American Voters Deserve Credit for Civil-Rights Victories, Too

While popular accounts have at times ignored the key role played by voters in the heartland, the truth is more complicated.

US civil rights leader Martin Luther King (3rd from L) walks with supporters during the 'March on Washington' 28 August, 1963. After the march, King delivered the 'I Have a Dream' speech, which is credited with mobilizing supporters of desegregation and prompted the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  (National Journal)

Fifty years ago today, the nation implemented a breakthrough statute, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and President Lyndon Baines Johnson deserve the great credit that they get for its passage. However, there is another set of heroes who don't get the credit they deserve: the ordinary Americans who supported the statute because they wanted their country to be fair. To this, I bear witness.

In the summer of 1962, Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey, the most outspoken proponent of the legislation in the Senate, told me that he had nowhere near the 67 votes needed to stop the filibuster that Southern senators stood ready to use to kill this landmark civil-rights legislation. His despair was palpable. Circumstances allowed me the opportunity of talking with Sen. Humphrey because I was an intern in his office back when few college students interned on Capitol Hill.

That same summer, a few of us congressional interns got to sit around the desk of Sen. Strom Thurmond, an adamant opponent of civil-rights legislation, and question him. When the civil-rights bill came up, he said that he opposed it, although, he added, "some of my best friends are Negroes." I couldn't believe he uttered that phrase because, even then, it was widely regarded as a parody of racist attitudes. Yet — and this surprised me even more — he sounded completely sincere. Perhaps he was thinking of the child he had begot with a black maid when he was 22. He supported his daughter financially, but kept his paternity a secret. Thurmond's seeming sincerity convinced me that he had no self-consciousness about his opposition to civil-rights legislation. He and people like him would never willingly relent. In fact, five years earlier, in 1957, he had spoken on the Senate floor for 24 hours and 18 minutes in opposition to a civil-rights bill.

In sum, in 1962, Southern opposition to civil-rights legislation seemed like an immovable object. That's why its passage in 1964 was a surprise.

In 1963, came the March on Washington and the growing concern in the heartland of America about the unfairness of segregation. When the leaders of the march assembled on the high stage built in front of the Lincoln Memorial, they saw below them a vast host of marchers stretching out along the Reflecting Pool to the Washington Monument, a mile away and beyond. I was one of them.

Yet, the night before the march, I had worried about what the next day would bring. Would we marchers be embarrassingly small in number? Would we be targets of violence? Washington and the territory around it were much more Southern than they are today. Thousands of adamant bigots were within striking distance.

All these worries vanished when I got to the march. There were many more marchers than I could have possibly hoped. There was no hint of violence, no tinge of fear. What did pervade the atmosphere was a common purpose. Here was a community — a "communion" in the root sense of the word. It was vast and it was determined. The immovable object of bigotry had met an irresistible force.

Dr. King's speech convinced the marchers that the irresistible force would prevail. As Clarence Jones, who wrote a draft of Dr. King's speech, recently stated at a symposium at New York Law School:

If you read the text of the speech, while you might be impressed and moved by certain parts of it, you would probably think it was a good speech, but not necessarily a profound or powerful speech.... What made the speech an extraordinary speech was a combination of factors. One of the most important was that this was a speech at a gathering of the largest group of people assembled anywhere in the country at any time in the history of the United States for any purpose, 25 percent of whom were white. The second factor was that this was in the capital of the United States. The third factor was that this was at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial one hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation.... Dr. King, to me, spoke on that day in a way I had never heard him speak before, and had never heard him speak since.

This combination of factors set off reverberations. One reverberation was between King and the marchers. Dr. King's words moved us marchers and, in turn, the marchers' reaction moved King.

There was still another reverberation, and it too was powerful. Everyone there understood that the march would have a vast audience through television. As I heard the "I have a dream" passage, I knew that the speech would sway the people in the affluent, largely-Republican suburban area of Chicago where I grew up. I knew, too, that it would sway the people in the Midwestern heartland for hundreds of miles in every direction around Chicago. As Jones puts it, "Once those words hit the ears of the listener at home, all that was left was to let their meaning take hold and stir the conscience of everyone who was tuned in."

Thus, it became clear that day that The Dream's irresistible force would move the immovable object. And so it was, but not at first.

Immediately after the march, King and other leaders went to the White House to meet with President John F. Kennedy. In Jones's words, the president's response was in essence, "The march hadn't done much for him.... [Kennedy] was more worried about his party's chances come Election Day than about the Negroes' chances for justice. Despite the rousing success of the march, he wasn't going to give the movement any genuine support."

In 1964, five months after the March and two months after the assassination of President Kennedy, King and key civil-rights leaders met with President Lyndon Johnson. Robert Caro, in the most recent volume of his biography of Johnson, writes that the civil-rights leaders walked into the Oval Office with little hope that Johnson could get Kennedy's Civil Rights Act passed. They left the meeting confident that he would. According to Caro, the president needed a strong civil-rights bill to secure the support of liberals in the 1964 election and he also believed passionately in civil rights. Ironically, one tactic that the president used to sell the legislation was that its passage would honor the memory of President Kennedy.

President Johnson got the Civil Rights Act passed only because the Senate voted 71-29 to stop a Southern filibuster that had prolonged debate for 57 days and prevented a vote on the bill. In 1964, stopping a filibuster required support from two-thirds of the senators.

Johnson's commitment to civil rights and his remarkable political skills brought along some Democratic senators. The bill would not have survived the filibuster without their votes. Moreover, the bill would not have survived if President Johnson had not garnered the support of 82 percent of the Senate's Republicans. Johnson ultimately prevailed because 27 Republicans voted to stop the filibuster while only six voted against.

A key reason Johnson was able to get the votes to stop the filibuster in 1964 — but Humphrey could not in 1962 — was that after the march, the conservative, Northern and rural heartland of America shared The Dream. The Dream reverberated at first between King, the marchers, and the heartland. It reverberated the following year in Congress.

The majority of the swing senators who overcame the filibuster were from states that, as Caro describes them, were "mostly Midwestern, mostly Republican, mostly conservative" — states where the polls now showed a rising tide of support for civil rights.

While popular accounts have at times ignored the key role played by voters in the heartland, the truth is more complicated. The Dream had reached and touched Americans all over the country--from the conservative heartland to parts of the South.

David Schoenbrod is trustee professor of law at New York Law School and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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