Writer Clay Risen

Guest interviews are usually available online within 24 hours of broadcast.

The acclaimed author unpacks his text on the single most important piece of legislation passed by Congress in American history—the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Clay Risen is an editor for The New York Times Op-Ed section and an acclaimed author. He was previously an assistant editor at The New Republic, where he covered finance and politics, and the founding managing editor of the noted quarterly, Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. His freelance work has appeared in such publications as The Atlantic, Smithsonian and The Washington Post. Risen's books include A Nation on Fire, hailed as "a crucial addition to civil rights history," and The Bill of the Century, in which he unfolds the historic battle, waged from the streets of the deep South to the halls of Congress, to bring the revolutionary Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law.


Tavis: Fifty years ago this summer, while the struggle for civil rights was drawing fire in Mississippi, Congress passed one of the most important pieces of legislation this country has ever seen.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 required an army of dedicated advocates to succeed. “The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act” tells that story in dramatic detail.

It’s by “New York Times” writer Clay Risen. Clay, good to have you on this program, sir.

Clay Risen: Tanks for having me.

Tavis: And congrats on the work.

Risen: Thank you.

Tavis: It raises for me the obvious question as to whether or not you can imagine, under any condition or circumstance – you know where I’m going right? (Laughter) That something as comprehensive as this bill could ever get through Congress today.

Risen: I think it’s a good question. I think it’s also important, though, to remember that the Civil Rights Act was a singular, moral imperative. We don’t – as important as things like health insurance and immigration reform are today, and I think there are moral components to those questions, civil rights, the ending of legal segregation, was something that this country had put off for a hundred years.

Even Dr. King had spent a decade already pushing for throughout the South. And so I think you have to look at that singular sort of urgency before you can question whether it could happen today.

Tavis: so to your point, are there – well there are. I’ll ask you to unpack what they are. Let’s talk about, then, what the components were, what the factors were that made it a moral imperative then.

Because maybe there is something in that answer that is instructive and informative for us to wrestle to the ground these issues today that have a moral component to them.

Risen: Right. Well I think you have to start with the work that was being done by Dr. King, and not just Dr. King, but the whole breadth of the civil rights movement, going back decades before the law was passed.

It’s funny, when you look at what was happening, the kind of mood of the country, the mood of the movement at the beginning of that year, the beginning of ’63, people were actually fairly pessimistic.

They didn’t believe that John F. Kennedy would do anything. He had really dragged his feet. They didn’t believe that the country was ready for something momentous.

But then you have Birmingham, and Birmingham not only was in itself an important thing that had to be answered, but it also raised all sorts of issues, not just for the country but for the world.

People saw on TV, they saw on the front page of the newspapers, children being attacked by dogs. I mean, not only did people have concern about those children, but they understood this is why we have to do something.

Because we live in a world, we live in a country where this is okay for some people. We need to stop pretending that states and local governments or just the South will come around.

We need federal legislation to do something. That convinced not just liberals and not just John F. Kennedy, but conservative Republicans in the Midwest who had really resisted civil rights legislation up to that point to get behind comprehensive action. I think that’s what really brought it to the fore.

Tavis: Let me take, Clay, this timeline that you’re starting to talk about now and put a little more detail on this timeline, because I think it’s important for me as I went through your text, it’s important for me and I think for the audience here to understand what was actually happening during this period.

So you’re right, let’s back up a second. At the beginning of ’63, JFK is president and people really are, indeed those in the movement are concerned about whether JFK really does have what it takes, put it that way, to really get behind this legislation and push it through.

Then you advance to the summer of ’63, the March on Washington, just put in some context here.

To your point, after the March on Washington, you have the 16th Street bombing of this church in Birmingham. So all of this happens, and that happens literally weeks after.

Risen: Yeah.

Tavis: You’ve got this high moment of the March on Washington, and then literally days later, not even a month later, you have this bombing at this church where these four little girls are killed.

Then in November, weeks later, JFK is actually assassinated. Then you’re into 1964. Lyndon Johnson is president. I’m only putting that on the table here because I’m trying to get a sense from you as to how you think all of these – I hate this phrase – these ducks lining in a row, so to speak, lead to a moment where LBJ can galvanize the Congress and galvanize the country do to something in memory of JFK, in memory of these four little girls. I’m just trying to set the stage a little better.

Risen: No, I think you’re right. Look, nothing is inevitable. Legislation, we look back and think well, of course the country was going to come around to civil rights legislation.

But there are lots of things this country has never come around to doing. Health insurance for a long time. So I think yeah, it absolutely is a matter of these contingent events.

Historians talk about contingency – if something hadn’t happened, something else would not have happened. Had Birmingham not gone the way it did, had the March on Washington not been the momentous, historic occasion that it was.

Unfortunately, I think had Kennedy not been assassinated, we would not have had that galvanization that you spoke of. I think a lot of people would not have rallied behind Johnson.

Tavis: “Contingent events” is so much better than “ducks in a row,” so thank you. (Laughter) I take that. I was reaching and I couldn’t find it, so I –

Risen: Yeah, it’s the same thing.

Tavis: – I will take contingent events. Let’s stay with that, though. Tell me, then, and you go into some of this in the text, of course, tell me then how brilliant LBJ was at using this moment, Kennedy’s assassination, to galvanize Congress, the galvanize the country, to actually do something in his memory.

Risen: Oh, sure.

Tavis: Because he was rather brilliant at the way he played that, politically

Risen: Oh, absolutely. When he came into office, unfortunately the way he came into office, he knew right away that the first thing he had to do was address the country and address Congress all at one time.

So he had a speech before a joint session of Congress, televised live, and the very first thing he said was, “In memory of JFK, we need to pass civil rights legislation.” Now civil rights, by the time he was assassinated, civil rights was very important to Kennedy, but Johnson took it up a notch.

He said, “This is the singular legacy of John F. Kennedy.” I don’t know if Kennedy necessarily would have said that, although I think that it is true that he did a lot to get that bill going, and he and Bobby Kennedy deserve a lot of credit for that.

But Johnson was able to bring it together in that speech. I think that if anyone wants to understand what is the brilliance of rhetoric in a moment of crisis, go back and look at the footage.

You can see it on YouTube, footage of that speech. Johnson just really knocked it out of the park, and he went back to the issue again and again and said regardless of where you are, partisan, where your partisan standing is, regardless of really where you are in the country, you need to understand that we are at a moment when we need to act on this.

I think that that did an enormous amount for moving the bill forward. If I can say, one thing that – people often assume that Johnson’s greatest achievement on the Civil Rights Act was behind closed doors, and what he was doing, pushing senators, congressman, one way or the other.

I actually don’t think there’s a lot of evidence to show that he did that. I think he basically understood that things, the ball was in good hands with his guys from the Justice Department, with Hubert Humphrey.

What Johnson did, and what Johnson’s real genius was, was to use that platform that he had, the presidency, the presidency coming after Kennedy, to repeatedly hammer this issue, and to make sure that it was presented as something that everyone had to get behind.

He wasn’t out there pushing one senator or the other. He did a little bit of that, but really what he was doing was speaking to the entire country and saying we are all together behind this. Now let’s do something on it.

Tavis: See, to your point about the Kennedys, and again, this comes through to some degree in this text, but certainly in other texts, with all due respect to John and Robert Kennedy, they both start out on the wrong side of the civil rights question.

Risen: Absolutely.

Tavis: They start out on the wrong side in history. I get so tired of people who try to make them iconic in this regard.

Risen: Right.

Tavis: They did do a lot, to your credit, but they start out on the wrong side. That’s okay, because we can all be redeemed. By the time Bobby Kennedy dies, he’s an American icon for all the right reasons.

But Kennedy, at the start of ’63, was questioned about this, because people really didn’t see the kind of commitment behind this that he could have put. In fact, in August of ’63, Kennedy’s in the White House watching the March on Washington. He will not even show up at the March on Washington –

Risen: That’s right.

Tavis: – because he’s afraid how this thing is going to turn out. So the fact that LBJ picks this torch up and runs with it is in some way a tribute to John Kennedy, but I don’t think, respectfully, we ought to overstate that.

Risen: No, I think you’re right. I think you’re absolutely right. You can never answer the question: What would Kennedy have done had he stayed alive?

Tavis: Sure.

Risen: I do believe that Kennedy was moving in a direction that was more supportive of civil rights. It was his idea to finally pull the trigger, so to speak, and move forward on this legislation. I think Bobby Kennedy deserves a lot of credit for pushing his brother –

Tavis: Absolutely.

Risen: – in that direction. But look, you’re absolutely correct. I don’t think that Kennedy would have been as stalwart behind the full bill the way that Johnson was. I think Kennedy might have accepted some compromises. I don’t want to speculate, but I think it’s, again, it’s that contingency.

Tavis: Yeah. So Jonathan, put the cover of the book back up again, because I love this photo. It’s an iconic photo.

Risen: It is.

Tavis: Iconic photo on the cover of LBJ turning around and handing a pen to Dr. King, a pen, of course, which he has used seconds earlier to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

I wanted this picture up because even though the publishing company puts this picture on the cover, as they should have, inside the text you actually make the argument that in some ways, Johnson and King get a little more credit, perhaps, than they deserve.

Maybe I’m not phrasing that the way you would phrase it, but the point is they were not the only ones –

Risen: Right.

Tavis: – who had a major effort in making this pass. But in history, it’s LBJ and MLK who were the two persons who almost singlehandedly make this happen.

Risen: That’s right. I don’t want to try to diminish what they achieved with the Bill. I think that that’s very important, to understand what they did. But it’s like if you said well Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon and you forgot that thousands of people worked behind him to get him there.

It’s very much the same thing. If you look at, just look at Birmingham. The reason why Kennedy was worried about what happened in Birmingham was not just Birmingham, but was the fear that we could have a lot more Birminghams.

For that fear to be realized, he had to see that happen. Medgar Evers over in Jackson was making that happen. In some ways, Medgar Evers followed up, very much responded to King and said let’s do Birmingham here.

That put real spin on Kennedy’s fear. So you have these sort of – I don’t want to say bit players. Medgar Evers was incredibly important. But you can’t really understand that story till you see the role he played.

At the same time, guys who were very much in Washington, part of Washington, but were representing the movement, Clarence Mitchell, who was the super-lobbyist. He’s remembered as being one of the greatest lobbyists of all time.

He was the head lobbyist for the NAACP. This is a guy who could come in, a Black man, go into the office of Richard Russell, the most stalwart segregationist, head of the Southern Democrats, sit down and have a conversation, and they respected each other.

Disagreed completely. I’m sure at the end of the day, Mitchell did not particularly like him. But he could talk to him, negotiate. The things he did to push the bill forward in individual offices, and to get people to support stronger versions of the bill, that’s absolutely vital. You have to understand that.

You also have to understand the thousands of people who came to Washington to meet with their representatives, who wrote letters to Congress. The church leaders, the labor leaders who organized in their cities and in their towns to bring constituents to Washington, to push and to show that this was a public movement.

It was one thing for Johnson to say the public is behind this, but it took the public to push them to do it. By the time the filibuster was on, you had senators saying my mail is going 10 to one in support of the bill, and I’m getting thousands of letters a day.

That kind of expression of public support for the legislation was absolutely vital. I think that you miss that if all you do is look at iconic figures from this story.

Tavis: See, what’s fascinating to me about that story, Clay, is that there are two or three issues that come to mind right now. Let’s just start with immigration, where members of Congress are getting the same kind of mail, snail mail, the same kinds of email; they’re being lobbied in the same way.

We see the president, to some degree, putting this issue on the docket. We see marches and protests all across the country. Yet at this moment, they’ve not been able to turn that into any kind of comprehensive legislation.

So beyond the push of the people, give me some sense of what was happening with these individual senators, certainly those from the South, and even some from the North, but especially from the South, those who had been anti-civil rights legislation, what was it that helped turn them, if not LBJ’s arm-twisting?

Risen: Sure. Well certainly the Southern senators were just not interested at all, and they pretty much to a man, even the ones who became more progressive over time – Al Gore, William Fulbright – they did not vote for the Bill.

But these conservative Republican senators from the Midwest, it wasn’t that they were against civil rights so much. They were against big government. They saw bills like this as big government.

Mostly they just didn’t have Black constituents. Talk about Iowa in the ’50s and ’60s, there just simply weren’t a lot of Black people there. So for them it wasn’t, it didn’t have that moral urgency, and they were perfectly willing to make deals with the Southern senators.

There was a coalition for a long time between Southern senators and Midwesterners. They basically had an agreement: We’ll vote against civil rights if you vote against big government plans. What the movement did, and also I would say Johnson and really people across the pro-civil rights axis, let’s say, is they were able to convince these senators and representatives that that could no longer be the deal.

That there was a moral urgency, and you saw this happen when church members, when rabbis and priests from their states would go to either their offices in Washington or meet them when they came back to visit their districts, and sit down and say look, we have to do something and I know you’re a good Christian man.

I think that we need to understand this is a – they would appeal on blatantly religious terms and say this is a Christian obligation. That really pushed a lot of buttons, to basically say you may not understand the issue in the way that people closer to it do, but you can at least understand that it is morally wrong for this country to sanction Jim Crow segregation.

This over time really pushed people, especially when they saw the Southerners completely stonewall on the topic.

Tavis: To my mind, at least, there is no greater coalition of Americans, and you’ve just kind of intimated this now, the coalition of Americans that pushed to get the civil rights bill passed. I’ve seen nothing like it since.

Risen: Yeah.

Tavis: It’s a one-of-a-kind coalition, and yet it happened in an America that was pretty starkly divided between Black and white.

Now here we are, in the most multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America ever, with a Black man sitting in the Oval Office – and maybe that in part is the problem, that’s part of the push-back here.

But for whatever reasons, we can’t, again, get anything comprehensive, it seems, pushed through this Congress, even though in ’64 they did it remarkably well.

Risen: Yeah. Well I would say one of the things that we face today is that people have learned the lessons of that time. So you have, yes, you have a lot of pro-immigration reform activists, but you also have a Tea Party and a let’s say anti-immigration reform movement, I don’t want to say just the Tea Party.

Tavis: Sure.

Risen: Who have learned the same lessons. So they’re pushing in the other direction.

Tavis: That coalitions work.

Risen: Right, right, and that you can’t just have lobbying in Washington, that you can’t just have movements in the streets. That you have to have a combination of the two, and you see that happening on both sides.

I would say that is probably part of the story behind why we don’t see this happening today, is that voices get drowned out. It’s very hard to know, well, who’s the bigger group? Whose – is size the same as volume?

People can yell loudly, and they may not represent the most, the largest group of people. That’s very hard for a lot of politicians to figure out, and I think that’s what’s the sticking point right now.

Tavis: How would you assess the role that the media played in this? Because today, we’ve got all kinds of social media outlets, cable television galore. So there are more outlets now than ever before; certainly more than the three networks that there were back in ’64.

Give me some sense of what the media did or did not do, how complicit were they, how helpful were they in raising this issue on the American agenda.

Risen: They were very – well, I would say actually they were not very helpful for a long time, and they did not put the issue on the front burner. Of course the Black newspapers at the time, which were much larger and much more far-reaching than they are today, they of course were tracking it for a long time.

But it wasn’t really until Birmingham that you saw it starting to appear on front pages of newspapers, on the nightly news. But from then on, it really took off, and what’s interesting, you have a younger generation of reporters.

He’s retired now, but Roger Mudd, who was a young Washington correspondent at the time, he understood the importance of this issue and he not only did a very long broadcast of the March on Washington but later did daily broadcasts, multiple daily broadcasts, during the Senate filibuster, and while keeping with a level of objectivity, made sure that people understood the importance of what was going on.

Because I think for a lot of, particularly a lot of white Americans, obviously, even ones that were sympathetic to civil rights, it took things like Birmingham and it took coverage of Birmingham to make them understand that this wasn’t just some other issue.

This wasn’t on the same level as agriculture subsidies or foreign policy questions. This was something that had to be done, dealt with right at that moment, and guys like Mudd and other reporters, young reporters, made sure that it was constantly out in front of people, and that they saw it and they couldn’t get away from it.

That, along with everything else, really helped keep civil rights in the front of everybody’s mind.

Tavis: Even comprehensive legislation, legislation as good as the ’64 Civil Rights Act. Everything doesn’t get in. So what – let me flip it now to ask what was left out of this legislation. What did it not cover?

Risen: Yeah. Part of the deal behind the Civil Rights Act was an agreement pushed by northern representatives and senators that the bill would not really touch issues of de facto segregation.

So things like – so the bill dealt with legal segregation in schools, the Brown decision by the Supreme Court had banned it, but it took the Civil Rights Act to enforce it.

Dealt with that, it dealt with discrimination in public accommodations, but it didn’t deal with housing discrimination. Now in a lot of places, that was a pretty thick, pretty sticky issue, and there were a lot of people around the country who didn’t want to touch it.

Any kind of government support for inner city jobs programs, that was considered, and it was left out. People said, well, we just can’t get everything in. I don’t think at the time they recognized that they were making a zero-sum decision.

I think they thought well, we’ll deal with this next, and with voting rights, that is what happened. They said we can’t quite get the voting rights legislation we want in this; we’ll deal with it later. That’s what happened. The ’65 Voting Rights Act, incredibly important.

But the ’68 housing, Civil Rights Act on housing, didn’t really do that much. The war on poverty was not nearly as big as people knew it needed to be, and I think that that, unfortunately, is a consequence of that decision.

I don’t know if it could have been made any other way, but it was definitely one of those –

Tavis: Let me circle back to LBJ before my time runs out, because 50 years after this epic battle and this iconic piece of legislation, I’m reading a lot of pieces, and I suspect you are, where people are challenging us, certainly his biographers and family and others are challenging us to re-examine our assumptions about LBJ. They want us to rethink LBJ 50 years later.

It’s fascinating to me, because to my mind, at least, there is no American president who was so right on what he did right and so wrong on what he did wrong.

He could not have been more wrong on the Vietnam question, and he could not have been more right, I think, on civil rights and voting rights. So it’s an interesting dichotomy all in this one man named LBJ.

I circle back to this because I don’t know – I mean, you can certainly put Abraham Lincoln in this, but I don’t know that a more courageous act has ever been committed on the part of a president.

Lyndon Johnson, as you report and know full well, knew and said on tape, we have him on tape, he knew he was writing off the South for his party for decades to come.

He knew that his supporting this was the right thing to do on the one hand, morally, to your point, but politically, he knew he was just destroying his base, the base of his party, for years to come.

Tavis: Well, I think he’s also, there’s a certain savviness in there that’s not, I don’t mean to undercut any of it, but I think he understood the way the country was going, and he saw the South, he knew that – he liked to say he’s from Texas, not necessarily the South, but he was a Southerner, and he understood that Southerners didn’t really have a future in the Democratic Party. That white Southerners were –

Tavis: So he saw that –

Risen: I think he saw that in advance, and there are a lot of things that he said in the years leading up to it that point in that direction. I think he saw a different kind of future. He wasn’t alone in this.

A lot of forward-thinking liberals at the time were saying we have – one way or the other, Black America is going to become enfranchised, it’s going to become more part of the mainstream, and that’s the base of the Democratic Party.

You can see a future, or they saw a future with this kind of Black labor coalition, a variety of coalitions that you could see coming out.

While the South, in terms of that kind of conservative, white point of view, was not something the Democrats wanted to keep around, was not something Johnson thought needed to be kept around, and was something that didn’t have a future itself.

So I think he was, yes, I think he saw it as a bittersweet victory. I don’t think he saw that as a great thing. But I do think he had a vision for where the country was going.

Tavis: He was as pragmatic as he was courageous, then.

Risen: Yes, absolutely. I think that that’s the right thing. He saw the bill as necessary to get liberal support for other things he wanted to do. He wanted to create the great society. He had this as a vision.

The Civil Rights Act for him was obviously a thing in itself, but was also an important first step to be able to do the war on poverty, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security expansion, that whole litany of things that we rightly praise him for getting through in the next couple of years.

Tavis: For obvious reasons, Clay Risen calls it “The Bill of the Century.” Indeed it was. “The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act” of 1964. Clay Risen, good to have you on the program. Thanks for the text, and thanks for coming by to see us.

Risen: Well thanks for having me.

Tavis: My pleasure. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: April 4, 2014 at 12:29 am