Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act
According to Clay Risen, we tend to credit the achievement of the Civil Rights Act to Lyndon B. Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr. largely because theirs are the names and stories with which we are familiar. Risen is kind enough to include himself in the “we” but I suspect he doesn’t actually belong there. I, however, do. In a word association game, I would complete “Emancipation Proclamation” with “Abraham Lincoln” and the “The New Deal” with “FDR,” because those are the only names I know. If there were more in my high school A.P. history study guide, I don’t remember them.
Unfortunately, Risen notes, our tendency to assign credit in such a simplified manner is both unfair and inaccurate. “The idea that either King or Johnson was the dominant figure behind the Civil Rights Act,” he writes, “distorts not only the history of the act but the process of American legislative policymaking in general.”
In The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act, Risen sets out to correct that distortion by presenting us with the literary equivalent to a “making of,” documentary, beginning in early 1963, a point during John F. Kennedy’s term at which civil rights legislation was at low ebb, and tracing the gradual rise of tide leading to the signing of the Civil Rights Bill on July 2, 1964.
A work that sets out to reframe historical events can’t help but shine a light on the fact that any view of history is a result of framing. Maybe this is why I found myself drawn to the moments in the book that revealed how players strove to frame events even as they were happening. While some examples of this—like a gala White House reception where Langston Hughes and Sammy Davis Junior rub elbows with Democrats for the cameras in a ploy to distract from John F. Kennedy’s meager progress on civil rights—felt par for the political course, other instances gave me pause.
Here’s one: In 1963, confronted by the knowledge that his movement was in danger of fading away due to a distracted public and a federal government refusing to intervene on states’ Jim Crow rulings, Martin Luther King Junior approved the plans for the Birmingham “children’s crusade.” On May 2, 1963, hundreds of children poured onto a plaza. At the end of two days, many were jailed and “photographers had snapped hundreds of pictures of German shepherds, their teeth sinking into young boys and girls.”
Just to recap: MLK, the “I have a dream” guy, sent kids to battle with angry policemen and big dogs. (Risen, by the way, does not react to this with the surprise I felt, probably because he is the author of an entire book related to King, and knows many things about him that aren’t inspirational quotes posted to Facebook.)
In the wake of the incident, Attorney General Burke Marshall publicly denounced the move, saying, “An injured, maimed or dead child is a price that none of us can afford.” Other politicians, however, turned their criticism toward the Birmingham police. The story and images from the event galvanized the civil rights movement, caused demonstrations to spark around the country and led key players, including Marshall, to realize that federal legislation was needed. Whether or not the means justified the ends, they were successful in achieving them
Here’s another item that I didn’t learn in A.P. history: The historic showdown between George Wallace and Deputy Attorney General Nicolas Katzenbach at the University of Alabama was rigged. “Wallace, [Katzenbach] realized... might believe his racist convictions, but acted on them mostly to appease voters. Katzenbach would go to Tuscaloosa himself... let Wallace have his show, then insist on escorting the students to register. Wallace, through a back channel,... told Kennedy he would comply.”
The first third of the Bill of the Century—which runs some 290 pages including 40 pages of citations—depicts events leading up to the introduction of the Civil Rights Bill in June 1963. The final two-thirds details the tactics and maneuvers required to push the bill through —in back rooms, on the streets and on the Senate and House floors. Although no summary could be sufficient, Risen’s recounting of a memo written by Katzenbach to Robert Kennedy during the early life of the bill might give a sense of what was involved:
“If the goal was to get the bill intact through the Senate, then a filibuster was inevitable—which meant they needed 67 votes to stop debate and bring the bill to a vote.... The only way to do that.... was to get [Senate Minority Leader Everett] Dirksen on board.... Because Katzenbach could then take Dirksen’s support of the bill to the House Republicans, who were open to civil rights but wary of siding with legislation that might get pared back in the Senate. Dirksen, of course, did not support Title II, but Katzenbach hoped that his support on everything else could give momentum to the bill in the House, and that by the time it reached the Senate, Dirksen would have to choose between agreeing to the entire bill or standing in the way of historic legislation.”If it sounds complex and confusing, it is. Risen, an accomplished journalist and author of A Nation on Fire, America in the Wake of the King Assassination, admirably manages to introduce and contextualize dozens of individuals—senators, congressmen, and myriad civilian activists—as well as organizations and political factions, but the density of information he is delivering can make for strenuous reading. I’ve no doubt been spoiled by textbooks and George R.R. Martin novels, but by page 150 I would have been grateful for a fold-out timeline, a tree graph showing all the characters and their affiliations, and maybe a cheat-sheet with acronyms and their translations.
Despite this, I recommend The Bill of the Century. “The story of the civil rights bill,” says Risen “is about the interplay between elected officials, government officials, lobbyists, and countless thousands of activists around the country, pushing and pulling each other toward their common goal.” That story, with all its details, dramas and complexities, is what Risen delivers.