Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Personal Aside: Rhetoric but Also Hard Legislative Work Prompted Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
Hard Work--Not a Snap of the Fingers.
One of the more ridiculous debates going on in the Democratic party primary rages between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Obamas people charge that Clinton is disparaging the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. because she has said that achieving civil rights takes more than a flurry of speeches. As everyone knows, the argument is valueless. The civil rights movement needed Martin Luther King to make the case and provide a sterling example. It also needed legislative craftsmanship to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the Congress. The skills of movement motivation which touched the conscience of America and legislative leadership worked in tandem.
Hillary made the perfectly reasonable statement that following Kings crusade and assassination, it took tough political action in the Congress by the Johnson administration to pass civil rights gains. For proof, read it again in my Flashback archives which detailed the work to secure passage by Hubert Humphrey.
A timeline: President John F. Kennedy announced he was sending a comprehensive civil rights package to the Congress on June 10, 1963. There is no doubt that King had somewhat conditioned the country to be sympathetic to passage but by no means was passage certain. On the same dayJune 10, 1963the civil rights leader Medgar Evers was murdered in Mississippi. In September, four young black schoolgirls were killed when a bomb exploded in a Birmingham, Alabama church. A day after LBJ took office, he said that he would not accept any watering down of the package (November 23, 1963).
The House passed a stronger civil rights bill in February, 1964 but the House was easy, some members voting for it because they expected the measure would be ultimately killed in the Senate. . The Senate was the problem because of the filibuster. Hubert geared up for the tough assignment. As I relate in my piece, Hubert formulated three important civil rights decisions. First that there be heavy bipartisan support which involved Everett Dirksen. Second there would be bipartisan team captains appointed to discuss each major section of the bill and to make certain that 51 senators were always present to supply a quorum. Third the debate would have to be conducted on a high level to avoid bitterness and that to do this Hubert resolved to accommodate the Southerners whenever possible on procedural grounds.
On March 9, 1964 the Senate began discussion on the bill. On March 26, it formally took it up as the pending business of the Senate. On March 30, the day after Easter the 57-day filibuster began in earnest, Hubert urging conciliation and Dick Russell of George announcing he favored total rejection of the package. It would be the longest sustained filibuster in the history of the nation.
The battle was long and bloody, Russell blasting what he called a troika of Humphrey, Dirksen and Attorney General Robert Kennedy who were bypassing, he said, the Senates legislative function. There emerged a substitute bill that provided the Justice Department could intervene only in areas where there was a pattern or practice of discriminationand then only after an individual had taken his complaint to the newly-created Community Relations Service of Justice or the EEOC or to court.
The substitute bill that won over the needed Republican votes was introduced on May 26 with Everett Dirksen aboard. Humphrey set a cloture vote for June 10. At 11:10 a.m. on June 10 three and a half months after the debate began and exactly one year after Kennedy had presented his civil rights package, cloture was voted 71 to 29. On the evening of June 19, the Senate approved the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by vote of 73 to 29.
It took a massive amount of legislative work by Hubert Humphrey and othersMike Mansfield, Dirksen, Bobby Kennedyto get it passed and there were three instances of great violence, the murder of John Kennedy, the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing deaths of the little girls in Birmingham. Plus long negotiations including the indispensable addition of Dirksen and the Republicans before the legislation could be passed.
The controversy between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama does not minimize the work of Dr. King who touched the conscience of the nation--but neither does it certify that the legislation could have passed without significant work by Humphrey and others. What Hillary Clinton emphasized was that not just beautiful speeches made the passage a reality but tough work. Any idea that she was minimizing the work of Martin Luther King is sheer demagoguery.
She is right. And in emphasizing that progress requires more than passionate oratory she has made a sterling contribution to the presidential campaign. Too many of our idealistic young people and first-time converts to the political process think just beautiful language will be sufficient to translate idealism into action. To my way of thinking, Obamas pledge that he will usher in a new era of change by the snap of his fingers is easily answered by the case history of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
These Obama people will make me vote for Hillary if they arent careful.