Tuesday, July 1, 2014

We Hold These Truths to be Self-Evident

I know some people who believe — mistakenly — that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination of just about any kind, was passed in response to the murders of three young civil rights workers in Mississippi in June 1964.

That would be a nice story — inspiring, even — but that's all it is, a story.

Drawing up a bill and successfully leaping through all the committee hoops to pass both chambers of Congress in less than a couple of weeks — which is what it would have taken for the president to be signing it on this day in 1964 as he did — would have been achieved in record–shattering time — especially at that time in American history.

Congress is a deliberative body. It simply does not do things that quickly — not now, not then. Not ever.

The bill was originally proposed a year earlier by President John F. Kennedy. Shortly after Lyndon Johnson succeeded Kennedy in November 1963, he began speaking of passing the bill as a tribute to the fallen president and made it clear that he was making the bill's passage a priority of his administration.

In fact, Johnson had all but promised the bill's prompt passage when he addressed Congress for the first time as president on Nov. 27, 1963. "No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long," Johnson said. (American Rhetoric ranked his speech 96th among the 100 best speeches of the 20th century.)

By the time of his death, Kennedy had managed to guide the Civil Rights Act through the House Judiciary Committee to the House Rules Committee, but one has to wonder how far a Northern politician could have taken it from there. The chairman of the Rules Committee was Virginian Howard W. Smith, a staunch segregationist who had pledged to keep the bill bottled up. It was languishing there when Kennedy was shot in Dallas.

At Johnson's bidding, Judiciary Committee chairman Emanuel Celler filed a discharge petition to force the bill out of the Rules Committee and onto the House floor. A successful discharge petition is embarrassing to members of congressional leadership because it circumvents their authority. When the discharge petition appeared likely to get the signatures it needed to succeed (the history of discharge petitions is that they frequently don't succeed), Smith chose to avoid the expected humiliation and permitted the bill to pass the Rules Committee.

Things went better than expected in the House, which approved the bill by a 2–to–1 margin. But the House was a walk on the beach compared to the Senate.

At the time of his death, Kennedy's approval rating, as measured by Gallup, was at its lowest of his presidency. He still enjoyed majority support, but it was much lower than it had been through most of his presidency. So much of what happened politically in 1964 was an emotional byproduct of his assassination. If that had not happened, though, could he have done what had to be done to break the stalemate in the Senate?

My guess, as a student of American history, is it probably took a Southerner like Lyndon Johnson to take it the rest of the way — much like it took a fervent anti–communist like Richard Nixon to make historic ice–breaking trips to China and Russia.

The irony of that, though, is that Johnson, even with his legislative experience, didn't accomplish it alone.

"From the start," wrote historian Arthur Schlesinger, "the new president had left no doubt about his vigorous support of the civil rights bill," and he had given Bobby Kennedy's Department of Justice authority over its passage.

"[New York Times columnist] Anthony Lewis later asked how Kennedy explained Johnson's blank check," Schlesinger wrote. "Johnson, Kennedy replied, did not see how the bill could pass the Senate. ... And, if the bill failed, Johnson, Kennedy thought, did not want sole responsibility."

There was always a political angle in the Johnson equations.

Within 12 weeks of assuming the presidency, Johnson pushed the legislation through the House, using the skills he had polished as the Senate's majority leader — and his newly acquired bully pulpit.

According to procedure, such a bill, after passage in the House, would be referred to the Senate's Judiciary Committee, which was chaired at that time by Democrat James Eastland of Mississippi, and he was opposed to it. The expectation was that, if it went to Eastland's committee, it would never be referred to the whole Senate.

But Majority Leader Mike Mansfield had a creative parliamentary tactic to bypass the Judiciary Committee.

Earlier, he had waived a second reading of the bill immediately after the first reading, which would have sent it to the Judiciary Committee automatically; Mansfield gave it a second reading at a later date and then, because there was no precedent for procedure when a second reading did not immediately follow the first, proposed that the bill be sent directly to the Senate floor.

When the Civil Rights Act arrived on the Senate floor in late March 1964, the so–called "Southern bloc" of 18 Democrats and one Republican launched a filibuster that lasted for about 2½ months. They managed to hold the floor by working in three tag teams — while one team held the floor, the other two would rest and prepare for their shifts. It was a very organized opposition.

In May 1964, Senate leaders from both parties worked out a watered–down substitute bill that they hoped would draw the support of enough swing–vote senators to end the filibuster.

I say it was watered down because it was weaker than the original legislation regarding the government's power to regulate the management of private business, but the substitution was not weak enough to require the House to reconsider it. Not if a House–Senate conference committee agreed.

And that seemed all but assured.

"The morality and need of the bill were so clearly inescapable that no man of good conscience or good sense could oppose it," historian Theodore White wrote. But there were issues that had yet to be resolved.

"[W]hat would it do?" asked White. "What could it solve? How much could an act of Congress do to make the two races of America accept each other as friendly citizens? Whose demands did it satisfy? What other demands lay behind Martin Luther King's simple insistence on dignity and equality of opportunity? And what were all the communities of America, both North and South, ready to concede in compliance with the new law?"

We're still wrestling with some of those issues today. "Away from Congress," White wrote, "nothing was clear." It seldom is.

Majority Whip Hubert Humphrey believed he had enough votes to end the filibuster, and, as it turned out, he did — four more than necessary, as a matter of fact.

A 71–29 vote on June 10 ended the filibuster, and, on June 19, two days before the civil rights workers disappeared in Mississippi, the compromise bill passed the Senate by a 73–27 vote.

More than 82% of Republican senators voted for it; just under 70% of Democrats did.

Ralph Yarborough of Johnson's home state of Texas was the only Southern Democrat (out of 21) to support the bill. Robert Byrd of West Virginia — a member of the coalition that conducted the filibuster — was the only Northern Democrat to vote against it.

As is required when there are disagreements between bills that pass the House and Senate, a House–Senate conference committee met to discuss the differences between the two bills and quickly endorsed the Senate's version.

Once a bill has the approval of a conference committee, it is sent to the House and Senate floors for one more vote, this time with no amendments allowed. Ultimately, of course, both chambers must approve the same version of a bill before it can be sent to the Oval Office for the president's signature.

This can be a long, drawn–out process. Not this time.

Johnson signed the bill into law 50 years ago tomorrow.

Tomorrow's anniversary is, indeed, a "milestone," as the Miami Herald says. But it is also true, as the Youngstown (Ohio) Vindicator observes, that it is a work in progress.

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