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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
David Schoenbrod
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David Schoenbrod
July 2, 2014, 8:43 a.m.

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.

‘MY VIEW’ OF THE NEXT AMER­ICAS Are you part of the demo­graph­ic that is the Next Amer­ica? Are you a cata­lyst who fosters change for the next gen­er­a­tion? Or do you know someone who is? The Next Amer­ica wel­comes first-per­son per­spect­ives from act­iv­ists, thought lead­ers, and people rep­res­ent­at­ive of a di­verse na­tion. Email Jan­ell Ross at jross@na­tion­al­journ­ And please fol­low us on Twit­ter and Face­book.

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