Fifty years after the landmark passage of the Civil Rights Act, two new books capture the history of those tumultuous times. The story of the law’s passage is not just about the legislative process, though its approval by Congress was anything but a foregone conclusion. It’s a story about grassroots activism, unexpected allies, the clash of personalities and political posturing. It’s about finally putting an end to institutional racism and beginning the slow process towards justice and reconciliation.
Clay Risen’s The Bill of the Century and Todd Purdum’s An Idea Whose Time Has Come both cover the same chronological period (January 1963–July 1964) and events: key developments in the civil rights movement, the March on Washington, the introduction of the Civil Rights bill in Congress, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the transition from Kennedy to Lyndon Johnson and Johnson’s efforts to shepherd the bill into law. The books delve into the personalities, loyalties and strategies employed on Capitol Hill for and against the bill. These latter sections prove to be some of the most fascinating sections of both books, as the authors carefully set up the scenario for the final showdown on the Senate floor.
For those not familiar with the way bills become laws, the intricate details about procedure, cloture and filibuster can be daunting. What’s most interesting about these details is the way lawmakers used relationships to build support for the bill. This bridge-building certainly reflects a less-partisan time when politicians were willing to cross the aisle to support a worthy cause. At times the lawmakers were motivated by self-interest, but at other times they reflected personal conscience and the will of their constituents back home, both grassroots activists and ordinary citizens alike who leaned on their representatives to pass the Civil Rights Act.
Though the books are similar, Purdum’s lens is a wider in scope. While Risen concentrates mostly on the doings of lawmakers, Purdum touches on some incidents occurring at the time the bill was in Congress. In particular, he describes the pressure placed on Martin Luther King Jr. by FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover, who seemed to have a special hatred for the Civil Rights leader. Releasing a scathing document about King that linked him to well-known Communists, Hoover apparently forced Attorney General Bobby Kennedy to initiate surveillance of King’s headquarters in Atlanta. This is the seamy side of Washington, when people become pawns in the fight to advance the very legislation they hope to pass.
Nowadays, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is something we take for granted. The Bill of the Century and An Idea Whose Time Has remind us of what life was like before the law was passed, and how the law itself was indeed “an idea whose time has come.”