The Politics Of Passing 1964's Civil Rights Act The act, which turned 50 last year, ended the era of legal segregation in public accommodations, like restaurants and hotels. Author Todd Purdum talks about the battles that surrounded it.

The Politics Of Passing 1964's Civil Rights Act

The Politics Of Passing 1964's Civil Rights Act

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The act, which turned 50 last year, ended the era of legal segregation in public accommodations, like restaurants and hotels. Author Todd Purdum talks about the battles that surrounded it.

Originally broadcast Jan. 20, 2014.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The film "Selma," which is nominated for an Oscar for best picture, has reawakened interest in the relationship between Martin Luther King and President Lyndon Johnson and the pressure the civil rights movement exerted on the president and Congress to move forward with civil rights legislation, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965. On this Presidents' Day, we're going to hear about the legislative and political battle to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Martin Luther King didn't have a vote in Congress, but the bill wouldn't even have been introduced without him and the movement that he helped lead. The Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination in public accommodations, including restaurants, hotels and motels, ending the era of legal segregation in those places. Our guest, Todd Purdum, is the author of the book, "An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, And The Battle For The Civil Rights Act Of 1964." The two presidents are Kennedy and Johnson. I spoke with Purdum last year, a few weeks before the book was published. The book will be published in paperback next month. Todd Purdum, welcome to FRESH AIR. What would you describe as the biggest changes that were brought about by the Civil Rights Act?

TODD PURDUM: In a very real sense, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 created modern America - the things we take for granted today - people in restaurants and hotels and motels and transportation, enjoying it regardless of race - the things my children take absolutely for granted. It's hard to remember that just 50 years ago, they were anything but taken for granted, and people were literally fighting and dying for them. So in a very important way, this law, which is often called the most important law of the 20th century, created the world we live in today.

GROSS: What were some of the actions of the civil rights movement that were most effective in pushing President Kennedy to move forward with civil rights legislation?

PURDUM: Well, beginning early in his administration with the sit-ins at lunch counters around the South, and then the freedom rides to integrate interstate transportation of buses and so forth. And finally, the most dramatic of all was in the spring of 1963, under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King and others of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Birmingham, the demonstrations, particularly those involving children and young people who were brutally turned-back by police dogs and fire hoses - high-pressure hoses - hundred pounds per square inch of water knocking them to the ground, tearing off their clothing.

And these images went all over national television, all over the world media, the front pages of newspapers all around the world. And it shocked President Kennedy, and it shocked the country. And frankly, it shocked a large segment of the American population who did not live in the South, who did not have large black populations in their states or areas. And it pricked the conscious of, really, right-thinking people all over the world. And that was, I think - most people agree that was the thing that really got the ball rolling on the legislation.

GROSS: But President Kennedy had serious reservations about pushing civil rights legislation during what he thought would be his first term. He thought he might serve a second and that the bill would be better served in his second term. What were his reservations?

PURDUM: Well, in that era, we must remember, the Congress, and particularly the Senate, was completely controlled by the southern delegations who were adamantly opposed to integration. And President Kennedy wanted a lot of other programs, including a tax cut. He wanted support for his foreign-policy, for things like the space race, for other programs of, you know, income redistribution and, you know, help for poor people and so forth. And so he felt that - the Peace Corps - he didn't want to jeopardize any of those other programs, many of which were, you know, liberal in their intent, by giving the Southerners an excuse to fight him on civil rights. So while he personally was appalled, I think, by segregation, and was - also felt it gave America a very big black eye in the Cold War. He was horrified at the exploitation that the Soviets were able to make of the situation here at home. He was very cautious about moving too quickly.

GROSS: So how did he end up moving forward?

PURDUM: Well, in the end, he moved forward because events forced his hand. He and his brother, the Attorney General Robert Kennedy, realized that the only way they had a chance, they felt, of stopping these demonstrations that were sweeping across the country and prompting violent backlash from both southern officialdom and average citizens in the South, particularly, was to propose a new law that would end the discrimination, that would end the cause of the unrest. And I think they were persuaded, in many senses, that this would be a practical way to calm the situation down.

And so it's interesting, Nicholas Katzenbach, who was the deputy attorney general at the time, told me shortly before he died that he did believe that part of the impulse among members of Congress for passing the law was not necessarily highly idealistic, but was in some ways practical to kind of calm the waters and put an end to these demonstrations, which, of course, continued all throughout the '60s and in some ways, you know, spiraled out of control later on in the decade into riots.

GROSS: So when the bill is its early stages, the march on Washington happens. And in the planning stages, President Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy, who was the attorney general, were very worried about the march. What were their concerns, and what did they tell the civil rights leaders?

PURDUM: First of all, they didn't want violence. That was their nightmare, that somehow, there could be scenes of violence playing out on the streets of Washington. They didn't want a march on the Capitol, in the hallways of the Capitol. They didn't want anything that smacked of an invasion. They didn't want otherwise persuadable senators and congressmen to be turned off by seeming to have a gun to their head from people, you know, invading their offices.

So what they ended up doing was co-opting the march and essentially taking over the part of the organization that involved government entities, and the police and the military and so forth, and making sure that it could be as efficiently and effectively run as possible and that it would be a success. Once they failed in their effort to sort of postpone it or block it, they determined that it should be a big success, which, of course, it was.

GROSS: What was their criteria for calling it a success?

PURDUM: Well, I think for the organizers, they wanted a large turnout. They hoped for a hundred thousand people. They got 200,000 people. For the Kennedys, they wanted a peaceful day that demonstrated the bipartisan, biracial, interracial, interfaith nature of the movement, and as these images were broadcast on television and in film newsreels around the world, the message that it sent was, there was tremendous unification, unity, harmony behind the goal of bringing justice in the law to black and white America. And I think they - at the end of the day, you know, President Kennedy greeted the marchers and Dr. King at the White House and shook King's hand and said, I have a dream.

GROSS: Did the Kennedys try to vet any of the speeches?

PURDUM: Absolutely. They, particularly Congressman - now Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, was then a young activist for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And he had a speech draft that included words like revolution and radical and masses and he attacked the civil rights bill as too little, too late and said that his organization couldn't support it. And he vowed to march through the South, through the heart of Dixie the way Sherman did. Well, this was too much for the Catholic archbishop of Washington who'd agreed to deliver the invocation, and he said that if Lewis used those kinds of words, he'd get up and leave the platform.

So behind the scenes at the Lincoln Memorial, behind the statue of Lincoln, older civil rights leaders, including Philip Randolph, persuaded John Lewis to tone his rhetoric down. And in the end of the day, he still made an incredibly beautiful, forceful speech in which he said, we will not stop. If we do not get meaningful legislation out of this Congress, the time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington.

GROSS: So the bill originates in the House, and what was originally in the bill. Can you give us a synopsis of that?

PURDUM: Well, there were basically about seven main provisions. The first would have enforced the right to vote in federal elections, and it would, regardless of race. The second was the one you mentioned. It would outlaw discrimination at hotels, motels, restaurants, and it would exempt private clubs without precisely defining them. The third would allow the attorney general to bring suits to desegregate public schools. The fourth would establish a community relations service to help individuals and communities in resolving racial disputes in their own localities. And the fifth would extend the life of the civil rights commission, which had been created originally by the 1957 Civil Rights Act, the first real loss since Reconstruction to try to get at this question. The sixth would prohibit discrimination in federally assisted programs in states and localities and allow the federal government to cut off money to, say, school districts or municipalities that discriminated. And the seventh would create an equal opportunity employment commission to address discrimination by government contractors. But that was controversial because it didn't include the real teeth that some of the most ardent civil rights supporters wanted. It didn't include a real regulatory scheme to let that commission sanction private businesses and so forth and so on.

GROSS: So how does that compare to the bill that finally passed?

PURDUM: The bill that finally passed had virtually all those elements and virtually all of them, in one way or another, were strengthened, particularly, in the end, there was an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission with greater teeth. And in the end, the compromise involved letting disputes be heard in federal courts so that both sides could have their say. But there were more teeth in the measure than in the initial one. So the miracle is that the pattern had been, with most civil rights laws up to that point, they either failed completely or got watered-down during their march to passage. This one, in many ways, actually got stronger than the original bill.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Todd Purdum. We're talking about his new book about the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The book is called "An Idea Whose Time Has Come." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Todd Purdum. And we're talking about his book, which is called "An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, And The Battle For The Civil Rights Act Of 1964.

As the bill is making its way through Congress, Hoover - J. Edgar Hoover, then the head of the FBI, is bugging Martin Luther King's adviser and friend Stanley David Levison.


GROSS: And then he started warning the Kennedys that Levison was a communist. And the Kennedys were already a little concerned, probably because of Hoover, that the civil rights movement was under the sway of communism. So how were the Kennedys affected by this information that they were getting from Hoover, which wasn't even true because although Levison - you're right - had been, like, sympathetic to or affiliated with the Communist Party, he was no longer.

PURDUM: Yeah, by this time - what J. Edgar Hoover never totally the administration - is that by this time, the FBI had evidence that Levison had completely stopped his financial support for the Communist Party in the United States and instead had transferred his efforts to Martin Luther King's own crusade. So the effect it had was - this warning about communism - remember, at the height of the Cold War, at height of, you know, just months after the Cuban missile crisis - this made the Kennedys so nervous that if Martin Luther King, you know, could be seen as having anything like communist associations, that if they were too closely associated with him, it could hurt them terribly in the public eye. So it really drove a lot of their dealings with him and it drove their keeping him at arms' length. And, frankly, they were operating under a good deal of misinformation because J. Edgar Hoover was giving them misinformation on purpose because he was so offended by King and so offended by King's crusade for racial equality, and also because he was so paranoid about any potential communist affiliation. But let's be honest, the civil rights movement from the, you know, Depression on did get help from leftist American movements at a time when it wasn't getting help from mainstream groups elsewhere in the country. So it wouldn't have been disqualifying in Martin Luther King's eyes to take support from leftist liberal groups because they were the ones who are going to help.

GROSS: So the Kennedys knew that Hoover was bugging Martin Luther King. And you write, letting Hoover build his file on King was the price the Kennedys paid for protecting the president's political future and the civil rights bill's prospects. Explain that.

PURDUM: Well, first of all, we have to remember that the Kennedys also knew that J. Edgar Hoover knew a lot of things about the president's own personal life. And his sexual indiscretions dating back to World War II when he was dating a young woman that Hoover thought was a possibly German spy. So the Kennedys knew that Hoover had a voluminous file on JFK and might try to use it against him. So whenever Hoover asked for authority to wiretap King or - Bobby Kennedy did not immediately grant it, but when Hoover asked for authority to conduct surveillance on the civil rights movement, generally speaking, the Kennedy administration gave him that permission because they felt that if they did not, he would leak damaging information about Martin Luther King and the movement to the public, which would make it, you know, much, much harder to get any progress. Of course, the other side of that coin is if the civil rights workers themselves, if King and the movement, had known the degree to which the Kennedy administration was complicit in this bugging, the Kennedys would have lost all credibility with the pro-civil rights movement and would have, you know, it would've been an absolute political disaster for them.

GROSS: What were reactions within the civil rights movement to the civil rights bill that was working its way through Congress? Were there divisions about whether it was strong enough?

PURDUM: Yes, there were intense divisions about whether it was strong enough. When it was first proposed, I would say the most ardent civil rights advocates felt it was too little too late, sort of half a loaf. It was not strong enough and, in fact, they worked in the House very hard to make it stronger. The fear of the Kennedys was that if it got too many elements in it, if it was made too strong, it wouldn't be able to pass the House - the whole House - much less pass the Senate. So in the fall of 1963, they really faced a kind of agonizing problem. Their liberal allies had made their bill stronger, but the Republicans, who support they absolutely needed to pass it, were warning that this would doom it to failure, first in the House and then in the Senate. So President Kennedy in that fall, that October of 1963, had to really undertake a delicate dance to make the bill strong enough to please the civil rights groups or at least to be acceptable to them, while not having so many elements in it that it would be immediately shut down in Congress.

GROSS: What was the status of the civil rights bill when President Kennedy was assassinated?

PURDUM: It had passed the House Judiciary Committee by a whisker kind of a way with President Kennedy's help in the end of October. And it was hung up in the House Rules Committee, which as we know is the committee that sets the ground rules, the guidelines, for debate of a bill on the House floor. The House is so big, with 435 members, that it can't have unlimited debate the way the Senate does. It can't have kind of freewheeling debate. So every bill that comes to the House has a tightly proscripted pattern of debate and rules for the how many minutes and so forth are set to do it. And the chairman of that committee was an 80-year-old man from Virginia named Howard Smith, who was an infamous segregationist and infamous conservative Democrat, whose favorite way of blocking a bill was simply to retreat to his farm in Fauquier County, Va., and take no action at all. And that's really where things stood on November 22, 1963 when President Kennedy was assassinated.

GROSS: So after Kennedy's assassination, when Johnson becomes president, Johnson pledges to make civil rights a priority, to make passage of the bill a priority. And he says, like, nothing's going to happen in Congress until this bill is passed. But didn't Johnson advise Kennedy not to move forward with the civil rights bill in his first term?

PURDUM: He had been careful to advise him that if he moved forward with it, he should first get the rest of his legislative program in line. He should first get the tax cut passed. He should first get some of these other priorities taken care of so they would not be then held hostage to civil rights. But the interesting thing is that while he had a reputation among civil rights groups, particularly because of his work as Senate majority leader in 1957 and 1960 civil rights bills, he had a reputation of watering down such legislation in order to get it passed. By 1963, he had actually become a very strong supporter of civil rights. And that spring, he had made a series of speeches that went way beyond anything the president had said to that point and that, in fact, discomforted the White House and the attorney general because he was so outspoken. So what happened in the wake of the assassination was that Johnson realized he could not do anything else that he cared about in his presidency if he didn't establish his bona fides, his undisputed credentials, on civil rights. So he vowed to finish the job that Kennedy had started and to make it his absolutely top priority. And for the next 10 months, that's what he did.

GROSS: So when Johnson becomes president, the civil rights bill is still stuck in the Rules Committee. What was Johnson's strategy to get it out?

PURDUM: There were a number of strategies, but one of the strategies that he chose to pursue was to put pressure on Chairman Smith by circulating what's known as a discharge petition in which if a majority of the members of the House - that would be 218 - wanted to call a bill out of the committee and put it directly on the House floor, it could happen. It was a very rare procedure, almost never happened. And most people in the leadership of Congress did not like it because it usurped the prerogatives of chairman, it bypassed the normal procedures. And in those days, Washington was much, much more traditional in terms of seniority and procedures in Congress. And it was just something that nobody was very much in favor of. But what happened was that because word got out that Johnson was considering this possibility and was rounding up support for it, there was another mechanism in which members of the Rules Committee itself could force the chairman to hold hearings and take a vote, and that's what happened because of the pressure that Johnson began applying.

GROSS: So once the civil rights bill gets out of the Rules Committee and onto the House floor, the concern of the advocates of this bill was that it would be watered down by segregationists, who would add amendment after amendment, making the bill weaker. And so what was that fight like between the House members who opposed the bill and those who supported the bill? What was the strategy on each side?

PURDUM: Well, it was a kind of a wonderful scene because the House debated bills like that in those days in what was known as the committee of the whole so that members would not have to take recorded votes on amendments. And the challenge, therefore, was to keep hostile forces, keep the segregationists from loading the bill up with amendments that would weaken it. And to do that, the pro-civil rights forces had to set up a system in the galleries of the House, kind of an early version of a human beeper system, in which they sent young people around to the hallways of the House office buildings whenever a vote was getting ready to happen and make sure that they could round up friendly members and bring them to the floor so that they could defend the bill. And this effort was led by a young woman from the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers named Jane O'Grady. She's still alive, living in Washington. And her group became quickly known as O'Grady's Raiders. And they would go around from office to office rounding up members. And by the second or third day the members were so aware that they were doing this, they said, come on, come on, I'm on my way, don't worry about it. But it was really - it was a crazy idea, she said, but it worked.

GROSS: So one of the big changes to the Civil Rights Act that happened in the House was that women were added as a protected class in the bill. So you couldn't discriminate against women in employment?

PURDUM: Yes, that was the work of Chairman Smith of the Rules Committee, who thought that by including sex as a protected category, it would be a poison pill and he could doom the bill because his male chauvinist colleagues would not want to gum up a civil rights bill with protecting the fairer sex. And in fact, the women in Congress immediately rose up, of both parties, Republican and Democrats, and said for Pete's sake, we need this. We don't cause you any problem. You know, this would be a very important thing to do. And so, in fact, it passed, as we know. It then became one of the most important parts of employment discrimination law in the 20th century, and it all happened because, in a sense, of the maliciousness of Chairman Smith, who wanted to block the bill.

GROSS: We'll hear more of my interview with Todd Purdum after a break. He'll tell us some of the things said by senators who opposed the civil rights bill. Things it's tragic to think could actually be said on the Senate floor. Purdum is the author of "An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, And The Battle For The Civil Rights Act Of 1964." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. On this Presidents Day, we're talking about the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which ended legal segregation in public places. My guest, Todd Purdum, is the author of the book "An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, And The Battle For The Civil Rights Act Of 1964." The two presidents are JFK and LBJ. The book will be published in paperback next month. When we left off, we were talking about how the Civil Rights bill made its way through the House.

So somebody who you give a lot of credit to the passage of the Civil Rights Act is somebody who isn't really very well known, and that's Congressman Bill McCulloch. Tell us what his role was in shepherding the bill through the House.

PURDUM: Well, he was a rock-ribbed Republican from a conservative district in West Central, Ohio. His hometown of Piqua is now represented by John Boehner. And he was against government spending, against foreign aid - all the things we think of as being conservative. But he was also the descendent of pre-Civil War abolitionists, and he'd always been a strong supporter of civil rights. So by 1963, he was the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, and he believed that the time had come for a big, comprehensive bill. But he didn't want to have happen what usually had happened, which was to have the House pass a strong bill and see it watered down and frittered away in the Senate. So McCulloch told the Kennedy administration that he would take the lead in supporting the bill in the House if the administration would promise to stick by that bill in the Senate - not see it watered down by a bunch of weakening amendments - and, moreover, would be willing to give the Repub for helping to pass it. So in a strange way this one congressman from Ohio drove the whole train and ultimately set up the strategy that would force the administration, and later the Johnson administration, to try to break the filibuster in the Senate, which was something that had never been successfully done on a civil rights bill. And he had a population, Terry, in his district - a black population of less than 3 percent. But he just believed that this was the right thing to do, and he stuck by his guns all through the debate. And he carried along with him the entire House Republican leadership simply because of his stature as the ranking member on the committee and because of his strong passion and reasonableness on the question.

GROSS: So the bill finally, you know, passes the House. Let's talk about what happened to the Civil Rights bill as it made its way through the Senate. Hubert Humphrey - Senator Hubert Humphrey was the bill's floor manager. He was the one with the responsibility of shepherding the bill through the Southern Democrats' filibusters. What were some of the more memorable things that were said against civil rights and in support of segregation during the filibuster?

PURDUM: Well, it's almost unbelievable to go back and look at the congressional record and see some of the things that were said in broad daylight on the floor of the Senate just 50 years ago. For example, one of my favorites, there was an exchange between Senator Russell Long of Louisiana and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina about whether or not it was unfair to use cattle prods on demonstrators. And Russell Long says to Strom Thurmond (reading) is the senator familiar with the fact that the prod sticks are not designed for cattle but are designed for exactly the kind of animals they are touching, namely reluctant human beings who insist on getting in the way of a policeman?

And Strom Thurmond replies (reading) there's not very much electricity in one. I remember once going through a secret organization ceremonial, a fraternal organization. There was a man after me with one of those sticks and I ran for about 100 yards. I had to run fast to keep ahead of that stick because while it mostly tickled, it tickled pretty much.

I mean, when you read those kinds of things, and even in the cold type of the congressional record, the hair on the back of your neck goes up a little bit to think that people were willing to say it in public.

GROSS: What else?

PURDUM: Herman Talmadge of Georgia called the Civil Rights Act a bill to regulate the American people. John McClellan of Arkansas said it was the discrimination act of 1964. Russell Long also said (reading) the good Lord did as much segregating as anyone I know of when he put one race in one part of the world and another race in one part of the world. We folks in the South are not hypocrites about this matter. We think it's absolutely desirable that the white people should continue to be white and that their children and grandchildren would be the same, and we let our children know we think just that.

Paul Douglas of Illinois, a liberal Democrat, replied to that, you know, (reading) Senator, there has been a lot of mixing of the races in the South and most of it has occurred not initiated by the Negroes.

So, you know, you can go page after page of that kind of stuff.

GROSS: And Strom Thurmond spoke skeptically of the constitutionality of the entire 14th Amendment, shocking Hubert Humphrey with that statement. What was his grounds for that?

PURDUM: Yeah, yeah. He said, you know, it had been passed in the wake, in the blood of the Civil War, and he wasn't really sure that it was valid. The whole thrust of this debate was that 100 years after it ended, the Civil War was really being re-fought in the corridors of Congress, and the Southerners were giving their last stand and they knew it. Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, who was really the leader in the Senate of the opposition to the bill, he knew that his day was passing. He knew that segregation was ending. He confessed to constituencies - to constituents and other civil rights advocates that, you know, he was fighting a losing battle, but he felt he had to do it. And in part he felt he had to do it because if the Southerners made their stand and did their best to defeat the bill and it passed anyway, then their constituents at home would know that the bill had been won fair and square and they would have to support it, and in fact that's what happened.

GROSS: President Johnson told Hubert Humphrey, who was trying to move the Civil Rights Act through the Senate and get it passed - Johnson told him you can't pass the bill unless you get Senator Everett Dirksen, and in order to get him, you have to give him a piece of the action. What did Johnson mean and what piece of the action did they give Dirksen?

PURDUM: Well, Senator Dirksen was the Republican minority leader. He was from Illinois. He was by far the most colorful senator of his day. He smoked incessantly, drank constantly. He gargled every day with a swallow of Pond's cold cream and water, which he swallowed. And he was known - he had an incredibly mellifluous voice and was known as the Wizard of Ooze. He felt, despite his long support in Congress and the Senate for most civil rights measures, that he did not get enough credit with constituents in Illinois, particularly black constituents in Chicago and elsewhere for that position. And when President Kennedy proposed the bill, Dirksen announced that he was generally supportive of it, but he had big doubts about two sections - section two, the one on public accommodations.

GROSS: Which is a pretty important section.

PURDUM: That was really the heart...

GROSS: Centerpiece of it, yeah.

PURDUM: Really the heart of the bill. And Title VII, which was the one on employment discrimination. And part of Dirksen's objection there was states like Illinois, Northern states, already had strong anti-discrimination laws on employment. And he was worried in that classic Republican way about bureaucratic overlap, federal overreach. He did not want businessmen in Illinois to be have to - keeping two sets of books: one for the state law, one for the federal law. So he and his lawyers on his staff determined to figure out how they could work to clarify some of that. And, as a symbolic matter, Humphrey gave Dirksen tremendous credit at every turn. Meetings of bipartisan negotiating sessions were held in Dirksen's office as a sign of respect so that Dirksen could say to his own constituents and his own caucus in the Republican Senate that he was working to make changes in the bill. And in the end what happened was that Dirksen made dozens and dozens of mostly picayune - small - changes to the bill and was able to persuade his members that he had in fact made - what the effect of what he did was to make the bill mostly apply to the South and to exempt estates in the North, like his own of Illinois which already had strong anti-discrimination laws, from some of the bill's provisions. And the administration - the Johnson administration was willing to accept that because the real - what they saw as the real problem they had to address immediately was the legalized segregation in the South, and they would worry about the sort of de facto segregation in the North later.

GROSS: President Johnson's official position was he would not compromise on the bill. It had to be the bill that was sent to Congress. And he told - you quote him as telling Hubert Humphrey, I am against any amendments. I'm going to be against them right up until I sign them.

PURDUM: That's one of my favorite - one of my favorite lines from LBJ. In fact, the remarkable thing about LBJ is how restrained he was able to be. He wanted the Senate to hold round-the-clock sessions. He wanted to exhaust the members and wear them down into passing the bill. Humphrey and the Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield thought that would be a bad idea, that it would only - it might actually kill some of the older senators. And you can see in the White House secret recordings that Johnson made his frustration with his fellow Democrats. And you can see day after day that he is just chomping at the bit, wanting to go down there himself and knock heads together, but he doesn't.

And so while in history, and in the sort of popular mythology, the Civil Rights bill is sometimes seen as the almost single-handed work of President Johnson. I really think his most remarkable accomplishment was twofold - one, as you say, he said, we're not wavering; we're going to pass this strong bill; we're going to pass the bill as it is; I'm not going to compromise; I'm not going to wheel and deal. But the second thing was that he was restrained, and it must have taken enormous act of will to restrain the force of his personality from meddling too much, because he knew that his former colleagues would resent very deeply if he tried to be senator and president at the same time, that the roles are different and they knew that and he knew that.

GROSS: So was it because of Dirksen's compromises and then Dirksen's ability to get votes for the Civil Rights Act that the act actually passed? Like, how much credit do you give the Dirksen compromises?

PURDUM: I think you have to give Dirksen an enormous amount of credit, but there's another factor at work that was helping Dirksen. And that is a massive grassroots lobbying campaign by churches, synagogues and interfaith groups of every stripe who were lobbying members - particularly members of the Senate from Midwestern and Great Plains states - who did not have many black people in their states but had a lot of Methodists and Catholics and Baptists and were susceptible to pressure from religious leaders. And there's a wonderful line Senator Karl Mundt of South Dakota is saying - one day he's overheard having taken a vote to support the bill - I hope that satisfies those two damn bishops who called me last night. So Dirksen had tremendous help from the grassroots movement that was spread all across the Midwest.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Todd Purdum. We're talking about his book called "An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, And The Battle For The Civil Rights Act Of 1964." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest Todd Purdum is the author of the book "An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, And The Battle For The Civil Rights Act Of 1964." You know, we're used to tight votes being - or any votes in Congress being divided according to Democrats and Republicans. But that's not exactly how the division was in the civil rights bill in 1964. Give us a sense of what the final vote was.

PURDUM: The final bill passed the Senate 73 to 27 with 27 Republican votes. That's remarkable. There were only 33 Republicans in the Senate. So an overwhelming majority of Republicans supported the bill, whereas 18 Democrats, segregationists, opposed it. So in proportional terms, the Republicans did far more to support the bill than the Democrats did as a whole.

GROSS: So once the bill is passed, then the next big decision for President Johnson is, when does he sign the bill? He wanted to sign it immediately. He wanted to sign it that night, which was July 2, 1964. And then Robert Kennedy, his attorney general, is saying no, you can't sign it that quickly. You have to wait until after the July 4 holiday weekend. What was Bobby Kennedy's concerns?

PURDUM: Well, it passed the Senate on June 19 and then I had to go back to the House for final passage, so that was July 2nd. And Bobby Kennedy called him that morning and said, you know, Mr. President if we sign it on the eve of the long Fourth of July weekend, we're going to have black people running all over the South in every motel and restaurant trying to get service and maybe we should delay. Well, Johnson just thought that, you know, he was not going to tell Kennedy to his face because by that point relations between them were so bad and the trust was frayed. So instead, Johnson called five or six other people and floated the idea, attributing it to Bobby and saying, what you think? And they said, oh, no, Mr. President, you should all sign it right away. So he determined to sign it that night. He asked for television time. His press secretary George Reedy told him the networks recommended 6:45. And Johnson, who'd gotten rich owning a television station in Austin, said they just don't want to give up their prime airtime. We'd rather do it at 7. In the end, the earlier time prevailed. But it was a wonderful signing ceremony in the East Room of the White House where Johnson went on live television and explained the rationale for the bill and then handed out something like more than 70 pens afterwards.

GROSS: All pens used to sign his signature on the bill.

PURDUM: Exactly.

GROSS: It must've been like micro-signing for each pen (laughter).

PURDUM: You can see him on the extant film, he's putting a tiny, little movement with his hand with each pen and then picks another pen out of the rack and does some more.

GROSS: So, you know, and legislatively it didn't end there. Soon after, there was the Voting Rights Act and the Housing Rights Act. Was that part of the plan all along, do you think, in the minds of either people and, you know, liberals in Congress or the president?

PURDUM: I think liberals in Congress certainly felt that the vital first step was to end this scourge of, you know, legalized segregation in public places. And then after that was done, other things could follow. And, of course, they quickly realized a year later in 1965, after the bloody demonstrations in Selma, Ala., that voting rights were not fully protected and the bill had not been strong enough on that question. It didn't apply to state elections, for example. It only applied to federal elections. So the Voting Rights Act was passed to apply to all elections and to carry forward, and that same - in 1968, the Housing Discrimination Act. What's sad is that the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in some ways, in very real ways, marked the high watermark of consensus on the question of civil rights. And as the '60s went on and violence in the streets continued and discord continued and ultimately the '70s debates about affirmative action and bussing, the coalition that had so magnificently passed the Civil Rights Act of '64 splintered and began to fall apart and the country became much more divided up until really the present day when we see the Supreme Court overturning certain aspects of the Voting Rights Act just last year. And the national consensus on civil rights has in the last, you know, 20 years or so, 30 years, diminished a great deal from where it was in 1964.

GROSS: What impact did the Civil Rights Act and its passage have on President Johnson's relationship with the leaders of the civil rights movement?

PURDUM: Well, the immediate effect was a positive one. He became quite close to them - many of them - and they worked cooperatively through the Voting Rights Act. But as the '60s went on, and particularly as Martin Luther King and others began to oppose very vocally President Johnson's policies on Vietnam, estrangement grew up. And by the time of King's assassination in 1968, he and Johnson were not on speaking terms anymore. So that also was a very poignant - I mean, the two of them really combined to pass this landmark legislation and by the end of King's life, they were really not speaking.

GROSS: You know, another ripple effect of the passage of the Civil Rights Act was the change in voting habits in the - voting patterns in the American South. You want to just describe that?

PURDUM: Well, the night he signed the bill, Johnson had told his friend Bill Moyers that he had a premonition that they'd just delivered the South to the Republican Party for years to come. And, in fact, beginning in the 1960s and up to the present day, that really came true as white backlash and resentment against these laws conspired to help revive and revitalize the Republican Party throughout the South. The Republican Party in the South had been basically a black party and by the, you know, end of the 20th century was almost a completely white party. And the Republican Party's source of national strength is and remains the South.

GROSS: Well, Todd Purdum, I want to thank you so much.

PURDUM: Thank you very much, Terry.

GROSS: Todd Purdum's book, "An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, And The Battle For The Civil Rights Act Of 1964" will be published in paperback next month. Our interview was recorded in January of last year. Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward reviews volume two of a massive collection documenting the early blues, jazz and gospel label Paramount Records. This is FRESH AIR.


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