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The Saga Of The Civil Rights Act, An Idea Whose Time Came 50 Years Ago


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block, hosting this week from member station KERA in Dallas.


And I'm Robert Siegel in Washington.

Fifty years ago this summer, the president of the United States signed a landmark bill in to law. The president was Lyndon Johnson. The bill became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.


PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: We must not approach the observance and enforcement of this law in a vengeful spirit. Its purpose is not to punish. Its purpose is not to divide but to end divisions, divisions which have lasted all too long.

SIEGEL: How that bill became law is the subject of Todd Purdum's new book, "An Idea Whose Time Has Come." The book is a fascinating blow-by-blow account of a struggle that involved presidents, both houses of Congress, and two political parties that 50 years later seem unrecognizable.

Todd Purdum, welcome to the program.

TODD PURDUM: Thanks, glad to be here.

SIEGEL: Your book is obviously about Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Senators Hubert Humphrey and Everett Dirksen, Martin Luther King. Those are famous people. I want to ask you about one of the key players whose story has been largely forgotten, never known to me for sure. Tell us about William McCulloch.

PURDUM: Well, he was a conservative from West Central Ohio, rock-ribbed fiscal conservative. But in one particular, he was a demon supporter of civil rights. He was descended from abolitionists who'd lived before the Civil War. And he had always strongly supported civil rights. And he'd felt that in 1957 and 1960, Lyndon Johnson watered down those civil rights bills to get them past the Senate. And he was determined that that was not going to happen this time

SIEGEL: He was a House Republican and he has a famous meeting with an aide to Attorney General Robert Kennedy. John F. Kennedy was still president when he, more or less, says how they can bring along enough Republican votes to pass a civil rights law.

PURDUM: Yes, he was the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee. And in those days, the chairman and ranking members of the committees, especially in the House but in the Senate too, got broad deference from their caucuses. So the House Republican leader, Charlie Halleck knew that if Bill McCulloch was for this bill, he had to basically be for it to.

And McCulloch's deal was: If the Kennedy administration would promise not to water down the bill in the Senate, and to give the Republicans equal credit, he would bring along enough Republicans to pass it. And that forced the Kennedy administration, later the Johnson administration, to do something that had never before succeeded which was break a filibuster on a civil rights bill in the Senate.

SIEGEL: And the challenge here was to draft not a perfect bill but a bill that could actually pass.

PURDUM: Yes, and some of the most liberal members of the House wanted a bill that McCulloch and others believed could never pass the House, much less the Senate. So the challenge was to keep the civil rights movement itself pressing for the biggest, strongest bill it could get, to rein them back just enough to pass a bill that would have teeth in it, that would be enforceable without exploding in the administration's face and failing.

SIEGEL: How much of the Republican Party in Congress supported the civil rights bill as it still was? And how many voted for cloture to break the filibuster?

PURDUM: Well, the final vote in the Senate for the bill was 73 to 27, with 27 out of 33 Republican votes. So in proportional terms, the Republicans supported this bill much more than the Democrats did in both houses.

SIEGEL: A few weeks after Lyndon Johnson signed that bill into law, as we heard at the beginning, the Republicans go and they nominate Barry Goldwater for president, a Republican who had voted against civil rights. And their legacy is jettisoned at that moment.

PURDUM: In some important way that was the beginning of changing the Republican Party from the party of Lincoln into the party of white backlash which is, frankly, reputation that in the South particularly endures to this day, and has hurt the Republican Party as a national brand in presidential elections.

SIEGEL: It wasn't just McCulloch. It was also Everett Dirksen, the leader of the Republicans in the Senate, who was from Illinois and quite conservative in many ways, but very strong on civil rights.

PURDUM: Yes, and a wonderful dealmaker. He was known as the wizard of ooze. He loved to speechify. He kept his tonsils lubricated with Pond's Cold Cream. He gargled every day with a batch of it and swallowed it.


PURDUM: And he insisted on making a number of changes in the bill that would basically make it more palatable to northern end midwestern conservatives. And it had the effect of making it really focused on the South, which is what the Southerners realized was happening. But it's also how you got support for the past.

SIEGEL: The Republican Party is very different today. The Democratic Party is amazingly different today at that time. These powerful Southern Democrats who had had such tenure that they were typically chairs of committees, defended segregation, opposed the civil rights bill, and they were a big chunk of the Democratic Party.

PURDUM: Yes, huge chunk, about 18 of them plus Senator John Tower, Republican of Texas. And to read the debates, read the things that actually said on the floor of the Senate, including a debate about whether it was inhumane to use cattle prods on demonstrators. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina said he'd been chased by a wandering fraternity hazing ritual, he didn't think he was so bad. So...

SIEGEL: He was still a Democrat at that...

PURDUM: He was still a Democrat. But it sort of takes your breath away to see the things that were said in public out loud 50 years ago.

SIEGEL: How good a bill was it after all? How important...

PURDUM: Well, in one sense, it was a triumph of course. But it was also the last moment of consensus. As the '60s went on, and debates arose over Affirmative Action, busing, black nationalism, black power, the consensus really splintered and was never again anywhere close to as strong as it was in the spring and summer of 1964, when this bill passed.

SIEGEL: Todd Purdum, thank you very much for talking with us about your book.

PURDUM: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: The book is called "An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties And The Battle For The Civil Rights Act Of 1964." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.