How The Civil Rights Bill of 1964 Could Preview Gun Legislation
How Legislation Does (& Doesn't) Pass In America
I became an Economics major for all the wrong reasons. Given I was going to a liberal arts college in the South, I did everything I could to signal to the big-boy investment banks up North that I was somebody, I was a contender. Being an Economics major was a signaling device.
It destroyed my GPA because I wasn’t great at it, and there were only two classes I enjoyed. I even had to take Econometrics twice to salvage an atrocious grade the first time around.
If I could do it again, I would have been a history major. Ever since I graduated I’ve been making up for lost time by reading historical nonfiction. I love it. I even tear up reading it sometimes. Ray Baker, a writer for McClure’s, once said:
“Why bother with fictional characters and plots when the world was full of more marvelous stories that were true: and characters so powerful, so fresh, so new, that they stepped into the narratives under their own power.”
I couldn’t agree more.
But reading history also gives you perspective on the present. You get less surprised by the outrages of the day when they have happened before in some form or fashion. History also provides playbooks for how to resolve the crises of today, as the common denominator is always humans and the decisions they make.
It’s with that in mind that I couldn’t help notice the parallels between the decades leading up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and our current struggle with gun violence.
I recently finished re-reading Robert Caro’s biography on President LBJ, so the passage of the civil rights bills and decades leading up to it are still fresh in my head. The path forward for our present-day dilemma may not be fully illuminated by the comparison, but the lessons learned could help mold outrage into results. Learning how our government actually operates should also remind us of the difference between popular will and legislative action.
And so, a brief history. See what feels the same and what feels different about the repetitiveness, lack of change, series of failures, and ultimate successes when compared to the present day.
THE LEAD UP
1896’s Plessy v. Ferguson was the final act in unwinding the Civil Rights Act of 1875, a bill that had gradually been weakened over the prior 20 years. The 15th and 16th Amendments that provided for equal rights and voting opportunities for Black Americans were officially dead. Jim Crow was alive.
Poll taxes, voucher systems where a White man had to accompany you to a voting office, “grandfather clauses” where your grandfather also had to be registered to vote, literacy tests, and general intimidation all meant little access for Blacks to change their circumstance in the very states they lived in.
The first decades of 1900 progressed slowly, with countless attacks on, and murders of, southern Blacks. It led up to the murder of Emmett Till in 1955. Black. A child. But more importantly for awareness: from the North. Jim Crow had crossed the Mason Dixon.
Black migration North did start to mean real voting power, however. Political parties were starting to see that the “Black vote” either did or would start to sway elections.
So even as Southern bombings, beatings, sniper fire, and cross burnings were increasing, even as the White bombers of MLK’s home confessed and were acquitted, 1957’s bill marked the first small movement in civil rights since the late 1800’s. And while its passage was momentous, all it did was re-guarantee the right to vote given by the 15th Amendment. It was a stepping stone, not a powerful bill in itself.
The South responded. “There is a consistent and insistent attempt to force all white southerners into a rigid pattern of defiance of the courts and to a position of rigidity on every aspect of the race question. The field is being pre-empted by the extremists. There is no middle ground, no shade of gray. Only black and white. And woe betide the black.” – Morris Abram, 1955
Direct and meaningful contact with the civil rights issue was getting harder and harder to avoid for Northern Whites. Once there was contact, each horrific event built on the next. Increasing media coverage helped. Jackie Robinson on the cover of Life Magazine. Emmett Till. Rosa Parks. The Little Rock Nine. Greensboro. Freedom Rides. University of Alabama. The March on Washington. Birmingham.
THE SENATE AS AN OBJECT OF RIDICULE AND MINORITY RULE
The common refrain of “nothing’s getting done” is not new. In fact, it’s a bit of an American pastime. The following are quotes from 1953 about the Senate and Congress overall. What’s old is new again.
“[Senate] filibusters have delayed for decades the enactment of social legislation passed by the House and desired by a majority of the American people." - George Galloway, 1953
"The heart of democracy is breaking down." - Fortune, 1953
“Obsolescence, together with its tolerance of unlimited debate and frequent absenteeism, may lead the American people in time to realize that [the Senate] is not indispensable.” – George Galloway, 1953
“The Senate of the United States has in recent years been losing its hold on the confidence and respect of the American People.” - Senator Wayne Morse, Oregon, 1953
“I feel that I am part of a vast failure of public duty.” - Senator Guy Cordon, Oregon, 1953
These were common refrains in op-eds of the time as Black Americans continued to seek freedom under the law.
In every fight there are two sides, and the South had its leaders. In front stood Richard Russell, Senator from Georgia. Leader of 22 Senate votes and influencer of many more. A man who believed that integration of Blacks and Whites would lead to “mongrelization” and the end of the White race.
Then there was Senator James Eastland of Mississippi, head of the Judiciary committee. No bill on civil rights could be voted on by the whole Senate unless he allowed it to be voted on first by his committee. A man who had once called Blacks “slimy and juicy”.
After Brown v. Board of Ed integrated schools in 1954, the Southern Senators wrote their “Southern Manifesto”. They used state’s rights and individual freedoms to argue that separate but equal was actually positive in that it allowed parents to “direct the lives and education of their own children”
They pledged to “use all lawful means to bring about a reversal of [Brown vs Board of Ed] which is contrary to the constitution and to prevent the use of force in its implementation.” Every non-civil rights bill became a weapon, a delay tactic, buying time for their way of life.
The opposition to civil rights, though carried by a minority in the Senate and a minority in the country overall, was thoroughly winning. In the late 1940’s Congress couldn’t even pass an anti-lynching bill. In 1956, fourteen civil rights bills were brought to the Senate. None made it out of the Judiciary committee.
To quote Senator Paul Douglas of Illinois: “How many senators really care about civil rights? How could we ever reverse the tide?” In 1957 Martin Luther King spent a year asking for a meeting with President Eisenhower. He never received a response.
THE WAY FORWARD
Bills that ride waves of emotion crash harmlessly against the walls of seasoned tacticians. Bills that harness emotion into sticks of dynamite stuck into the weakest points of those walls - those are bills that win. Politics is a game, and strategy trumps idealism every time.
The 1964 Civil Rights Bill was forged through a coordinated Senatorial strategy. Each individual Senator that might waver was named and lobbied specifically by civil rights leaders, the heads of Labor Unions, and business leaders. Even hundreds of priests, minister, and nuns were recruited to the cause. Washington DC was packed with clergy.
Given the Senate has thousands of arcane rules, and given that each Senator is constantly balancing the needs of their state plus the country at large, there are always myriad exit ramps by which to avoid voting for an issue. In this case, each excuse of “state’s rights”, “constitutional freedom”, and “senate procedure” by a Senator was immediately labeled as anti-civil rights. The old escape routes were closed. It was turned into a black and white issue.
Leading the charge on the pro-civil rights side was President LBJ, a man who in the words of Walter Lippman was a “passionate seeker with an uncanny gift for finding, beneath public issues, common ground on which men can stand.” More importantly, he was man who knew that bills got passed “not by idealism, but by rough stuff” (Katherine Graham).
LBJ knew that the way forward was not to end the filibuster. Senators fiercely protect the right to unlimited debate and the armor it gives to minority states. To go after a hallowed Senatorial right was not a winning strategy and distracted from the goal, which was passing a broad civil rights bill.
"Cloture", however, is the means to overcome a filibuster on any given bill. Back in 1964 they needed 67 votes to get cloture, vs the 60 needed now. To achieve it, they even wheeled in the terminally ill Senator Engle from California to feebly gesture “Yes”, as he had lost the ability to speak.
After 70 years of murders, cries for “why not now”, and feelings of helplessness, America's legislators broke the resistance and finally made progress on civil rights.
THEMES FOR TODAY
Whether you see many or no parallels at all to the present day is for each individual to determine. Here are some things that I see:
For decades there was a group of Congressman that fervently supported civil rights and sent bill after bill to the floors of the House and Senate. They didn’t get anywhere. They were idealists, not tacticians. Thoughts and prayers don’t pass legislation - humans do, particularly those that understand the rules of the game.
For every contentious issue there is an opposing side, and they will be fighting back with all they can. The tools they have are varied and strong. Time is in itself a weapon if you are fighting for the status quo.
Legislation could end up passing 10 or 15 or 20+ years after a majority of the nation thinks it should. That is, in fact, sometimes the point of the Senate. How long of a wait depends on the action of many and the acuity of a few.
How does this apply to us non-politicians? 50% of people vote in midterms. 1.75% of people donate more than $200 to political campaigns. 0.2% give more than $2,700. Who are you choosing to support? Why? What do you think they can actually achieve? What are you doing to elect them?
Cheers to history.