THE LONGEST DEBATE: A Legislative History of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by Charles & Barbara Whalen Whalen

THE LONGEST DEBATE: A Legislative History of the 1964 Civil Rights Act

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Former congressman Whalen and his wife have written a kind of folk history of the legislative battle over the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act--featuring a little-known conservative Republican congressman from the Ohio district next to Whalen's, William McCulloch. ""The gentle small-town lawyer from Piqua"" was the ranking minority member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by liberal Brooklyn Democrat Emanuel Celler; and his price for supporting the bill--helping to draft acceptable provisions, securing conservative as well as liberal Republican backing--was an Administration promise not only to give the Republicans equal credit but, most importantly, to hold fast: not to let Southern Democratic senators gut it (as had happened before), and so leave him out on a limb. The Whalens tell the story of H.R. 7152, from interviews and other primary sources, as a continuous, shaded, dramatically shaped narrative--full of personal conflict (affronts, resentments) and cagey maneuvering, yet free of castigation or ridicule. They explain procedures and motivations: e.g., ""Halleck's silence reflected the schism in the GOP between those members who saw themselves as carrying on the tradition of Lincoln and those who had few blacks in their district and saw no reason to get involved. . ."" (McCulloch, with an ""almost unseen"" 2.7 percent black constituency, was thus exceptional.) They detail the steps whereby McCulloch and Celler, the ""plowboy"" and the ""street urchin,"" preserved the bill they had shaped with Justice Department lawyers, and shepherded it (past Howard Smith's Rules Committee) through the House. In the Senate, Illinois Republican Everett Dirksen played the McCulloch role, more prominently and theatrically--while, by prearrangement, LBJ kept a relatively low profile. (Johnson is seen getting one key vote for cloture--to end the Southern filibuster--by a strategic trade-off, another by discreetly not calling-in past favors and instead arguing the case on its merits.) In that way, passage of the Act did become everybody's victory--though the Whalens don't crow about the triumph of the System: Congress is a lethargic body, committed to self-preservation, that responds only to a popular groundswell. In its own low-key curbside fashion: brightly and instructively readable.

Pub Date: Jan. 31st, 1984
Publisher: Seven Locks