It is a measure of how desperately this country needed the 1964 Civil Rights Act that when John F. Kennedy finally proposed it in June 1963 — and when Lyndon B. Johnson signed it 50 years ago this week — only five of the 535 members of Congress were black. Nearly a century after the end of the Civil War, the promise of emancipation was still unmet and legal equality — in the voting booth, in public accommodations and in employment — remained a dream deferred for millions of black Americans, especially in the South.
For decades, dedicated citizens of both races (and both parties) had been fighting — and, yes, dying — to arouse the conscience of the country on civil rights and to persuade the powers that be in Washington of the need for comprehensive federal legislation to smash the system of sanctioned segregation. Brave men and women had endured the scourge of beatings and bombings, the sting of high-pressure fire hoses and the snarls of police dogs as they marched to integrate lunch counters, interstate buses and motels.
But the realities of American politics meant that the actual power to pass any effective law rested with middle-aged white men in Washington, the most crucial among them conservative Republicans. The Kennedy administration acknowledged this truth in July 1963, when it sought support for its bill from one of the most influential such players, a now-forgotten congressman from west central Ohio named William McCulloch, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.
McCulloch's hometown of Piqua is represented today by John A. Boehner, and in many ways, McCulloch was just as conservative, and his constituency was less than 3% black. But his ancestors had been abolitionists before the Civil War, and he was a stolid supporter of civil rights.
So McCulloch proposed a deal: If the administration promised to fight for a strong civil rights bill, and not weaken it to avoid a filibuster in the Senate (as had happened in 1957 and 1960), and to give the Republicans equal credit for the measure heading into the 1964 elections, he would rally House Republicans in support of the bill. In the end, that's just what he did, in February 1964.
By that time, the dogged street activism and relentless lobbying of civil rights supporters had persuaded a majority of the public of the need for a strong bill. The challenge was to get such a bill through a Senate in which 18 Southern Democrats were implacably opposed to it. To impose cloture and cut off debate — the only procedural means of forcing action in the Senate — supporters needed a daunting two-thirds majority, or 67 votes.
Yes, President Johnson could count on half a dozen reliably liberal Republican senators, including Thomas Kuchel of California, the GOP floor leader for the bill. But a far larger group — a dozen or more — would be guided by the Senate's Republican minority leader, Everett Dirksen of Illinois, who had announced his grave concerns about the two most important sections of the bill: one that would bar discrimination in public places, and another forbidding discrimination in private sector employment.
Because Illinois already had strong anti-discrimination laws, Dirksen feared creation of a new federal bureaucracy that would, as he saw it, harass small businessmen with unnecessary additional paperwork and red tape. In intense bipartisan negotiations in the private back room of his office — called the "Twilight Lodge" and stocked with a full bar — a crucial compromise was reached: States with laws like Illinois' would have first crack at enforcement, before Washington stepped in. Federal action would be reserved for jurisdictions with a "pattern or practice" of discrimination.
Furious Southern senators who had hoped to win Dirksen to their side saw this provision for just what it was: an effort to round up a few more votes for cloture in the Midwest. The compromise would train the act's force on segregation laws in the Old South, and leave largely untouched the de facto segregation that existed in so many Northern and Western cities — and endures to this day.
Still, Dirksen's strategy worked. "Stronger than all the armies," he intoned, paraphrasing Victor Hugo on the day the Senate voted to cut off debate, "is an idea whose time had come."
The time for the 1964 act had arguably come long before, and the bill was far from perfect. It made no real effort to address economic inequities between blacks and whites, as many civil rights advocates had hoped it would. Its voting rights provisions did not extend to state and local elections (a gap that would have to be filled by the Voting Rights Act just a year later).
But it nevertheless changed daily reality for tens of millions of Americans, (including, eventually, women, Latinos, the disabled and gays), and it stands as the most powerful example in modern history of what can happen when a spirit of bipartisanship, decency and fair play prevails.
Now, Barack Obama is president, and there are more than 40 black members of the House. But of more than 1,900 senators elected in the whole of American history, Obama was only the fifth. Cory Booker of New Jersey is the ninth and most recently elected. He is young and gifted, but as one of only two black senators — and the only black Democrat — his is a lonely caucus. There is work to be done. Who will do it?
Todd S. Purdum's most recent book is "An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964."