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.