How LBJ Saved the Civil Rights Act

Fifty years later, new accounts of its fraught passage reveal the era's real hero—and it isn’t the Supreme Court.

Finally, Johnson helped usher the bill to passage in the Senate by working to break the southern filibuster, which was led by his political patron, the formidable Richard Russell of Georgia. In light of the Senate’s fiercely guarded independence, the president could not operate in the open; he had to use proxies like Humphrey, who was his protégé and future vice president, as well as the bill’s floor manager. Johnson impressed upon Humphrey that the vain and flamboyant Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois was the key to delivering the Republican votes needed for cloture:

“You and I are going to get Ev. It’s going to take time. We’re going to get him. You make up your mind now that you’ve got to spend time with Ev Dirksen. You’ve got to let him have a piece of the action. He’s got to look good all the time. Don’t let those [liberal] bomb throwers, now, talk you out of seeing Dirksen. You get in there to see Dirksen. You drink with Dirksen! You talk with Dirksen! You listen to Dirksen!”

Johnson demanded constant updates from Humphrey and Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, and always urged more-aggressive tactics. (“The president grabbed me by my shoulder and damn near broke my arm,” said Humphrey.) Even though Senate Democrats did not deploy all those tactics, Johnson’s intensity nevertheless set the tone and supplied its own momentum. He kept up a steady stream of speeches and public appearances demanding Senate passage of the strong House bill, undiluted by horse-trading. And he personally lobbied senators to vote for cloture and end the filibuster. Risen contends that Johnson “persuaded exactly one senator” to change his vote on cloture. Given that it is of course impossible to know what motivated each senator’s final decision, this lowball figure is expressed with too much certitude. Evidence presented by Purdum and Caro suggests that Johnson’s importuning, bribing, and threatening may have made an impact on closer to a dozen. The Senate invoked cloture on June 10, breaking the longest filibuster in the institution’s history. The full Senate soon passed the bill. Johnson signed it into law on July 2, 1964, and immediately turned his energies to what would become another landmark statute: the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The civil-rights era conjures images of strong white pillars, Earl Warren’s horn-rims, and the almost holy words Brown v. Board of Education.

Risen’s attempt to minimize Johnson’s significance in the passage of the Civil Rights Act—“he was at most a supporting actor”; “he was just one of a cast of dozens”; “the Civil Rights Act was not his bill by any stretch”—is perplexing. In an otherwise strong book, his revisionist view is less a question of facts than of emphasis: after all, Purdum too notes that Johnson “strategically limit[ed] his own role” at key moments (careful, for example, not to upstage Dirksen). But Risen seems bent on denying Johnson his due, drawing nearly every inference against him and repeatedly overstating the anti-Johnson case. On the one hand, Risen is right to take a fresh look at the evidence and tell the story from a new perspective, focusing on unsung heroes such as Dirksen, Humphrey, Representative William McCulloch, and Nicholas Katzenbach of the Justice Department. He makes a fair point in questioning the way history awards presidents the credit for measures that by necessity cross many desks. On the other hand, Risen is simply wrong to portray Johnson as some hapless operator for trying multiple tactics and targets, some of them unsuccessfully. Johnson’s very comprehensiveness is what jarred the sluggish and paralyzed Capitol into action and ultimately moved the bill.


President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2, 1964. (Cecil Stoughton/White House Press Office)

If the president led and Congress followed, where did that leave the Supreme Court? Three months after Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, the Court heard arguments in a pair of cases challenging the constitutionality of its most contentious provision—Title II, which outlawed segregation in public accommodations. In December 1964 the Court decided Katzenbach v. McClung and Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States, upholding Title II as a valid exercise of Congress’s commerce power. In the years since, the act has been a remarkable success. Its acceptance in the South was surprisingly quick and widespread. In a stroke, the act demolished the rickety but persistent foundation for segregation and Jim Crow. Title II reached far into the daily lives of southerners, creating an unprecedented level of personal mingling between the races and making integration a fact of daily life. Title VII, meanwhile, has vastly reduced workplace discrimination, through the efforts of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Although years of toil, struggle, and bloodshed still lay ahead, the 1964 law dealt a major blow to the system of segregation. The past 50 years of American history are almost unimaginable without it.

And yet the anniversary prompts an ominous reconsideration of the Supreme Court’s role in civil rights. In 1954, the Court launched the federal government’s assault on segregation, with Brown. In 1964, it got out of the way of the political branches, then quickly ratified their work. Today when it comes to racial civil rights, the Roberts Court is an aggressively hostile force. Recall Ackerman’s contention that the 1964 act has taken on the weight of a constitutional amendment. At a literal level, this is of course untrue: the act was not ratified by three-quarters of the states and is not part of the written Constitution. This means that a constitutional amendment is not needed to overturn the Civil Rights Act, which is vulnerable to a subsequent act of Congress or, more to the point, a decision by the Supreme Court.

Presented by

Michael O'Donnell

Michael O’Donnell is a lawyer in Chicago. His writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, and The Washington Monthly.

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