The veterans of the civil rights movement gathered at the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library in Texas this month to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and assess its impact. Then the living embodiment of that legislation walked on stage.
The 1964 law and the Voting Rights Act a year later swung open “new doors of opportunity” for people of color, President Obama told the crowd. “And that’s why I’m standing here today.”
That’s not an exaggeration. Todd Purdum makes a persuasive case in An Idea Whose Time Has Come that those two laws “were the two most important laws of the 20th century.” Discrimination based on race, color, religion or national origin was banned, and a cruel system of legal segregation in the South was swept away, 100 years after the end of slavery.
Purdum’s well-crafted narrative explains how the landmark bill got through Congress. These days, when Republicans in Congress are at odds with a Democratic president, he shows how GOP leaders of the 1960s played a crucial role in this accomplishment. Relying on former staffers, he gives an insider’s account, in colorful detail, of how the major players performed.
According to the popular view, President Johnson was the single powerful force getting the law passed, overcoming fierce Southern resistance and a Senate filibuster. Purdum gives Johnson plenty of credit, especially because the “impulsive, impassioned” Texan was able to step back at times and let House and Senate leaders get the job done.
Others played a key role. A former New York Times reporter, Purdum culled the historical record and then interviewed the surviving congressional and Justice Department staffers who worked on the bill, usually behind the scenes. They single out Rep. Bill McCulloch, an Ohio Republican, as the unsung hero of the drama.
A conventional conservative, McCulloch had supported civil rights measures for years. Many House Republicans were worried that enforcement of anti-discrimination laws would mean unwarranted interference in businesses, but McCulloch assured them the measure was “reasonable and moderate.”
“Bill McCulloch became the conscience of the bill. If he took a position on something, he brought along a lot of colleagues,” a former House staffer, Robert Kimball, told Purdum. The result was dramatic: 138 of 172 House Republicans voted for the bill, which passed 290-130.
The author’s assessment of the two presidents is insightful and nuanced. President John Kennedy laid the groundwork for the bill — his Justice Department team worked closely with Hill staffers, including Republicans — and he effectively framed the issue of civil rights as a national and moral imperative.
Johnson, known for his overbearing style, was actually restrained in his dealings with congressional leaders. LBJ, in one of Purdum’s compact descriptions, was a “proud man alert to the pride of others.”
The book also provides needed context to the legislative battle of 1964: years of demonstrations and vicious attacks on black Southerners, the March on Washington, and the mobilization of mainstream church groups — the “secret weapon” in lobbying for civil rights.
The challenge in dealing with him, a former Justice Department official explained, “was to get his firm agreement to any changes before so much bourbon was consumed that Dirksen would not remember the following day what he had accepted the night before.”
Purdum’s book also offers a valuable reminder that virulent racism was just below the surface of the U.S. Senate in the 1960s. Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, often described as courtly and reasonable in some accounts, actually proposed a program of voluntary “racial relocation” to get African Americans to leave the South. He warned of a “mongrel race” if segregation ended.
But the tide of history was running against Russell. Dirksen said the bill “was an idea whose time had come,” and it eventually passed the Senate, 73-27. Attorney General Robert Kennedy predicted there could be a black president in 40 years.
He was close. Forty years after the law was passed, a biracial son of Hawaii by way of Chicago won Dirksen’s old Senate seat. Four years later, Obama was elected president.
Frank Davies is a writer in northern Virginia.