A top Washington journalist recounts the dramatic political battle to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the law that created modern America, on the fiftieth anniversary of its passage
It was a turbulent time in America—a time of sit-ins, freedom rides, a March on Washington and a governor standing in the schoolhouse door—when John F. Kennedy sent Congress a bill to bar racial discrimination in employment, education, and public accommodations. Countless civil rights measures had died on Capitol Hill in the past. But this one was different because, as one influential senator put it, it was "an idea whose time has come."
In a powerful narrative layered with revealing detail, Todd S. Purdum tells the story of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, recreating the legislative maneuvering and the larger-than-life characters who made its passage possible. From the Kennedy brothers to Lyndon Johnson, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Hubert Humphrey and Everett Dirksen, Purdum shows how these all-too-human figures managed, in just over a year, to create a bill that prompted the longest filibuster in the history of the U.S. Senate yet was ultimately adopted with overwhelming bipartisan support. He evokes the high purpose and low dealings that marked the creation of this monumental law, drawing on extensive archival research and dozens of new interviews that bring to life this signal achievement in American history.
Often hailed as the most important law of the past century, the Civil Rights Act stands as a lesson for our own troubled times about what is possible when patience, bipartisanship, and decency rule the day.
The passage of the Civil Rights Act was a watershed moment of the turbulent 1960s, the culmination of vibrant grassroots activism that forced politicians to address pervasive racism in the United States. Journalist Purdum focuses the action, which he divides into three parts, at the political level. The first centers on the administration of J.F.K., who was uncertain that civil rights should be on his first-term agenda. But in June 1963, as nonviolent protesters increasingly encountered hostile crowds, especially in Birmingham, Ala., Kennedy announced his plan for sweeping federal legislation to end racial discrimination. The second part picks up during that summer and beams in on the House of Representatives, where politicians worked to draft a bipartisan bill that stood an good chance of passing. Kennedy's assassination in November might have derailed it, but Lyndon Johnson embraced the legislation. He used his political savvy to move the bill along in the House, and then, in the final act of this drama, on to passage in the Senate. It was an important chapter in the Civil Rights movement, and Purdum's keen eye for the wide cast of Capitol Hill characters keeps the story lively. Illus.