Rob Horowitz: The Civil Rights Act, 50 Years Later
Tuesday, April 15, 2014
As Robert Caro describes in The Passage of Power, the fourth volume of his epic and authoritative Johnson biography, the newly sworn-in president—just 4 days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy—was determined to make passage of the Civil Rights Act, put forward by Kennedy, his highest legislative priority. He did so over the strong objections of most of his advisers, who argued there was little chance of success and that he would put the rest of his legislative agenda at risk by antagonizing the powerful southerners who controlled most of the committees.
In a speech the next day Johnson said, "No memorial oration or elegy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory then the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long. We have talked long enough in this county about equal rights. We have talked for one hundred years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law.”
Six months later—in large measure due to Johnson’s expert handing of Congress—the Civil Rights Act overcame its toughest hurdle, the US Senate. He mustered an overwhelming bi-partisan majority of 71 Senators to end a 57-day filibuster, the longest in Senate history. LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law in early July, making equal access to public accommodations and equal opportunity in employment the law of the land.
Great strides made and to be made
Taken together with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 opened the doors of opportunity and the potential to fully exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship to African Americans. Of course, these two strokes of the Presidential pen did not instantly end ingrained prejudice or somehow magically undo the lingering and destructive impacts of generations of disgraceful treatment, including Jim Crow laws and slavery. Still, this law put our nation on the right road. And while there is still a long way to go, the impact has been positive and substantial.
The presence of the first African-American president at the event is an obvious case in point, and President Obama did not shy away from the symbolic significance of his election in his remarks. “Because of the Civil Rights movement, because of the laws President Johnson signed, new doors of opportunity and education swung open for everybody—not all at once, but they swung open. Not just blacks and whites, but also women and Latinos, and Asians and Native Americans, and gay Americans and Americans with a disability. They swung open for you, and they swung open for me. And that’s why I’m standing here today—because of those efforts, because of that legacy.”
Adding a bi-partisan note, President Bush said, "America is a more just and generous country because Lyndon Johnson set his mind to the cause of civil rights."
Both Presidents asserted that the Civil Rights agenda remains unfinished. Obama focused on the need to expand economic opportunities and Bush focused on the need to step up the fight to close the gap in school performance between African-American children and white children.
A huge milestone
LBJ was critical to the adoption of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but he was far from the only important actor. By challenging the nation to live up to its professed ideals, the Civil Rights Movement—with its hundreds of thousands of marchers, countless acts of individual courage, and farsighted leaders such as Martin Luther King—created the political environment that made success possible. President Kennedy took the decisive step of putting the legislation forward and many other elected officials provided vocal support. Still, LBJ’s willingness to risk political capital and his masterful handling of Congress loom large.
Todd Purdum, author of a book on the topic, called the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 “the most important laws of the twentieth century and a high-water mark of shared civic purpose, national unity, and hope that the nation might yet live up to its founding creed.”
It is important to call attention to this 50th anniversary, to celebrate this huge and hard won success that brought us closer to ‘a more perfect union’, and to draw strength for all the big challenges that remain in front of us. The LBJ library is a fitting location.
Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island.
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