Two excellent new books—by Todd Purdom and Clay Risen—have been written that seek to explain how the Civil Rights Act passed when most knowledgeable observers thought it would never survive a Southern Democratic filibuster in the Senate. The LBJ Library at the University of Texas held a “summit,” and the JFK Library in Boston held a forum. Its importance has been duly certified at many other events.
What is often missing, however, is a clear expression of why the act was so important. I’ll wager that most celebrants have only the vaguest notion of what the act accomplished and how it truly changed the fabric of American life.
A good way to test this hypothesis is to describe for a teenager or young adult what life was like for almost all African-Americans before the act passed. Those of us who are old enough to recall life before passage can talk about the inability of African-Americans to buy a Coke from Woolworth’s or take their families out for Sunday dinner at a good restaurant or make a trip that involved spending the night somewhere. The most fundamental things—using rest room facilities, eating, and sleeping were off limits.
Your kids or grandkids look at you as if you're crazy. “No way,” I've been told. “Are you making that up?” Or, “That is just terrible. How can that be?”
How do you bring to life that the achievement of dignity and the stamping out of humiliation in everyday life was the act’s great accomplishment?
I worked for Senator Hubert Humphrey back in 1964. Say what you will about Humphrey, but he had an extraordinary capacity to identify and seize the essential truth of a situation. During the floor debate of the Civil Rights Act, he observed: “It is difficult for most of us to comprehend the monstrous humiliations and inconveniences that racial discrimination imposes on our Negro fellow citizens...What is happening is not so much economics, even though it amounts to economic deprivation. It is not so much education, even though we know people have been denied education. What is happening is humiliation, the lack of a sense of dignity which has been imposed upon people.”
It is the reality of humiliation and the absence of dignity that are so hard to explain today. But this also tells me that, despite all the work that remains to be done, the central objectives that drove the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were achieved.
Thanks primarily to the excesses of Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety, Bull Connor, the nation finally grasped the heinous evil of racial discrimination and segregation. Maybe it took 200 years, but between 1963 and 1964, a significant majority of Americans got it.
Popular support for fixing these wrongs erupted to the degree that almost every conservative Midwest Republican—politicians who had built careers opposing the expansion of federal power—voted to give the US Department of Justice authority tell restaurant and motel owners that refusing service to African Americans and other minorities would no longer be tolerated. And these same senators went even further in supporting federal authority to combat discrimination in employment. Who could have imagined such behavior?
This determination to attack directly the humiliations faced daily by millions of African Americans led the Senate down the path of legislative miracles, at least by today’s standards. The usual scattershot liberals developed a grand strategy, stuck to it, and outsmarted Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, the crafty leader of the Southern Democrats. Bipartisan collaboration to pass the bill was robust and real. The debate was conducted in a fair and accommodating manner, even when it assisted the “enemy,” the Southern Democrats. The limelight was shared by Humphrey, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, and Senator Everett Dirksen, the Minority Leader, who delivered the final votes needed to end the filibuster.
And, at the end of the day, all these miracles were possible because a clear majority of Americans had come to believe that “monstrous humiliations” and denials of personal dignity could no longer be tolerated as elements of American society. The legislation passed; it was signed into law; and it changed America.
That is why we celebrate it fifty years later.
Two good books about the Civil Rights Act:
- Todd Purdum, An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Henry Holt & Co., 2014
- Clay Risen,The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act, Bloomsbury Press, 2014
John G. Stewart was legislative director for Senator Hubert Humphrey when Humphrey was the floor manager of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He stayed with Humphrey from 1965 to 1969, when Humphrey was Vice President. He lived for 10 years on Capitol Hill and for 10 years in Chevy Chase DC. He now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, with his wife, Nancy.
“Young lady, do you have NF also?” I felt the weight of my father’s hand on my 12-year-old shoulder. “No,” he said to the woman, “we’re just here to learn.” Dad knew my response was likely to be one of confusion delivered with tears, so he stepped in.
Back then, my only understanding of NF—neurofibromatosis—came from a TV program about the “Elephant Man.” After watching that program, I had begged Dad to take me to this NF conference. It was here that I first learned about genetic counseling. Thirteen years later, I became a genetic counselor—it has been my dream career ever since.
Through teenage angst, academic challenges, boy troubles, and workplace politics, Dad was there for me. He listened, discussed, and advised. He was many things: husband since age 22, father of two girls, government employee since age 16, Army veteran, marathon runner, and deeply steadfast person. When I was a kid, I didn’t see the last part.
When I was in my 30s, I grieved his loss. Although I could still see him, hug him, and talk with him, he wasn’t there. Most of the time, he didn’t know who I was. My father had begun a slow descent into Alzheimer’s disease. The gentle, witty person I loved was replaced by a forgetful, depressed, distant, and belligerent man. When these behaviors peaked in 2010, I thought that when he did actually die, I would not mourn because he would be relieved of his suffering. And my family would be relieved of ours. But I was wrong.
Dad recently turned 85. He resides in an assisted living facility. Caregivers surround him with music.
He usually doesn’t recognize me, but he knows the lyrics to almost every song. He has perfect pitch. He cajoles me into singing with him. I never sing in front of anybody! But I can’t resist—he says he’s never heard me sing before.
Last month, Dad asked me if we still go to the movies and the zoo. I said no, but that we do other things together. That day he remembered me: “Little Beth,” he said when I kissed him. My eyes welled with tears that I pushed back. I was quiet. He looked at me and asked what was wrong. “You look sad,” he uttered. I was.
He often asks me: “Why did this happen?” And so begins his painful chanting of unanswerable questions that rip my heart out. “Why can’t they figure out how to cure me? I want to be your old Dad again. What did I do to deserve this? What else can they do for me?” When I say that I don’t know and that there is no cure, he understands. Sometimes he cries.
These glimpses of my father—the moments of joy, the flashes of empathy, the demands to know why—this is my father fighting. He is holding onto everything he has left. This is the torture of being in a black hole. But my old Dad is still in there.
Beth N. Peshkin is the Senior Genetic Counselor and Professor of Oncology at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. She lives in Arlington.
The movie Lee Daniels’ The Butler, about the life of Eugene Allen, who served food and drinks at the White House from 1952 to 1986, is a wonderful window on the 20th-century lives of African-Americans in Washington. Here’s a similar window on Washington, this time down Pennsylvania Avenue at the US Capitol:
In 1949, soon after he was elected senator from Minnesota, Hubert Humphrey took one of his staff, Cyril King, to the Senators’ Dining Room in the Capitol to have lunch and talk of legislative matters. When they got to the door, the head waiter blocked their entrance and said, “Senator, we don’t serve Negroes.” Humphrey said he and his guest were going to have lunch and proceeded to a table, where they were ignored. The head waiter had gone to find senator James Eastland of Mississippi, who headed the committee with oversight of the dining room.
Eastland begrudgingly gave in, and Senator Humphrey and King were served. King, a native Virgin Islander, was later named by John Kennedy, at Humphrey’s urging, to be government secretary, the second highest position in its government. In 1974, King was elected governor of the Virgin Islands.
In 1949, at the time of the Senate restaurant incident, King is thought to have been the only African-American on the professional staff of any United States senator.
In 1964, Senator Humphrey was elected Vice President, and in the next four years he dined often at the White House. Eugene Allen and Vice President Humphrey were together at the White House when President Johnson signed the historic civil rights bills of 1964 and 1965.
Norman Sherman first worked for Hubert Humphrey as a volunteer in Humphrey’s 1954 reelection campaign. He worked in Humphrey’s 1960 effort against John Kennedy to secure the Democratic presidential nomination and joined Humphrey’s Senate staff in 1963. He was Humphrey’s press secretary through most of his vice presidency and during the 1968 presidential campaign. He later edited Humphrey’s autobiography.