An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964

by Todd S. Purdum

An Idea Whose Time Has Come

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NPR Summary

In a layered narrative, Todd 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, Martin Luther King Jr. to Hubert Humphrey, 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.

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Excerpt: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Prologue

FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 22, 1963

Just after 1:30 p.m., in the near-empty chamber of the United States Senate, a handsome, dark-haired freshman was taking his back-bencher's turn at a thankless task: presiding over a desultory debate on the need for federal library services. Edward M. Kennedy, thirty-one years old, had been the junior senator from Massachusetts for barely a year and had yet to make a speech from the floor. Suddenly, Richard Riedel, a Senate press liaison who had first come to the Capitol a half century earlier as a nine-year-old page, came running onto the Senate floor, in a breach of all decorum. He rushed for the rostrum and told the presiding officer, "The most horrible thing has happened! It's terrible, terrible!"

Kennedy, who had been signing letters and autographing photographs, paused to ask, "What is it?"

"Your brother," Riedel began, before remembering that the senator had two brothers. "Your brother the president. He's been shot." Riedel had seen the news on the Associated Press ticker in the Senators' Lobby, the long corridor behind the chamber, and immediately began spreading the news. Kennedy leaped up and ran toward his own office, followed by David Schoumacher, a young CBS News reporter who had started work that very week. "I don't know anything," Kennedy told him. "I just heard."

A few blocks down Massachusetts Avenue, at the Chilean embassy, Senator Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota, who had lost the 1960 Democratic nomination to John F. Kennedy after hard-fought primaries in Wisconsin and West Virginia, was sitting down with his wife, Muriel, at a luncheon in honor of the ambassador of Australia. The other guests included Ralph Dungan, a special assistant to President Kennedy, and Edward P. Morgan, a veteran broadcast reporter working for ABC News. An urgent telephone call summoned Morgan away from the table with the same bulletin from Dallas. He returned and told Humphrey, and together they called Dungan into a space outside the dining room. After what seemed an interminable delay, Dungan confirmed the news with the Secret Service and left for the White House. Humphrey remained, heading to his car parked in front of the embassy to listen for updates on the radio.

Across the Potomac River in McLean, Virginia, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who two days earlier had turned thirty-eight years old, was at home taking a break from a daylong conference on organized crime. He was having lunch with his friend Robert Morgenthau, the United States attorney in Manhattan, eating a tuna fish sandwich, when the telephone rang by his backyard pool. At the other end of the line was the formidable director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, already in his fortieth year as head of the nation's most powerful law enforcement agency. His voice was cold, his manner curt. "I have news for you," he said. "The president's been shot."

The attorney general struggled to understand. "What? Oh—I—is it serious?" he stammered.

"I think it is serious," Hoover replied. "I am endeavoring to get details. I'll call you back when I find out more."

In Atlanta, Martin Luther King Jr., the thirty-four-year-old preacher who for nearly a decade had been leading his nonviolent campaign for civil rights in cities across the South, was under the weather and watching television at home in bed. He had special reason to be grateful to President Kennedy, whose intercession and dramatic phone call to his wife, Coretta, during the 1960 campaign had helped secure King's release from jail after he was arrested at a lunch counter sit-in at an Atlanta department store and sentenced to hard labor. Now, King called out to his wife, who was on the phone downstairs, "Corrie, I just heard that Kennedy has been shot, maybe killed." And then he told her, "Oh, I hope that he will live, this is just terrible. I think that if he lives, if he pulls through this, it will help him to understand better what we go through."

✻ ✻ ✻

As the minutes ticked by toward 2:00 p.m. Washington time, and then 2:30, Ted Kennedy raced on foot through the streets of his Georgetown neighborhood with his aide Milt Gwirtzman, trying in vain to find a working phone. A mass of sudden midday calls to share the news from Texas had overwhelmed the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Company's entire system.

At 2:35, United Press International moved its definitive flash from Dallas: president kennedy dead. In McLean, Bob Kennedy heard the news in a phone call from Taz Shepard, the president's naval aide, and then in another abrupt call from Director Hoover, who simply said, "The president's dead," and hung up. (Robert Kennedy would later say that Hoover had seemed "not quite as excited as if he were reporting the fact that he had found a Communist on the faculty of Howard University.")

At the Chilean embassy, Hubert Humphrey received confirmation from Ralph Dungan at the White House and announced the news to the luncheon guests. Then he broke down in tears. Unsure of what else to do, he headed to the Northwest Gate of the White House and into Dungan's office in the West Wing, where a group including a young assistant secretary of labor named Daniel Patrick Moynihan had gathered. "What have they done to us?" Humphrey cried out. Later he would recall, "For most of us who gathered there, there was nothing, really, to do. The fact of his death was so overwhelming; yet in this house where he worked, ate, slept, played with his kids, it was impossible to think of him in the past tense. The reality was so horrendous that the whole atmosphere, paradoxically, took on an unreal quality."

In the Senate, it was the Republican minority leader, Everett McKinley Dirksen, a sixty-seven-year-old small-town boy from Pekin, Illinois, who had to make a motion for adjournment because the Democratic majority leader, Mike Mansfield of Montana, was too overcome. The scene was so chaotic that the journal of official proceedings does not even mention the reason for the break. Dirksen, who had once practiced before his family's cows the florid oratory that would make him known as "the Wizard of Ooze," had engaged President Kennedy, his former Senate colleague, with affectionate badinage, and just that fall he had helped the president gain the Senate's assent to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Now he was a visage of melancholy, his jowly face contorted and gray with grief. He told reporters, "Only someone suffering from aberrations of personality and motivated by insane passion would be guilty of the assassination of the great leader of the greatest country on earth."

In the Senators' Lobby, with its big leather chairs and racks of out-of-town newspapers, a knot of members clustered around the Associated Press wire ticker. In the center was sixty-six-year-old Richard Brevard Russell Jr. of Georgia, a stern bachelor who was the master of the chamber's rules, the mentor to younger Democrats, the leader of the conservative southern caucus—and no great booster of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. As the bulletins came in from Dallas, Russell read them aloud, and his voice began to waver with each new bit of bad news, until finally the tears ran down his face.

The crusty House Republican leader, Charles A. Halleck of Indiana, a self-described "gut-fighter" who only the day before had excoriated the president's legislative record, now insisted: "The world should know that in this hour of national tragedy Americans stand together as one—shocked and grieved at this incredible news. Political differences had no part in the personal affection I felt for President Kennedy—an affection I have reason to believe the president felt for me."

In Atlanta, Martin King told his wife, "This is what's going to happen to me. This is such a sick society."

King was especially crushed, because he felt that John Kennedy was finally coming around on civil rights. The previous June, on the same night that Governor George C. Wallace had sought unsuccessfully to block the integration of the University of Alabama, Kennedy had made a nationally televised speech, at last pledging his administration's support for the kind of comprehensive civil rights bill that King and others had been demanding for years. Three months later, after the murder of four little girls in a bombing at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, King thought that Kennedy had showed renewed resolve to see the bill enacted.

The next month, on October 29, the civil rights bill, H.R. 7152, passed the House Judiciary Committee, with crucial help from its ranking Republican member, Representative William M. McCulloch of Ohio, who called Kennedy's assassination "a tragic death, especially for one so young, who had so much to do and, for the doing, he had so little time."

But on this November afternoon, the bill lay bottled up in the House Rules Committee, whose chairman, eighty-year-old Representative Howard W. Smith of Virginia, an ardent segregationist, had announced his intention to keep it there indefinitely. Now, King thought, the world would never get to see what history might have had in store had Kennedy lived.

Clarence Mitchell, the chief Washington lobbyist for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the nation's oldest and largest civil rights group, had been working tirelessly on behalf of H.R. 7152, and his organization issued a statement saying that President Kennedy's "consistent commitment to and espousal of basic human rights for all earned the undying enmity of frantic and loathsome bigots," and adding, "We have no doubt that the assassin was motivated by a hatred of the president's ideals."

That night, when Jacqueline Kennedy had returned from Texas and was grieving at Bethesda Naval Hospital as doctors conducted an autopsy on her murdered husband, she also thought of civil rights, but she was brought up short when Bob Kennedy explained that the president's presumed assassin was a pro-Cuban Communist sympathizer, not a right-winger. "He didn't even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights," the First Lady told her mother, Janet Auchincloss. "It's—it had to be some silly little Communist."

But Martin King and Jackie Kennedy weren't counting on another figure in that day's drama, another man in the motorcade in Dallas, who had just become the nation's thirty-sixth president: Lyndon Baines Johnson of Texas. Together with the crucial, indispensable support of King, Mitchell, Bob Kennedy, Humphrey, Halleck, McCulloch, and Dirksen—and over the relentless opposition of Russell—Johnson was about to make some history of his own. And the civil rights bill would be at its very heart.

This is the story of the legislative and political battle to pass that bill. As such, it is largely the story of the words and actions of white men, who, with rare exceptions in 1963 and 1964, possessed the sole official agency to enact—or block—any such law, at a time when just five of the 535 members of Congress were black. The American civil rights movement was a massive grassroots effort, involving tens of thousands of black and white citizens, whose labors over many decades had aroused the nation's conscience and spurred demands for legal change that made the Civil Rights Act of 1964 possible. But paradoxically, the bill itself was proposed and passed mostly by men whose personal acquaintance with black Americans was limited to their own domestic servants and the leaders of the movement who had provided the moral impetus and historical argument for its fierce necessity. Its passage was, in that sense, all the more remarkable.

✻ ✻ ✻

Two days after Kennedy's funeral, President Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress in the Capitol that had been his professional home for thirty-two years. "All I have I would have given gladly not to be standing here today," he told his former colleagues and the noontime national television audience tuning in for its first extended look at the new president. "The greatest leader of our time has been struck down by the foulest deed of our time." He invoked the passage in the martyred president's inaugural address in which Kennedy had acknowledged that his agenda would not be finished "in the first thousand days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet," but had nevertheless insisted, "Let us begin." Johnson now said, "Let us continue."

The new president went on to add, "No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long. We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for a hundred years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law."

Johnson was a most unlikely tribune for the cause he now espoused. A southerner born just eight years into the twentieth century, he still talked in private about "Nigras," in terms that would not have pleased Martin Luther King or the NAACP, or the editorial board of the New York Times, for that matter. As Senate majority leader, he had helped pass the first serious civil rights legislation of modern times in 1957, but to gain its passage he had arranged for it to be so watered down as to make it all but unenforceable in actual practice across the South. For Johnson's whole time in the Senate, Richard Russell had been his particular teacher and cherished friend, and Russell was perhaps the Senate's single most influential supporter of segregation and its most skilled opponent of civil rights legislation.

But in fact, Johnson's views on civil rights had been evolving for years. Now they had hardened into certitude that the time had come for change. Within days of the assassination, he was telling friends, "I'm going to be the president who finishes what Lincoln began." And he summoned Russell to the White House for a blunt talking-to. "Dick," Johnson said, "you've got to get out of my way. I'm going to run over you. I don't intend to cavil or compromise."

"Well, Mr. President, you may well do that," Russell replied. "But if you do, you'll not only lose this election, you will lose the South forever."

Johnson did not disagree with Russell's political analysis. He also knew that because of Russell's stance, passing a civil rights bill would depend on strong Republican support, support that was far from assured. But he thought that the passage of comprehensive civil rights legislation was vital precisely because it might act as a balm for the climate of hate and extremism that was then being widely blamed for the Kennedy assassination—and because it was a key to establishing his own credibility to pursue his other ambitious goals. He could not know that the assassination marked just the latest twist in a period of civic unrest and political tumult unrivaled since the Civil War itself. Or that some aspects of the proposed civil rights bill would still be debated in national politics nearly fifty years into the future. Or that a child in Hawaii named Barack Hussein Obama, who was two years, three months, and eighteen days old on November 22, would one day be president of the United States.

Johnson could not even know that over the next seven months, H.R. 7152—"An act to enforce the constitutional right to vote, to confer jurisdiction upon the district courts of the United States of America to provide relief against discrimination in public accommodations, to authorize the Attorney General to institute suits to protect constitutional rights in public facilities and public education," among other things—would consume the country. He could not know that it would prompt the longest debate in the history of his beloved Senate, lasting not quite two minutes more than 534 hours. He could not know that the debate would contribute to one of the great, early running stories in television news, or that the bill's final passage would coincide with the brutal murder of three young civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

All Johnson could know for certain that grim November was that after three decades in politics—three decades of arm twisting and nose counting and vote seeking, compromise and guile—he had at last reached the top of the heap and was his own man, no longer a congressman from the Hill Country of Texas or even a senator from the Lone Star Republic, but the president of all these United States. And he was determined to see what he could do with the job.

"The endless abrasions of delay, neglect and indifference have rubbed raw the national conscience," Johnson told a group of labor leaders days after the assassination. "We have talked too long, we have done too little. And all of it has come too late. You must help me make civil rights in America a reality."

At a meeting that December, when Roy Wilkins, the executive secretary of the NAACP, asked him why he was supporting civil rights legislation after so many years of comparative indifference, Johnson paused before replying, in phrases made famous by Martin Luther King himself: "You will recognize the words I'm about to repeat," the president said, " 'Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I'm free at last.' "

From An Idea Whose Time Has Come by Tom Purdum. Copyright © 2014 by Todd S. Purdum. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Co.

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