A journalist’s in-depth, behind-the-scenes account of the unsung congressional and White House heroes who helped the Civil Rights Act become the law of the land.
Segregation and discrimination were legal in the United States until 1964, when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. Hailed as a landmark piece of legislation, the new law “reached deep into the social fabric of the nation to refashion structures of racial order and domination that had held for almost a century.” Historians generally credit Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon B. Johnson with playing the roles key to the passage of this Kennedy administration brainchild. New York Times op-ed editor Risen (A Nation of Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination, 2009) argues that this view of how the act became law “distorts not only the history of the act but the process of American legislative policymaking in general.” He shows instead that the act, which emerged in response to the racial unrest and conflicts of the early 1960s, developed through a fraught push-pull process involving endless filibustering on one hand and intensive lobbying efforts and back-room deal making on the other. Risen also analyzes the tense relationships between liberal Northern Democrats and conservative Southern ones, many of whom had begun leaning toward the Republican Party due to its emphasis on states’ rights. As Johnson realized, a win for the Civil Rights Act would mean a loss of an entire voting block in future elections. Many Republicans, like senators Barry Goldwater and John Tower, openly fought against this legislation. But an invisible and all-important few, like Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, became instrumental in ensuring the bill’s survival in Congress. Risen’s attention to the many minor characters in this historical saga is both a strength and weakness. It makes for scrupulous accuracy but also slow, labyrinthine reading.
Well-researched but sometimes tedious.