How the Civil Rights Act changed America

Wednesday marks 50 years since President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act, outlawing discrimination based on race, ethnicity and sex. Gwen Ifill is joined by Todd Purdum to discuss his new book, "An Idea Whose Time Has Come," which tells the story of how the legislation came to be.

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    Today marks 50 years since President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act into law, outlawing discrimination based on race, ethnicity and sex.

    Gwen talked recently with author Todd Purdum on Capitol Hill to discuss his new book, "An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964," a detailed backstory of how the legislation came to be.


    Todd Purdum, author of "An Idea Whose Time Has Come," thank you so much.

    One of the interesting things about this book I find is that, as we sit here on Capitol Hill, there are so many people who most folks have never heard of who really were the force behind the Civil Rights Act.

    TODD PURDUM, Author, "An Idea Whose Time Has Come": No, absolutely.

    I mean, one of them worked here in this building in the Judiciary Committee Hearing Room, Congressman Bill McCulloch from Ohio. He was the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, rock-ribbed conservative from West Central Ohio. His district is represented today by John Boehner.

    And he was just as conservative as John Boehner in most ways, but he was a fierce supporter of civil rights. His ancestors had been abolitionists before the Civil War, and as a young man out of law school at Ohio State, he'd gone to practice down in Jacksonville, Florida, and was appalled by Jim Crow segregation, and made it his business to become a strong supporter of federal civil rights legislation.


    It's easy to look at the way things happen on Capitol Hill now and the way they happened then, and you have to think to yourself, where does a Bill McCulloch get the room to run, to be that kind of advocate?


    Yes, I mean, he had a population in his district that was 2.7 percent black, but he had something else, which was, the Republican Party in those days still took very seriously its legacy as the party of Lincoln and the party of civil rights.

    And remember that, for most of the 20th century, to the degree that either party was paying attention to civil rights, it really was the Republicans. Most black people in the South were Republicans. So McCulloch made a deal with the Kennedy administration when they proposed the bill.

    He said, if you promise not to water this down in the Senate, as had been the usual practice, and if you promise to give us Republicans equal credit going into next year's presidential election, I will bring along my Republican Caucus. And that's just what happened.

    But could you imagine that happening today, one party removing the single most contentious domestic issue, as a political issue, and working cooperatively?


    A greater percentage of Republicans in the Senate in the end voted for it than Democrats.


    By far, because the Senate Democrats were totally divided on the question of civil rights, the Southerners, 18 Southerners lockstep in unison against any change.

    And if it weren't for the Republican leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois and his colleagues, they could never have achieved cloture and passed the bill.


    Bill McCulloch's partner in all of this was a Democrat who was very much unlike him. He was from an urban area, Emanuel Celler from New York.


    Yes, from Brooklyn. He was an immigration lawyer. He was a staunch defender of liberalism in all its guises.

    He'd been in Congress for already by this point something more than 40 years. And he and McCulloch were polar opposites in many ways, but they were close friends, and they and their wives socialized together. So while McCulloch was trying to work with the Kennedy administration, Manny Celler was having to deal with the civil rights coalition and the advocacy groups who wanted the strongest possible bill.

    And in the fall of 1963, they came to kind of a clash because the administration was afraid that the bill would be so loaded up with a Christmas tree of items that it couldn't pass, and they had to work to work a compromise.


    In the popular retelling, Lyndon Johnson gets a huge amount of credit, a great deal of which he deserves, in getting this bill through the House and the Senate just by sheer force of will.

    You describe him in the book as a riddle — a sprawling riddle wrapped in an enigma. I love that term. So what was it about Lyndon Johnson that deserved the credit for getting this through, and how much of the credit did he not deserve?


    Well, the credit he deserves is being fiercely in favor of it, and never compromising, never weakening the bill.

    After all, his reputation was as a master wheeler-dealer, who in 1957 and 1960 had watered down the civil rights bills so they could pass the Senate. But, in this case, he said, we're going to pass the bill the Kennedy administration had. It's going to be a strong bill. I'm going to sort of make my bona fides on civil rights, and there's not going to be any doubt about it.

    He never wiggled. But the other thing that I think is quite admirable and against the popular image, he had to restrain himself, he had to hold himself in check. He knew that he couldn't go in and micromanage the process in the Senate, because his former colleagues would resent him.

    So even though he resisted it and he was champing at the bit at the pace that Hubert Humphrey, the floor leader, and Mike Mansfield, the majority leader, were setting, he let them have their day, and they prevailed.


    You tell a story about — some point during the debate, there was a black man in the gallery who was watching this as a citizen. What happened to him?


    Well, he said, this is crazy. There's not a single black person on the floor. You're talking about 10 percent of the population here. How can you be doing this?

    He was taken off to Washington Hospital for mental observation, but it was a very reasonable statement to have made.


    It was a reasonable point. But there were a lot of African-Americans civil rights activists, Clarence Mitchell among them, who were basically in the gallery watching.


    All the time. All the time.

    There were five black members of Congress, but we forget people like Clarence Mitchell, who was the chief NAACP lobbyist in Washington. He was such a constant presence in the corridors of this building and the Capitol that he was known as the 101st senator.

    And he was there day and night; in fact, he and his colleague Joe Rauh, who was with the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, when the bill was about ready to pass the House, they were in the gallery, and they got a frantic call from the White House operator that the president's trying to find them wanting to know what they're going to do about the Senate, before it's even passed the House.



    Before it even passed the House.

    It's interesting because, when you look back on it now, there were all these pressures coming from all these different angles, but in the end, was it a legislative victory, was it a moral victory? What was really driving people to what we — to the outcome?


    Well, that's a great question.

    And I think at the end of the day, you have to say it was a moral victory, because it wasn't just the insiders here on Capitol Hill who were doing it. There was a massive grassroots coalition of church groups, interfaith groups of all kinds, not just Dr. King and the SCLC and the marchers on Washington, but people in their communities day after day lobbying their members, knowing that, you know, this person was a Catholic and that person was a Methodist, and you should bring to bear.

    And it was really President Kennedy in his speech proposing the bill who said, we face primarily a moral issue. It's as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution. And at the end of the day, even the Southerners said, you couldn't fight the golden rule. You couldn't fight do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It's the most basic idea of fairness.


    Fifty years later, it's hard to remember why people objected to what seems to be a given now, equal rights and a level playing field, which is how Johnson put it.

    But, at the time, this was an argument which was familiar to us now, which is an argument against government expansion and government expansion over basic people's control.


    This was going to be a government takeover. This was going to be a usurpation of private property rights.

    This was going to tell businessmen who they had to serve and who they — it's so much like the arguments that were made against the Affordable Care Act, that you can't force people to buy insurance. That's un-American. That's — it's going to destroy the Constitution. It's going to create an army of snoops from Washington. It's going to — and it's very, that part of the argument that was in fact — sounded very familiar to me as I was doing my research.

    And it occurred to me there's probably not any nasty e-mail that could ever cross President Obama's desk that would too much surprise John Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson in terms of the kind of vituperative mail they got.


    As you were working on this book and you looked back in that 50-year span, did you — and you have spent a lot of time in Washington covering the issues of the day. Do you feel like Washington has grown in that time, or did it stop? Did its ability to do big things end then?


    It seems that the poignant part of this story is that this and the Voting Rights Act are two of the last great achievements Congress managed to do.

    And in some ways, the coalition that brought these bills into being began to splinter as the '60s wore on, and debates grew up about affirmative action and busing and Vietnam. Dr. King and Lyndon Johnson were essentially estranged at the time of his death because of Vietnam.

    So the paradox for me is that, 50 years ago, the country was every bit as divided as it is now, probably more divided. But the Congress still managed to work together. Now Congress is much more divided than the country as a whole, partly because the districts are redder and redder and bluer and bluer, and people are worried not about losing in November, but getting a primary from the right or the left.

    So I do worry that we have lost something essential that we really — we really depended on 50 years ago. And just as we seem awfully lucky to have had the particular cast of characters we did at the time of the founding, it seems to me that 50 years ago, we were pretty lucky to have that cast of characters too.


    Todd Purdum, the author of "An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964," thank you so much.


    Thanks so much for having me.

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