TOPICS > Politics > GWEN'S TAKE

Gwen’s Take: The arc of history and the Civil Rights Act

bio-ifill
Co-Anchor & Managing Editor
BY Gwen Ifill  April 11, 2014 at 10:48 AM EDT
President Obama gives the keynote speech on the third day of the Civil Rights Summit at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas Thursday. Photo by Laura Skelding-Pool/Getty Images

President Obama gives the keynote speech on the third day of the Civil Rights Summit at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas Thursday. Photo by Laura Skelding-Pool/Getty Images

If it seems like we are drowning in anniversary observances, you are right.

Last year, we marked the half-century mark for the March on Washington as well as the assassination of John F. Kennedy. This year, we take note of the passage and enactment of the Civil Rights Act and the Supreme Court decision that integrated the nation’s schools. Next year, we will acknowledge the Voting Rights Act’s golden anniversary.

From where I sit in Washington — as midterm malaise sets in once again — it’s breathtaking to look back on a time when so much got done.

Two great books recounting the twists and turns that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act read today like breakneck drama. Todd Purdum’s “An Idea Whose Time Has Come” and Clay Risen’s “The Bill of the Century” describe in detail a time when the rules of the political road included bipartisanship, clever backroom dealing, and at the end of the day, moral suasion.

In each book, you will be introduced to lawmakers and staffers you probably never heard of, from Ohio Republican Bill McCulloch to New York Democrat Emanuel Celler. Men named Dirksen and Russell, who would later have federal buildings named after them, sparred on opposite sides of a great debate. And, at the center of it all a southern president, operating in the shadow of a nation’s grief, would force civil rights to the top of the national agenda.

The times dictated the outcome as well. When Medgar Evers was killed in front of his home, and four little black girls died in a Sunday morning bombing at a Birmingham, Alabama church, the nation snapped to attention.

We were paying attention again this week as four living presidents traveled to Austin, Texas to take part in a civil rights summit held at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library. Fifty years later, the details of the epic fight to get the law enacted have largely faded from public view. But the impact has not.

I gathered a roundtable at KLRU, our public station in Austin, to mull over the details. Robert Kimball, who was a key aide to Republican Congressman John Lindsay — who would later go on to become mayor of New York — remembers what bipartisanship felt like.

“First of all, there were many more moderate and liberal Republicans back then,” Kimball said. “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.”

Indeed, the final House vote was 290 to 130 — a lopsided margin hard to imagine now for something so consequential.

Our Austin conversation also included LBJ’s eldest daughter Lynda Bird Johnson Robb, former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and civil rights attorney Ranjana Natarajan –- all of whose lives were touched by the law.

“Part of it is shaming,” Robb said. “How could we call ourselves this great country and we are still…these little black girls are being killed while they’re going to church? Shame, shame.”

“The Civil Rights Act was the pioneer legislation,” Natarajan said. “What followed afterward knocked everything down — from age discrimination, gender discrimination, disability discrimination — and it really ended all of those sorts of formal categories of discrimination, subordination, hierarchy.”

Certainly when the first African-American president took the stage in Austin this week, all of that came into sharp focus.

But only the most casual analysis of President Obama’s remarks in Austin this week would think it was only about race. The passage of the Civil Rights Act, he said, was really about “the power of government to bring about change.”

According to Mr. Obama, the law was where President Johnson met his moment.

“If some of this sounds familiar,” he said, “It’s because today we remain locked in this same great debate about equality and opportunity and the role of government in ensuring each.”

The White House believes this to be the vital debate facing a lame duck president with a diffident party, and any number of uphill domestic policy battles yet to fight.

Indeed, Mr. Obama could have been talking about his health care law as he spoke about what it took to pass the Civil Rights Act.

“It wasn’t easy then. It wasn’t certain then,” he said. “Still, the story of America is a story of progress, however slow, however incomplete, however harshly challenged at each point on our journey, however flawed our leaders.”

But sometimes it takes a full half-century for those flawed leaders to get their due. I suppose that’s what anniversaries are for.