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Mon January 20, 2014
Author Interviews

The Politics Of Passing 1964's Civil Rights Act

Originally published on Mon January 20, 2014 4:35 pm

Martin Luther King may not have had a vote in Congress, but he and the movement he helped lead were integral to getting the civil rights bill introduced. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of that bill, now known as the Civil Rights Act.

Among other things, the act outlawed discrimination in public accommodations — including restaurants, hotels and motels — ending the era of legal segregation in those places.

Todd Purdum is the author of the forthcoming book An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Purdum is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and a senior writer at Politico. He join's Fresh Air's Terry Gross to talk about the legislative and political battle to get the civil rights bill passed. Click the audio link above (available after 5 p.m. EST) to listen to the interview.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, which among other things outlawed discrimination in public accommodations, including restaurants, hotels and motels, ending the era of legal segregation in those places. On this Martin Luther King Day, we're going to talk about the legislative and political battle to get the Civil Rights Bill passed.

Martin Luther King didn't have a vote in Congress, but the bill wouldn't even have been introduced without him and the civil rights movement he helped lead. My guest Todd Purdum is the author of the forthcoming book "An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties And The Battle For The Civil Rights Act Of 1964." The book will be published April 1. We're grateful to him for this sneak preview.

Purdum is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and is senior writer at Politico. Todd Purdum, welcome to FRESH AIR. What would you describe as the biggest changes that were brought about by the Civil Rights Act?

TODD PURDUM: In a very real sense, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 created modern America, the things we take for granted today, people in restaurants and hotels and motels and transportation enjoying it regardless of race, the things my children take absolutely for granted. It's hard to remember that just 50 years ago they were anything but taken for granted, and people were literally fighting and dying for them.

So in a very important way, this law, which is often called the most important law of the 20th century, created the world we live in today.

GROSS: What were some of the actions of the civil rights movement that were most effective in pushing President Kennedy to move forward with civil rights legislation?

PURDUM: Well, beginning early in his administration with the sit-ins at lunch counters around the South, then the freedom rights to integrate interstate transportation of buses and so forth, and finally the most dramatic of all was in the spring of 1963, under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King and others of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Birmingham, the demonstrations, particularly those involving children and young people who were brutally turned back by police dogs and fire hoses, high-pressure hoses, 100 pounds per square inch of water knocking them to the ground, tearing off their clothing.

And these images went all over national television, all over the world media, the front pages of newspapers all around the world. And it shocked President Kennedy and it shocked the country, and frankly it shocked a large segment of the American population who did not live in the South, who did not have large black populations in their states or areas, and it pricked the conscience of really right-thinking people all over the world.

And that was - I think most people agree that was the thing that really got the ball rolling on the legislation.

GROSS: But President Kennedy had serious reservations about pushing civil rights legislation during what he thought would be his first term. He thought he might serve a second and that the bill would be better served in his second term. What were his reservations?

PURDUM: Well, in that era, we must remember the Congress, and particularly the Senate, was completely controlled by the Southern delegations, who were adamantly opposed to integration. And President Kennedy wanted a lot of other programs, including a tax cut. He wanted support for his foreign policy, for things like the space race, for other programs of, you know, income redistribution and, you know, help for poor people and so forth.

And so he felt that - the Peace Corps. He didn't want to jeopardize any of those other programs, many of which were, you know, liberal in their intent, by giving the Southerners an excuse to fight him on civil rights. So while he personally was appalled, I think, by segregation and was - also felt it gave America a very big black eye in the Cold War, he was horrified at the exploitation that the Soviets were able to make of the situation here at home, he was very cautious about moving too quickly.

GROSS: So how did he end up moving forward?

PURDUM: Well, in the end he moved forward because events forced his hand. He and his brother, the attorney general, Robert Kennedy, realized that the only way they had a chance, they felt, of stopping these demonstrations that were sweeping across the country and prompting violent backlash from both Southern officialdom and average citizens in the South particularly, was to propose a new law that would end the discrimination, that would end the cause of the unrest.

And I think they were persuaded in many senses that this would be a practical way to calm the situation down. And so it's interesting, Nicholas Katzenbach, who was the deputy attorney general at the time, told me shortly before he died that he did believe that part of the impulse among members of Congress for passing the law was not necessarily highly idealistic but was in some ways practical, to kind of calm the waters and put an end to these demonstrations, which of course continued all throughout the '60s and in some ways, you know, spiraled out of control later on in the decade into riots.

GROSS: So when the bill is in its early stages, the March on Washington happens, and in the planning stages, President Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy, who was the attorney general, were very worried about the march. What were their concerns, and what did they tell the civil rights leaders?

PURDUM: First of all they didn't want violence. That was their nightmare, that somehow there could be scenes of violence playing out on the streets of Washington. They didn't want a march on the Capitol, in the hallways of the Capitol. They didn't want anything that smacked of an invasion. They didn't want otherwise persuadable senators and congressmen to be turned off by seeming to have a gun to their head from people, you know, invading their offices.

So what they ended up doing was co-opting the march and essentially taking over the part of the organization that involved government entities, and the police, and the military and so forth; and making sure that it could be efficiently and effectively run as possible and that it would be a success.

Once they failed in their effort to sort of postpone it or block it, they determined that it should be a big success, which of course it was.

GROSS: What was their criteria for calling it a success?

PURDUM: Well, I think for the organizers they wanted a large turnout. They hoped for 100,000 people. They got 200,000 people. For the Kennedys, they wanted a peaceful day that demonstrated the bipartisan, biracial, interracial, interfaith nature of the movement, and as these images were broadcast on television and in film, in newsreels around the world, the message that it sent was there was tremendous unification, unity, harmony behind the goal of bringing justice in the law to black and white America.

And I think at the end of the day, you know, President Kennedy greeted the marchers and Dr. King at the White House and shook King's hand and said I have a dream.

GROSS: Did the Kennedys try to vet any of the speeches?

PURDUM: Absolutely, they - particularly now Congressman John Lewis of Georgia was then a young activist for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and he had a speech draft that included words like revolution and radical and masses. And he attacked the Civil Rights Bill as too little too late and said that his organization couldn't support it. And he vowed to march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did.

Well, this was too much for the Catholic archbishop of Washington, who had agreed to deliver the invocation, and he said that if Lewis used those kinds of words, he'd get up and leave the platform. So behind the scenes of the Lincoln Memorial, behind the statue of Lincoln, older civil rights leaders, including Philip Randolph, persuaded John Lewis to tone his rhetoric down.

And in the end of the day, he still made an incredibly beautiful, forceful speech in which he said we will not stop. If we do not get meaningful legislation out of this Congress, the time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington.

GROSS: So the bill originates in the House, and what was originally in the bill? Can you give us a synopsis of that?

PURDUM: Well, there were basically about seven main provisions. The first would have enforced the right to vote in federal elections, and it would regardless of race. The second was the one you mentioned: it would outlaw discrimination at hotels, motels, restaurants, and it would exempt private clubs without precisely defining them.

The third would allow the attorney general to bring suits to desegregate public schools. The fourth would establish a community relations service to help individuals and communities in resolving racial disputes in their own localities. And the fifth would extend the life of the Civil Rights Commission, which had been created originally by the 1957 Civil Rights Act, the first real law since Reconstruction to try to get at this question.

The sixth would prohibit discrimination in federally assisted programs in states and localities and allow the federal government to cut off money to, say, school districts or municipalities that discriminated. And the seventh would create an Equal Opportunity Employment Commission to address discrimination by government contractors.

But that was controversial because it didn't include the real teeth that some of the most ardent civil rights supporters wanted. It didn't include a real regulatory scheme to let that commission sanction private businesses and so forth and so on.

GROSS: So how does that compare to the bill that finally passed?

PURDUM: The bill that finally passed had virtually all those elements, and virtually all of them, in one way or another, were strengthened. Particularly in the end there was an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission with greater teeth, and in the end the compromise involved letter disputes be heard in federal courts so that both sides could have their say.

But there were more teeth in the measure than in the initial one. So the miracle is that the pattern had been, with most civil rights laws up to that point, they either failed completely or got watered down during their march to passage. This one in many ways actually got stronger than the original bill.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Todd Purdum. We're talking about his new book about the passage of the Civil Rights Act 50 years ago. The book is called "An Idea Whose Time Has Come." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Todd Purdum, and we're talking about his new book, which is called "An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties And The Battle For The Civil Rights Act Of 1964." This year is the 50th anniversary of the bill. The book will be published April 1.

As the bill is making its way through Congress, Hoover, J. Edgar Hoover, then the head of the FBI, is bugging Martin Luther King's advisor and friend Stanley David Levison. And then he started warning the Kennedys that Levison was a communist. And the Kennedys were already a little concerned, probably because of Hoover, that the civil rights movement was under the sway of communism.

So how were the Kennedys affected by this information that they were getting from Hoover, which wasn't even true because although Levison, you write, had been like sympathetic to or affiliated with the Communist Party, he was no longer?

PURDUM: Yeah, by this time - what J. Edgar Hoover never told the administration is that by this time the FBI had evidence that Levison had completely stopped his financial support for the Communist Party of the United States and instead had transferred his efforts to Martin Luther King's own crusade.

So the effect it had was this warning about communism (unintelligible) at the height of the Cold War, at the height of, you know, just months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, this made the Kennedys so nervous that if Martin Luther King, you know, could be seen as having anything like communist associations, that if they were too closely associated with him, it could hurt them terribly in the public eye.

So it really drove a lot of their dealings with him, and it drove their keeping him at arm's length. And frankly, they were operating under a good deal of misinformation because J. Edgar Hoover was giving them misinformation on purpose because he was so offended by King and so offended by King's crusade for racial equality, and also because he was so paranoid about any potential communist affiliation.

But let's be honest. The civil rights movement from the, you know, Depression on did get help from leftist American movements at a time when it wasn't getting help from mainstream groups elsewhere in the country. So it wouldn't have been disqualifying in Martin Luther King's eyes to take support from leftist liberal groups, because they were the ones who were going to help.

GROSS: So the Kennedys knew that Hoover was bugging Martin Luther King. And you write letting Hoover build his file on King was the price the Kennedys paid for protecting the president's political future and the civil rights bill's prospects. Explain that.

PURDUM: Well, first of all, we have to remember that that Kennedys also knew that J. Edgar Hoover knew a lot of things about the president's own personal life and his sexual indiscretions dating back to World War II when he was dating a young woman that Hoover thought was possibly a German spy. So the Kennedys knew that Hoover had a voluminous file on JFK and might try to use it against him.

So whenever Hoover asked for authority to wiretap King or - Bobby Kennedy did not immediately grant it, but when Hoover asked for authority to conduct surveillance on the civil rights movement, generally speaking the Kennedy administration gave him that permission because they felt that if they did not, he would leak damaging information about Martin Luther King and the movement to the public, which would make it, you know, much, much harder to get any progress.

Of course the other side of that coin is if the civil rights workers themselves, if King and the movement had known the degree to which the Kennedy administration was complicit in this bugging, the Kennedys would have lost all credibility with the pro-civil rights movement and would have, you know, it would have been an absolute political disaster for them.

GROSS: What were reactions within the civil rights movement to the civil rights bill that was working its way through Congress? Were there divisions about whether it was strong enough?

PURDUM: Yes, there were intense divisions about whether it was strong enough. When it was first proposed, I would say the most ardent civil rights advocates felt it was too little too late, sort of half a loaf, it was not strong enough. And in fact they worked in the House very hard to make it stronger.

The fear of the Kennedys was that if it got too many elements in it, if it was made too strong, it wouldn't be able to pass the House, the whole House, much less pass the Senate. So in the fall of 1963, they really faced a kind of agonizing problem. Their liberal allies had made their bill stronger, but the Republicans, whose support they absolutely needed to pass it, were warning that this would doom it to failure, first in the House and then in the Senate.

So President Kennedy in that fall, that October of 1963, had to really undertake a delicate dance to make the bill strong enough to please the civil rights groups or at least to be acceptable to them while not having so many elements in it that it would be immediately shot down in Congress.

GROSS: What was the status of the civil rights bill when President Kennedy was assassinated?

PURDUM: It had passed the House Judiciary Committee by a whisker kind of a way, with President Kennedy's help, in the end of October. And it was hung up in the House Rules Committee, which as we know is the committee that sets the ground rules, the guidelines for debate of a bill on the House floor. The House is so big, with 435 members, that it can't have unlimited debate the way the Senate does. It can't have kind of freewheeling debate. So every bill that comes to the House has a tightly proscripted pattern of debate and rules for how many minutes and so forth are set to do it.

And the chairman of that committee was an 80-year-old man from Virginia named Howard Smith, who was an infamous segregationist and infamous conservative Democrat, whose favorite way of blocking a bill was simply to retreat to his farm in Fauquier County, Virginia and take no action at all. And that's really where things stood on November 22, 1963, when President Kennedy was assassinated.

GROSS: So after Kennedy's assassination, when Johnson becomes president, Johnson pledges to make civil rights a priority, to make passage of the bill a priority. And he says, like, nothing's going to happen in Congress until this bill is passed. But didn't Johnson advise Kennedy not to move forward with the Civil Rights Bill in his first term?

PURDUM: He had been careful to advise him that if he moved forward with it, he should first get the rest of his legislative program in line. He should first get the tax cut passed. He should first get some of these other priorities taken care of so they would not be then held hostage to civil rights.

But the interesting thing is that while he had a reputation among civil rights groups, particularly because of his work as Senate majority leader in the 1957 and 1960 civil rights bills, he had a reputation of watering down such legislation in order to get it passed. By 1963 he had actually become a very strong supporter of civil rights, and that spring he had made a series of speeches that went way beyond anything the president had said to that point and that in fact discomfited the White House and the attorney general because he was so outspoken.

So what happened in the wake of the assassination was that Johnson realized he could not do anything else that he cared about in his presidency if he didn't establish his bona fides, his undisputed credentials on civil rights. So he vowed to finish the job that Kennedy had started and to make it his absolutely top priority. And for the next 10 months that's what he did.

GROSS: So when Johnson becomes president, the civil rights bill is still stuck in the Rules Committee. What was Johnson's strategy to get it out?

PURDUM: There were a number of strategies, but one of the strategies that he chose to pursue was to put pressure on Chairman Smith by circulating what's known as a discharge petition, in which if a majority of the members of the House, that would be 218, wanted to call a bill out of the committee and put it directly on the House floor, it could happen.

It was a very rare procedure, almost never happened, and most people in the leadership of Congress did not like it because it usurped the prerogatives of chairmen, it bypassed the normal procedures. And in those days Washington was much, much more traditional in terms of seniority and procedures in Congress, and it was just something that nobody was very much in favor of.

But what happened was that because word got out that Johnson was considering this possibility and was rounding up support for it, there was another mechanism in which members of the Rules Committee itself could force the chairman to hold hearings and take a vote, and that's what happened because of the pressure that Johnson began applying.

GROSS: And is that an example of how Johnson really knew his congressional strategy?

PURDUM: Absolutely, absolutely, although it must be said that he had to be careful not to push too hard because if he had pushed too hard, there would've been a backlash against him. So he had to be very subtle in terms of he would call outside allies, liberal labor groups and others, asking them to do this kind of lobbying. He had to be very careful about doing it himself.

GROSS: So once the civil rights bill gets out of the Rules Committee and onto the House floor, the concern of the advocates of this bill was that it would be watered down by segregationists who would add amendment after amendment, making the bill weaker. And so what was that fight like between the House members who opposed the bill and those who supported the bill? What was the strategy on each side?

PURDUM: Well, it was a kind of a wonderful scene because the House debated bills like that in those days in what was known as the Committee of the Whole, so that members would not have to take recorded votes on amendments. And the challenge therefore was to keep hostile forces, keep the segregationists, from loading the bill up with amendments that would weaken it.

And to do that, the pro-civil rights forces had to set up a system in the galleries of the House, kind of an early version of a human beeper system, in which they sent young people around to the hallways of the House office buildings whenever a vote was getting ready to happen and make sure that they could round up friendly members and bring them to the floor so that they could defend the bill.

And this effort was led by a young woman from the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers named Jane O'Grady(ph). She's still alive, living in Washington. And her group became quickly known as O'Grady's Raiders, and they would go around from office to office rounding up members. And by the second or third day the members were so aware that they were doing this, they said come on, come on, I'm on my way, don't worry about it.

But it was really, it was a crazy idea, she said, but it worked.

GROSS: So one of the big changes to the Civil Rights Act that happened in the House was that women were added as a protected class in the bill. So you couldn't discriminate against women in employment?

PURDUM: Yes, that was the work of Chairman Smith of the Rules Committee, who thought that by including sex as a protected category, it would be a poison pill, and he could doom the bill because his male chauvinist colleagues would not want to gum up a civil rights bill with protecting the fairer sex. And in fact the women in Congress immediately rose up, of both parties, Republicans and Democrats, and said for Pete's sake, we need this. We don't cause you any problem. You know, this would be a very important thing to do.

And so in fact it passed, as we know. It then became one of the most important parts of employment discrimination law in the 20th century, and it all happened because, in a sense, of the maliciousness of Chairman Smith, who wanted to block the bill.

GROSS: Todd Purdum will be back in the second half of the show. His book about the battle to pass the Civil Rights Act, called "An Idea Whose Time Has Come," will be published April 1. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. On this Martin Luther King Day, we're talking about the battle to pass the Civil Rights Act, which ended legal segregation in public places. This year marks the 50th anniversary of its passage.

My guest, Todd Purdum, is the author of the forthcoming book "An Idea Whose Time Had Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964." It will be published April 1st. We're getting a preview. When we left off, we were talking about how the bill made its way through the House.

So somebody who you give a lot of credit to the passage of the Civil Rights Act is somebody who isn't really very well-known, and that's Congressman Bill McCulloch, who - well, tell us what his role was...

PURDUM: Well...

GROSS: ...in shepherding the bill through the House.

PURDUM: He was a rock-ribbed Republican from a conservative district in West Central Ohio. His hometown of Piqua is now represented by John Boehner. And he was against government spending, against foreign aid, all the things we think of as being conservative. But he was also the descendant of pre-Civil War abolitionists and he'd always been a strong supporter of civil rights.

So by 1963, he was the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee and he believed that the time had come for a big comprehensive bill. But he didn't want to have happen what usually had happened, which is to have the House pass a strong and see it watered down and frittered away in the Senate. So McCulloch told the Kennedy administration that he would take the lead in supporting the bill in the House if the initiation would promise to stick by that bill in the Senate, not see it watered down by a bunch of weakening amendments and, moreover, would be willing to give the Republicans credit for helping to pass` it. So in a strange way, this one congressman from Ohio drove the whole train and ultimately set up the strategy that would force the administration - and later, the Johnson administration - to try to break the filibuster in the Senate, which was something that had never been successfully done on a civil rights bill.

And he had a population, Terry, in his district, a black population, of less than 3 percent. But he just believed that this was the right thing to do and he stuck by his guns all through the debate and he carried along with him the entire House Republican leadership simply because of his stature as the ranking member on the committee and because of this strong passion - and reasonableness - on the question.

GROSS: So the bill finally, you know, passes the House. Let's talk about what happens to the civil rights bill as it made its way through the Senator Hubert Humphrey - Senator Hubert Humphrey - was the bill's floor manager. He was the one with the responsibility of shepherding the bill through the Southern Democrats' filibusters. What were some of the more memorable things that were set against civil rights and in support of segregation during the filibuster?

PURDUM: Well, it's almost unbelievable to go back and look at the Congressional Record and see some of the things that were said in broad daylight on the floor of the Senate just 50 years ago. For example, one of my favorites, there is an exchange between Senator Russell Long of Louisiana and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina about whether or not it was unfair to use cattle prods on demonstrators. And Russell Long says to Strom Thurmond: Is the senator familiar with the fact that the prod sticks are not designed for cattle, but are designed for exactly the kind of animals they are touching - namely, reluctant human beings who insist on getting in the way of a policeman. And Strom Thurmond replies: There's not very much electricity in one. I remember once going through a secret organization ceremonial, a fraternal organization. There was a man after me with one of those sticks and I ran for about 100 yards. I had to run fast to keep ahead of that stick because while it mostly tickled, it tickled pretty much.

I mean when you read those kind of things and even in the cold type of the Congressional Record, the hair on the back of your neck goes up a little bit to think that people were willing to say it in public.

GROSS: What else?

PURDUM: Herman Talmadge of Georgia called the Civil Rights Act a bill to regulate the American people. John McClellan of Arkansas said it was the Discrimination Act of 1964. Russell Long also said: The good Lord did as much segregating as anyone I know of when you put one race in one part of the world and another race in one part of the world. We folks in the South are not hypocrites about this matter. We think it's absolutely desirable that the white people should continue to be white and that their children and grandchildren would be the same. And we let our children know we think just that. Paul Douglas of Illinois, a liberal Democrat, replied to that: You know, Senator, there has been a lot of mixing of the races in the South and most of it has occurred not initiated by the Negroes. So, you know, you can go page after page of that kind of stuff.

GROSS: And Strom Thurmond spoke skeptically of the constitutionality of the entire 14th Amendment, shocking Hubert Humphrey with that statement. What was his grounds for that?

PURDUM: Yeah. Yeah. He said, you know, it had been passed in the wake and the blood of the Civil War and he wasn't really sure that it was valid.

(LAUGHTER)

PURDUM: The whole thrust of this debate was that 100 years after it ended the Civil War was really being we fought in the corridors of Congress. And the Southerners were giving their last stand and they knew it. Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, who was really the leader in the Senate of opposition to the bill, he knew that his day was passing. He knew that segregation was ending. He confessed to constituencies, to constituents and other civil rights advocates that, you know, he was fighting a losing battle. But he felt he had to do it. And in part he felt he had to do it because if the Southerners made their stand and did their best to defeat the bill, and it passed anyway, then their constituents at home would know that the bill had been won fair and square and they would have to support it. And, in fact, that's what happened.

GROSS: President Jonathan told Hubert Humphrey, who was trying to move the Civil Rights Act through the Senate and get it passed, Johnson told him, you can't pass the bill unless you get Senator Everett Dirksen, and in order to get him, you have to give him a piece of the action. What did Johnson mean, and what piece of the action did they give Dirksen?

PURDUM: Well, Senator Dirksen was the Republican minority leader. He was from Illinois. He was by far the most colorful senator of his day. He smoked incessantly, drank constantly. He gargled every day with a swallow of Pond's Cold Cream and water, which he swallowed. And he was known, he had an incredibly mellifluous voice. He was known as the Wizard of Ooze. He felt, despite his long support in Congress and the Senate for most civil rights measures, that he did not get enough credit with the constituents in Illinois, particularly black constituents in Chicago and elsewhere, for that position. And when President Kennedy proposed the bill, Dirksen announced that he was generally supportive of it. But he had big doubts about two sections; Section 2, the one on public accommodations...

GROSS: Which is a pretty important section.

PURDUM: It was really the heart...

GROSS: The centerpiece of it. Yeah.

PURDUM: Really the heart of the bill. And Title VII, which was the one on unemployment discrimination. And part of Dirksen's objection there was states like Illinois - Northern states - already had strong anti-discrimination laws and employment. And he was worried, in that classic Republican way, about bureaucratic overlap, federal overreach. He did not want businessmen in Illinois to be have to keeping two sets of books - one for the state law, one for the federal law. So he and his lawyers on his staff determined to figure out how they could work to clarify some of that. And as a symbolic matter, Humphrey gave Dirksen tremendous credit at every turn. Meetings, bi-partisan negotiating sessions, were held in Dirksen's office as a sign of respect so that Dirksen could say to his own constituents and his own caucus in the Republican Senate that he was working to make changes in the bill. And in the end what happened was that Dirksen made dozens and dozens of mostly picayune small changes to the bill and was able to persuade his members that he in fact made - what the effect of what he did was to make the bill apply mostly to the South and to exempt states in the North, like his own of Illinois, which already had strong anti-discrimination laws, from some of the bill's provisions.

And the administration - the Johnson administration - was willing to accept that because the real, what they saw as the real problem they had to address immediately, was the legalized segregation in the South, and they would worry about the sort of de facto segregation in the North later.

GROSS: President Johnson's official position was he would not compromise on the bill. It had to be the bill that was sent to Congress. And he told - you quote him as telling Hubert Humphrey: I'm against any amendments. I'm going to be against them right up until I sign them.

(LAUGHTER)

PURDUM: It's one of my favorite lines from LBJ. In fact, the remarkable thing about LBJ is how restrained he was able to be. He wanted the Senate to hold round-the-clock session, he wanted to exhaust the members and wear them down into passing the bill. Humphrey and the Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield thought that would be a bad idea, that it would only - it might actually kill some of the older senators. And you can see in the White House secret recordings that Johnson made his frustration with his fellow Democrats. And you can see day after day that he's just chomping at the bit, wanting to go down there himself and knock heads together. But he doesn't. And so while in history and in the sort of popular mythology, the civil rights bill is sometimes seen as the almost single-handed work of President Johnson.

I really think his most remarkable accomplishment was twofold: One, as you say, he said, we're not wavering. We're going to pass this strong bill. We're going to pass the bill as it is. I'm not going to compromise. I'm not going to wheel and deal. But the second thing was that he was restrained and it must've taken enormous act of will to restrain the force of his personality from meddling too much, because he knew that his former colleagues would resent very deeply if he tried to be senator and president at the same time - that the roles are different and they knew that and he knew that.

GROSS: So was it because of Dirksen compromises and then Dirksen's ability to get votes for the Civil Rights Act that the act actually passed? Like, how much credit do you give the Dirksen compromises?

PURDUM: I think you have to give Dirksen an enormous amount of credit. But there's another factor at work that was helping Dirksen. And that is a massive grassroots lobbying campaign by churches, synagogues and interfaith groups of every stripe who were lobbying members, particularly members of the Senate, from Midwestern and Great Plains states who did not have many black people in their states but had a lot of Methodists and Catholics and Baptists and were susceptible to pressure from religious leaders.

And there's a wonderful line Senator Karl Mundt of South Dakota is saying - one day he's overheard having taken a vote to support the bill: I hope that satisfies those too damn bishops who called me last night. So Dirksen had tremendous help from the grassroots movement that was spread all across the Midwest.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Todd Purdum. We're talking about his book about the history of the passage of the Civil Rights Act. This year marks the 50th anniversary of its passage. The book is called "An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964."

Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And on this Martin Luther King Day, we're talking about the passage of the Civil Rights Act. This year marks the 50th anniversary of its passage. My guest Todd Purdum is the author of the new book "An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964." The book isn't due to be published until April 1st and we're grateful for this preview.

You know, we're used to tight votes being - or any votes in Congress - being divided according to Democrats and Republicans. But that's not exactly how the division was in the civil rights bill in 1964. Give us a sense of what the final vote was.

PURDUM: The final bill passed the Senate 73-to-27, with 27 Republican votes. That's remarkable. They were only 33 Republicans in the Senate. So an overwhelming majority of Republicans supported the bill, whereas, 18 Democrats, segregationists, opposed it. So in proportional terms, the Republicans did far more to support the bill than the Democrats did as a whole.

GROSS: So once the bill is passed, then the next big decision for President Johnson is, when does he sign the bill? He wanted to sign it immediately. He wanted to sign up at night, which was July 2nd, 1964. And then Robert Kennedy, his attorney general, is saying, no, you can't sign it that quickly. You have to wait until after the July 4th holiday weekend. What was Bobby Kennedy's concerns?

PURDUM: Well, it passed the Senate on June 19th and then it had to go back to the house for a final passage, so that was July 2nd. And Bobby Kennedy called him that morning and said, you know, Mr. President, if we sign it on eve of the long Fourth of July weekend, we're going to have black people running all over the South in every hotel and restaurant trying to get service, and maybe we should delay. Well, Johnson just thought that, you know, he was not going to tell Kennedy to his face because by that point relations between them were so bad and the trust was so frayed. So instead, Johnson called about five or six other people and floated the idea, attributing it to Bobby and saying what do you think? And they said, oh no, Mr. President, you should all sign it right away. So he determined to sign it that night. He asked for television time. His press secretary, George Reedy, told him the networks recommended 6:45. And Johnson, who had gotten rich owning a television station in Austin said, they just don't want to give up their prime airtime. We'd rather do it at 7. In the end, the earlier time prevailed. But it was a wonderful signing ceremony in the East Room of the White House where Johnson went on live television and explained the rationale for the bill and then handed out something like more than 70 pens afterwards.

GROSS: All pens used to sign his signature on the bill.

PURDUM: Exactly.

GROSS: It must've been like micro signing for each pen.

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PURDUM: You can see him on the extant film, he's putting a tiny little movement with his hand with each pen and then picks another pen out of the rack and does some more.

GROSS: So, you know, and legislatively it didn't end there. Soon after, there was the Voting Rights Act and the Housing Rights Act. Was that part of the plan all along, do you think, in the minds of either people and, you know, liberals in Congress or the president?

PURDUM: I think liberals in Congress certainly felt that the vital first step was to end this scourge of, you know, legalize segregation in public places and then after that was done other things could follow. And of course, they quickly realized a year later in 1965, after the bloody demonstrations in Selma, Alabama, that voting rights were not fully protected and the bill had not been strong enough on that question. And it didn't apply to state elections, for example. It only applied to federal elections. So the Voting Rights Act was passed to apply to all elections and to carry forward, and the same - in 1968, the Housing Discrimination Act. What's sad is that the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in some ways, in very real ways, mark the high watermark of consensus on the question of civil rights. And as the '60s went on and violence in the streets continued and discord continued and ultimately the '70s debates about affirmative action and busing, the coalition that had so magnificently passed the Civil Rights Act of '64 splintered and began to fall apart and the country became much more divided up until really the present day when we see the Supreme Court overturning certain aspects of the Voting Rights Act just last year.

And the national consensus on civil rights has in the last, you know, 20 years or so, 30 years, diminished a great deal from where it was in 1964.

GROSS: What impact did the Civil Rights Act and its passage have on President Johnson's relationship with the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement?

PURDUM: Well, the immediate effect was a positive one. He became quite close to them - many of them - and they work cooperatively through the Voting Rights Act. But as the '60s went on, and particularly as Martin Luther King and others began to oppose very vocally President Johnson's policies on Vietnam, an estrangement grew up. And by the time of King's assassination in 1968, he and Johnson were not on speaking terms anymore.

So that also is a very poignant - I mean, the two of them really combined to pass this landmark legislation and by the end of King's life they were really not speaking.

GROSS: You know, another ripple effect of the passage of the Civil Rights Act was the change in voting habits in the - the voting patterns in the American South. You want to just describe that?

PURDUM: Well, the night he signed the bill, Johnson told his friend Bill Moyers that he had a premonition that they'd just delivered the South to the Republican Party for years to come. And in fact, beginning in the 1960s and up to the present day, that really came true, as white backlash and resentment against these laws conspired to help revive and revitalize the Republican Party throughout the South.

The Republican Party in the South had been basically a black party and by the, you know, end of the 20th century was almost a completely white party. And the Republican Party's source of national strength is and remains the South.

GROSS: What did you learn writing this book on how the Civil Rights Act was actually passed about how Congress really works?

PURDUM: Well, I learned several things. One is that there was a lot of advantage to having a backroom deal, having quiet negotiations out of public view where people could test their ideas, not posture, not preen for the cameras, but just talk to each other as people. Secondly, they knew each other as people. Their wives knew each other. They'd work together, regardless of party in many cases, on interests of mutual concern to their states and their constituents.

Thirdly, they drank. They drank a lot. They drank in midday. They drank all day long. And they socialized with each other and they knew each other's weaknesses and they knew each other's strengths. And they also, at the end of the day, both parties were willing to put aside a sort of partisan advantage to do what they thought was right or what the times were demanding. And that's the thing that seems almost inconceivable to me today.

The way the Republicans, particularly, who could've tortured President Kennedy and then President Johnson over civil rights and said, you know, your problem is you don't have enough Democrats to pass this bill, you go fix it and fix your southern Democrats.

Instead, over and over again at every turn when the bill was threatened, the Republicans rode to the rescue, even if it was against their partisan self-interest. And to say the least, it's really hard to imagine Republicans - or either party today - doing something like that.

GROSS: Having researched the arguments that were made against the Civil Rights Act, do you hear similar arguments being made today in Congress in opposition to various bills?

PURDUM: Yes, in many ways you do. And in the 2012 campaign, for example, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, running for office, said he wasn't sure that he believed the public accommodation section of the Civil Rights Act was constitutional. He wasn't sure it was constitutional to tell a private business that they had to serve customers regardless of race.

To that, someone like Bill McCulloch of Ohio in the House, he used to say that the English common law for generations had required every innkeeper to serve any customer as long as he was seemly and could pay for his services. So, of course, really, the idea of apartheid, the idea of segregation and enforced segregation had grown up in the post-Civil War era to keep black people suppressed, to keep slavery going by another name.

And in some ways, it does go to the heart of what government's role is, vis a vis private enterprise and private property. And it remains a controversial idea in many aspects of American life, that the government should regulate private business conduct and private property, and the idea that a man's home is his castle. And you still see in restaurants all around the country: We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.

The difference being that they'd have to say, you know, that the person was disorderly or not wearing shoes or a shirt, as opposed to had skin that was a different color.

GROSS: Well, Todd Purdum, I want to thank you so much for giving us a preview of your book about the Civil Rights Act because I know the book isn't published until April 1st. We very much appreciate you talking to us about this on this Martin Luther King Day. Thank you so much.

PURDUM: Thank you very much, Terry.

GROSS: Todd Purdum's book about the battle to pass the Civil Rights Act is called "An Idea Whose Time Has Come." It will be published April 1st. Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a solo piano album by Lafayette Gilchrist who taps into jazz's historical roots as well as the hip-hop and go-go he grew up with. This is FRESH AIR.

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