Fifty years later we are locked in a time of deep political division in America, frustrated by a Congress that can’t deal with a national immigration crisis, protect the right to vote or even pass a jobs bill to help the struggling economy.
But this Thursday, four presidents – Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter – will stand together at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas.
The historical significance of this moment cannot be overstated. The presidents will come together as a powerful symbol of America’s ability, as demonstrated 50 years ago, to do what it takes to solve the most painfully difficult national problems.
The presidents will gather to honor the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. They will be there out of respect for the leadership of President Johnson, a white, Southern president who put his political future on the line to sign the bill. And they will be calling attention to the mix of Republicans and Democrats who also put their political best interests to the side to heal a deep racial wound and change the nation.
With the current Congress, it defies political reality to imagine that 50 years ago it was possible for two conservative white Republicans, Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois and Ohio Rep. William McCulloch, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, to work with Democrats. They had support as well from liberal Republican Sen. Jacob Javits of New York to make a deal with the leader of the opposing party, President Johnson, and make history.
Who today can believe that the House passed the controversial bill first, with 153 Democrats and 136 Republicans voting ‘Yes’? The bill was tied up in the Senate by the obstructionist tactics of white segregationists for four months. It was Republicans who pushed the bill over the line; it would not have passed without their votes.
The pressures on President Johnson, the Congress and the nation 50 years ago make today’s politics and arguments over spending and immigration seem tame.
In 1964, the prior century of American history added to the intensity of the political drama.
In 1863, 100 years earlier, President Lincoln, the founder of the modern Republican Party, signed the Emancipation Proclamation to free the slaves. It took an amendment to the Constitution – the 13th – to abolish slavery.
But a hundred years later, black Americans still did not have equal rights. Segregation and second-class treatment of blacks had become the law, and they were celebrated by some as tradition.
When President Kennedy introduced a civil rights bill in June of 1963, he said he was asking Congress to deal with an urgent “moral” and racial crisis that couldn’t be handled by police, street demonstrations or “token moves or talk.” The young president said it was “time to act in the Congress” by enacting “legislation giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public – hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores… this seems to me to be an elementary right. Its denial is an arbitrary indignity that no American in 1963 should have to endure…”
The president added: “A great change is at hand … our obligation is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all.”
Kennedy acted under pressure for immediate action to deal with rage and the potential for violence after Alabama’s governor, George Wallace, a Democrat, personally blocked a door to the registrar’s office at the University of Alabama to prevent two black students from signing up for classes. There had been protest marches in Birmingham in which dogs and fire hoses were turned on peaceful demonstrators.
The civil rights movement of the 1960s featured violent confrontations with Southern segregationists, many of them Democrats. On the Republican side, leading voices, including the party’s 1964 presidential nominee, Sen. Barry Goldwater, opposed the civil rights bill to play to white racial resentments.
These dynamics produced a racial crisis across the nation. Troops were stationed around the nation’s capital when civil rights leaders led the March on Washington in August of 1963. The next month, four black girls were killed in a Birmingham church by a bomb planted by white racists. But five days after President Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963, President Johnson told a joint session of Congress:
“No memorial or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought. We have talked for one hundred years or more,” he said, referring back to the Civil War. “Yes, it is time now to write the next chapter – and to write it in the book of law.”
America’s white church leaders did not dodge the politics of the racial crisis. As represented by the National Council of Churches they joined with black Christian leaders, including Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as well as Jewish leaders to take a political stand and back the bill. It took four difficult months for the Senate to pass the bill.
President Johnson, just months away from a November election in which he knew the bill would be used against him, signed it into law in June of 1964. He was later reported to have said the bill would cost his party the Southern vote for a generation.
A new book by Todd Purdum – “An Idea Whose Time Has Come, Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964” – tells the story of a note sent by Jacqueline Kennedy, widow of the slain president, to Congressman McCulloch after he retired. She thanked him for the “shining gift of your nobility,” and for taking the spotlight away from her husband and President Johnson. She told the Republican: “I know that you, more than anyone, were responsible for the civil rights legislation.”
Four presidents, one Republican and three Democrats, will stand together at the Johnson Library this week to celebrate a past achievement.
Let’s hope the current Congress gets the message.
Juan Williams is a co-host of FNC's "The Five," where he is one of seven rotating Fox personalities.