How a Dream Became a Law: Passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Enacting the landmark Civil Rights Act took a lot more than arm-twisting by Lyndon Johnson. Civility and canny bipartisanship in Congress were the key factors.

In the 50th anniversary year of the Civil Rights Act, An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Todd S. Purdum’s brisk nuts-and-bolts chronicle of its turbulent birth offers a salutary reminder that historic legislation is not easily achieved. It took years of militant direct action by civil rights activists, and violent reaction by diehard segregationists, to pressure an initially hesitant President Kennedy to commit his administration to a civil rights bill in June 1963, and it would be another year before his successor, Lyndon Johnson, signed it into law.

Just days after Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson made an emotional speech framing of the bill’s passage as the nation’s tribute to a fallen leader. But it would require much more than words to get H.R. 7152 (the bill’s formal designation) through Congress, and Purdum’s portrait of the intricate maneuvers involved gives overdue credit to the diverse group of legislators who got the job done. It corrects the imbalance of two prominent recent accounts: Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power, the fourth volume in his massive Johnson biography, and Robert Schenkkan’s play All the Way, currently on Broadway with an electrifying performance by Bryan Cranston as LBJ. Both focus on Johnson’s admittedly instrumental role in moving the bill past recalcitrant committee chairmen and a 57-day Senate filibuster, but they tend to give the impression he did it all by himself.

On the contrary, Purdum persuasively contends that by the time the bill drafted by the Kennedy administration left the House Judiciary Committee on October 29, 1963, it had been crucially shaped by Representative Bill McCulloch, a fiscally conservative Republican wary of government intervention but strongly committed to civil rights. In return for lining up the Republican votes needed to overcome Southern Democrats’ implacable opposition, McCulloch demanded “a strong but practical bill … that could pass the full House,” plus the administration’s promise not to bargain away its teeth in the Senate. McCulloch’s position, writes Purdum, “all but assured that the administration would have to attempt something that had never before succeeded in American politics: to break a civil rights filibuster in the Senate rather than avoid one by watering down the bill.”

There was more wrangling to be done in the House, where liberals chafed at the compromises made to gain Republican support for the bill and segregationists did their best to cripple it. Purdum, a former White House correspondent for the New York Times and senior writer at Politico, clearly explains the arcane rules that govern the legislative process H.R. 7152 had to endure and survive. He spotlights the vital assistance provided by Clarence Mitchell of the NAACP and Joseph Rauh of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, who organized teams of young activists to make sure there were always enough pro-civil rights House members on the floor to beat back hostile amendments. (In those bygone days before cell phones, they had to rely on an elaborate “buddy system,” a telephone tree, and pay phones.) H.R. 7152 passed the House on February 10, 1964, with 152 Democrats and 138 Republicans in favor, 96 Democrats and 34 Republicans against.

The thoroughly bipartisan nature of the bill, which Purdum emphasizes throughout, makes a striking contrast with today’s bitterly polarized Congress. Even more striking are the courteous and collegial manners displayed, even during the arduous filibuster in the Senate. Much of the credit goes to Hubert Humphrey, the bill’s floor manager, and Majority Leader Mike Mansfield. They believed “debate should be civil and dignified … it was possible to disagree without being disagreeable.” When Virginia Democrat Willis Robertson made a speech deploring every section of the bill, Humphrey thanked Robertson for his “gentlemanly qualities and his consideration to us at all times.” After Humphrey mustered the votes for cloture and ended the filibuster on June 10, Mansfield opened the roll call for the final vote by praising “the insistence of the opposition on prolonged debate … its most important function was to discourage self-righteousness on the part of the majority.”

Johnson, busy twisting arms and trading favors behind the scenes, fumed over the courtly tone and stately pace Humphrey and Mansfield preferred, but Purdum makes it clear that they knew what they were doing, and when Johnson could stop micromanaging he knew it, too. Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, the key to delivering Republican votes in the Senate, spent a maddening amount of time quibbling over the bill’s public accommodations and fair employment sections. Humphrey advised patience while Dirksen assessed the mood of his fellow conservatives; Johnson left in Humphrey’s hands the negotiations that produced the final Senate version, still strong enough for liberals to endorse. It was Dirksen who on June 10, 1964, spoke the words that give Purdum’s book its title: “Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come.” Five days later, H.R. 7152 passed the Senate, 73 to 27.

Twenty-one of the nay votes were Democratic, and subsequent events have amply justified Johnson’s rueful comment to his aide Bill Moyers, “We just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a very long time.” It’s one of the ironies of history that the party of Abraham Lincoln, which delivered 80 percent of its congressional votes for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, gained political territory from the bill over the party that sponsored it, which saw 38 percent of its national representatives vote against it. Then again, as Purdum’s book vividly demonstrates, politics is a tricky, unpredictable, and occasionally dirty business.