A riveting account of the hard-fought passage of “the most important laws of the twentieth century.”
The Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act and associated legislation of 1964 and 1965 had their births in the John F. Kennedy White House, as Vanity Fair and Politico contributor Purdum (co-author: A Time of Our Choosing: America's War in Iraq, 2003) notes. However, before they were passed, America was in many ways still the two countries of yore: “North and South, black and white, still separate and unequal.” It does not speak well to Kennedy that he was sensitive enough to public opinion that he ordered Sammy Davis Jr. and his white wife, May Britt, to be removed from a White House reception on the very day that a federal commission released a report saying that black Americans lived under “a freedom more fictional than real.” Purdum is at times unsparing in his assessments of the key players in the Kennedy administration who could never push the necessary legislation through for reasons of political calculus, arrayed against a powerful bloc of Southern Democrats who soon thereafter would become Southern Republicans. That switch, of course, owed to the arrival of Lyndon Johnson, uncouth and nakedly ambitious, who managed to make the enmity of Robert Kennedy as real as the hatred of the strongest segregationist—but who also bulldozed the opposition in what might well have been the most fraught political negotiations since the passage of the 13th Amendment. Purdum’s warts-and-all account is both insightful and wholly mindful of the calculations that JFK and LBJ made at every step—the latter, for example, enlisting the despised RFK’s help in case the bill failed so that he did not have “to shoulder the sole blame for its failure.”
Those battling the neo-Confederates and nullificationists of today will want this book to see how it’s done. Readers with an interest in American history and the American promise will find it a must-read as well.