotiations that led to the compromise three weeks before Kennedy’s death.

GWEN IFILL: What’s interesting to me is that in some ways the people who drove this act, a Southern president, and Republicans in the House and ultimately the Senate, wrote this, and it is counterintuitive to the politics we understand now.

ROBERT KIMBALL: Yes, it’s very…

GWEN IFILL: So, how did it happen?

ROBERT KIMBALL: First of all, there were many more moderate and liberal Republicans back then. The Democratic Party still was split.

You had the Southern group, who were going to vote against the bill, and the Northern people who would support it. And we needed a coalition between both parties. We all knew that. And we knew also that it had to be a massive coalition, and not just a one-vote victory. So we strove for that. And it was passed through the House at 290-130, which is a big margin. And that was very important for the future of it.

GWEN IFILL: And in the Senate, that was — those were the days when a filibuster was a real filibuster.

ROBERT KIMBALL: It was a real filibuster.

GWEN IFILL: How long did that go on?

ROBERT KIMBALL: Several months.

GWEN IFILL: Several months, and finally passage.

So I want to ask Shirley Franklin, at that period of time, you were obviously just a gleam.

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL: But enough to be aware of who the sung and the unsung heroes were at that period of time then, in a sense.

SHIRLEY FRANKLIN, Former Mayor, Atlanta: Well, I went to college in ’63.

And I was in Washington, D.C., at Howard University. So I was very much aware of what was going on in terms of the debate. There were students who were organizing across the South, white and black students. And some of my classmates were actually some of the organizers of SNCC.

I was curious, but not brave enough to join, and really didn’t have any idea how fast the changes would come to America from that period, but was really proud of the country for — and the president for stepping up.

GWEN IFILL: There is so much conversation as we look back about the heroic members of Congress and people in the White House who drove this. But there were a lot — you mentioned SNCC. You mentioned the civil rights organizations. They were almost on the sidelines in some way in argument, in this discussion.

SHIRLEY FRANKLIN: Well, they may have been on the sidelines in a way, but they were very much active in the streets, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the march from Selma to Montgomery.

I recently went to the 49th Bridge Crossing, and it’s just as inspirational today, not nearly as dangerous as it was in the ’60s. But there was a lot of activity in the streets and the churches. It wasn’t unusual for the minister in my church to talk about the civil rights movement as part of his sermon and for there to be dinner table conversation about it.

And so I would say that most of us who were young people were included, because we were included in the so-called adult conversations at one level. And then, in college and in high school, there was lots and lots of discussion.

GWEN IFILL: And in a place like Atlanta, changing public accommodation laws had an immediate impact.

SHIRLEY FRANKLIN: Absolutely. And my generation of young people in the South grew up in the segregated South, something that I didn’t experience, but everyone almost 70, between 60s and 70s, had that direct experience.

And it’s really hard to talk about that today to young people because they can’t imagine there were places had in Atlanta you couldn’t go or shop or try on clothes or colleges and universities. And I talk about that at the University of Texas as well. I mean, Barbara Jordan wasn’t able to come to University of Texas at that point. And so there was a huge change in American culture, as well as in the law.

GWEN IFILL: Ranjana Natarajan, there was an immediate effect of the Civil Rights Act and then there was an eventual affect. How would you measure those two?

RANJANA NATARAJAN, University of Texas School of Law: I think the Civil Rights Act was a tremendous achievement. And what it did was, it dismantled the racial hierarchy that had existed through slavery, through Jim Crow.

It is undoubtedly not just one of the hallmark pieces of legislation, but arguably one of the most constitutional moments of our nation’s history, because it made the 14th Amendment whole again. It made it vibrant.

In terms of its eventual legacy, I think, of course, in addition to eliminating racial hierarchy, it set the stage for a truly integrated society. And there’s obviously progress that we have made, and a lot of progress that we still have left to make on that front. So we find that there are racial disparities, ethnic disparities still in many areas of life.

And many children in our country still grow up today, and maybe college or their first job is the first time that they interact with people of another race. And so, with respect to integration, we still have a long way to go.

GWEN IFILL: Well, you know, Lynda Johnson Robb was saying this wasn’t only a civil rights bill, but there were a series of them. Do you think that then what happened was, we began to see fallout on gender equality and sexual equality and gay equality, all of that as a result?

RANJANA NATARAJAN: That’s absolutely right.

The Civil Rights Act was the pioneer legislation, and what followed afterward knocked everything down, from age discrimination, gender discrimination, disability discrimination. And it really ended all of those sort of formal categories of discrimination, subordination and hierarchy.

And I think that what — if you take the package of litigation — all of that legislation together, it really opened up the American dream to most Americans in a way that had not been before.

GWEN IFILL: When you think about what happened in 1964, how much of this was driven, Robert Kimball, by insiders, and how much of this was driven by agitation from outsiders or public opinion?

ROBERT KIMBALL: It was both.

The civil rights groups were under the Leadership Conference and were many organizations, including church groups. And they were all very active. And they were constantly on the Hill talking to us. The key event, of course, not so well-remembered as others, was the Birmingham church bombing on September the 15th.

The conscience of the country was aroused. People were horrified. And that clearly was the event that led to the passage of the bill, more than any other. The march was very important, but it was more symbolic. It was so peaceful and so impressive, but it was the church bombing that frightened America, and led to what happened, which was very important.

GWEN IFILL: And it also seems, Lynda Johnson Robb, that the assassination of President Kennedy was also — the bill was moving along and it was making its way through the House.

But when the president was assassinated, and your father became president, the very first thing he said when he went to the well of the House was, we have to pass this now.

LYNDA BIRD JOHNSON ROBB: Absolutely. I think he shamed a lot of people into voting for it.

GWEN IFILL: Including Southern Democrats?

LYNDA BIRD JOHNSON ROBB: Well, you found people who were not in favor of it who were not just in the South. And that’s why he had to work so hard on Everett Dirksen to explain to him that, we all needed to do this, no matter where we lived, whether we were in Peoria or whether we were in Montgomery, that this was something that would help fulfill that American dream, and that it was really holding us all back, not just people of color, but all of us.

And part of it is shaming. You know, how could we call ourselves this great country, and we are still these little — little black girls are being killed while they’re going to church? And shame, shame.

GWEN IFILL: Shirley Franklin, programs you wouldn’t have been mayor of Atlanta without the passage of this and other voting rights acts, other acts along the way. But there is a difference between passing a law like this and getting it enforced.

Do you feel like that the U.S. policy, that the government follow-through on the promise of that passage…

SHIRLEY FRANKLIN: Well, it took a time. It took a while.

And, certainly, it took a lot of energy on the part of people on the ground, as well as leaders. Over the years, we have seen the explosion of political figures from all walks of life. And so it opened the door for people from all backgrounds, whether gay, lesbian, people from limited means.

There was a sense when I was growing up that you had to be from a certain side of the tracks in order to be an elected official. You had to be lucky to be an elected official. And with the passage of the Civil Rights Acts and the Voting Rights Act and all that that entailed, all of a sudden, a child like me could not be mayor of Atlanta when I was born, when I graduated from high school, when I graduated from college.

But, some years later, I had the opportunity because of the legislative initiatives, but also because of the shift in the cultural forms and the cultural traditions.

GWEN IFILL: Ranjana Natarajan, I just want to you bring this to today. What is left undone?

RANJANA NATARAJAN: There’s a lot to be done still.

So, there are still some formal categories, such as you mentioned earlier LGBT individuals and families and formal discrimination. And, obviously, we have seen that campaign for greater equality and freedom unfold over the last 20, 30 years. And it’s rapidly progressing.

But, beyond that, there are still main problems with respect to racial equality in terms of access to public goods and public benefits. And, so, for example, whether it comes to housing, K-12 education, access to college, we see that there are racial disparities. For white families, they can get into better rental housing and they can get into the housing sale market easier than Asian families, African-American families, Latino families.

With respect to African-American children and Latino children in our public schools, they have fewer opportunities for college readiness and for college prep education than do their white counterparts. And what we see is, even when we have eliminated intentional forms of discrimination, these racial and ethnic disparities persist.

And so how do we get at them and how do we construct policy to really ensure equality for everyone? That’s the challenge.

GWEN IFILL: So, say there is a 12-year-old here at the table with us who has grown up in a time in which none of this seemed to be a problem for them. How do you begin to explain to someone of that age who grew up in — with the benefits of civil rights legislation and protections that this is still important today, Shirley Franklin?

SHIRLEY FRANKLIN: Well, I have a 14-year-old grandson who I have had to explain that to.

There was a lot of discussion about gay rights in the Georgia legislature. And it became important for me to explain to him that, not too long ago, the integrated school that he was in wasn’t possible, that he wouldn’t have had white and Latino and Asian friends, and that, in fact, he could have been at risk of his own life if he had sought out friends.

And in a matter of a few minutes, he got the message, because he is accustomed to having friendships and relationships across cultural and racial and ethnic backgrounds.

RANJANA NATARAJAN: I think education is very important, as Shirley mentioned. I recently did a women’s history presentation for my son’s preschool.

And I think we have to start early and keep educating our children about the civil rights movement. I’m a beneficiary of the civil rights movement, and I moved to the United States well after the Civil Rights Act. And so, for me, it’s a process of educating myself. There is a lot of good research out there that shows that one of the things that we need to do as a society is confront our implicit biases.

We all work with stereotypes in our heads, no matter how hard we try to rid ourselves of them. And so there’s work that we need to do individually, as families, as communities, to think about how we work with and how we live with and interact with people of other cultures and other backgrounds.

GWEN IFILL: I think we can all say that everyone at this table and probably everyone, we’re all beneficiaries of that Civil Rights Act.

Thank you all for…

ROBERT KIMBALL: Thank you. Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: … participating in our conversation.

Shirley Franklin, Robert Kimball, Ranjana Natarajan, and, of course, Lynda Johnson Robb, thank you.

LYNDA BIRD JOHNSON ROBB: Thank you.

RANJANA NATARAJAN: Thank you.

SHIRLEY FRANKLIN: Thank you.

ROBERT KIMBALL: Thank you.