Thursday, January 17, 2008

How King and Kennedy and Johnson and Dirksen Passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964

It was unfortunate that so much negativity was directed toward Hillary Clinton's observation that "Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964... It took a president to get it done." But now that Barack Obama has instructed his supporters to stop trying to inflame a controversy where there really shouldn't be one, perhaps we can at least gain from the episode by improving our understanding of the 1960s.

There was nothing inaccurate about Clinton's remarks. Her point was the pivotal role of presidents in moving the country forward. In fact the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 could not have become law without the support of several presidents. That doesn't mean that Clinton could not have said more. But what she said was factual and apt.

Her statement presumed that Martin Luther King was the civil rights leader most responsible for proposing the Civil Rights Act and getting it enacted. She could have highlighted other civil rights leaders who preceded him and worked with him, as well as Christian and Jewish leaders who supported him and often walked in demonstrations with him.

In highlighting the role of presidents, she also could have added that John F. Kennedy was the first president to propose the Civil Rights Act, which he sent to Congress on June 19, 1963 (not coincidentally, on the day celebrated as Juneteenth in several states of the former Confederacy). But it took the emotional outpouring after Kennedy's assassination, skillfully managed by Lyndon Johnson applying his lengthy experience as Senate Majority leader, to finally get the act passed. She also could have added that Kennedy had not always been an enthusiastic advocate of civil rights and that it was primarily pressure from King that led JFK to propose the measure, as it had been pressure from earlier civil rights activists that pushed President Eisenhower to use military force in Little Rock to integrate the public schools in the 1950s. (See post of 9/25/07.)

Clinton also could have added that from the time he supported the act as Vice President, Johnson knew that it would be so unpopular in the South that those states would no longer vote Democratic. When he pushed the bill as president, senators of his own party warned him it would cost him the 1964 election. As it turned out, Johnson soundly defeated Barry Goldwater, even in most of the southern states. But the South turned solidly Republican for decades afterwards.

As Clarence Page pointed out recently, Clinton could also have acknowledged that because of strident opposition within Johnson's own party, the act could not have been passed without some votes from prominent Republicans. Page singled out "Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirkson of Illinois, who rounded up enough Republican votes to offset strong opposition from Johnson's fellow Southern Democrats." In the Senate the bill was passed by 27 Northern Republicans joining 45 Northern Democrats. The only Southern Democrat voting in favor of the bill was Senator Ralph Yarborough of Texas. The breakdown in the House was similar.

So a more complete telling of the story emphasizes that the Civil Rights Act would not have become law without a lot of work, cooperation, courage and sacrifice from people in the civil rights movement, two presidents, and several members of Congress, including many Republicans.

But the story makes it clear how critical presidential leadership was. Lyndon Johnson's leadership in particular was probably the best of his presidency, and it should be remembered and treasured and held up as inspiration to future presidents. That he did so poorly leading later on Vietnam does not undo his remarkable achievements in civil rights. It simply cautions us that presidents who achieve magnificently can also fail tragically. That, of course, is another lesson the candidates should take to heart.

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