The Longest Debate

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Whalen, Charles and Barbara. The Longest Debate A Legislative History of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Cabin John, MD: Seven Locks Press, 1985.

Summary


The Longest Debate is a history of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 containing both the contents of the bill, but also how the bill was created and passed through Congress. Prior to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the last act of Congress that addressed civil rights was the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which was weakened considerably to ensure its passing. In 1963 the Kennedy Administration proposed another civil rights act that would greatly improve the rights of African-Americans. This bill, like all other pieces of civil rights legislation, would be difficult to pass. This is because of the power the Southern Congressmen and Senators who favored segregation and who used either their power as committee chairmen, or in the case of Southern Senators, the power of the filibuster to ensure that strong civil rights legislation would not make it out of the Congress.

Despite these obstacles, the Kennedy administration submitted what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the House of Representatives in 1963. The bill included numerous titles that would ensure voting rights and provided for the desegregation of education, houses, employment, etc. as well as other terms to provide rights to African-Americans. Prior to submitting the bill to the House, where it was sent to the Judiciary Committee, the Kennedy Administration first met with Bill McCulloch a Republican Congressman from Ohio who was the Ranking Member on the Judiciary Committee. The Administration knew that it needed Republican support otherwise the bill would not have any chance of passing, due to the opposition from Conservative Southern Democrats. Thus, they knew that they needed to court Republican leadership. McCulloch and the Administration worked out the details to come up with a package they agreed upon. Both parties wanted a bill that stood a chance of passing rather than an idealistic bill that would die in Congress.

Once the bill arrived in the Judiciary Committee, it was strengthened by the Committee Chairman, Manny Celler of New York, who strengthened the bill in order to provide more bargaining chips for any possible deals with its opponents. These angered McCulloch and the Administration, who felt these actions endangered the bills passage. As a result, the bill was reverted back to its original form and sent to the Rules Committee, the final step before going to the full House. The Chairman of that Committee as a Segregationist from Virginia who opposed the bill. Although he was successful in delaying the bills passage, he was unsuccessful in killing it.

While the bill was working through Congress, President Kennedy was assassinated and Vice-President Johnson became President. Johnson supported the bill and worked to see it passed. After the bill of sent up to the full House, it was passed by a clear majority and sent to the Senate. When it arrived in the Senate, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Mansfield of Montana was successfully able to have the bill be considered by the full Senate without having to go to committee, saving it from the Senate Judiciary Committee chaired by Mississippi Senator James Eastland. After dodging the committee President Johnson and the Democratic leaders of the Senate, Mansfield and Hubert H. Humphrey had to convince Republicans to support the measure. In addition to having to find enough votes to pass the bill, they also needed to get the 67 votes necessary to invoke cloture and end a Southern filibuster. To accomplish this, they lobbied Senator Minority Leader Dirksen and other Republicans. Over the next several months, Southern Senators, led by Georgia Senator Richard B. Russell led a filibuster against the bill while its supporters rallied enough votes for cloture.

In June of 1964 the vote to invoke cloture took place, with the bills sponsors getting enough votes to end debate and, after a few last minute delaying tactics by its opponents, pass the bill. After the Senate passed the legislation, with a few minor amendments, it returned to the full House with passed the Senate’s version. Following the bill’s passage through Congress, it was sent to the White House where it was signed into law by President Johnson.

Commentary


Jim Sweeney, Fall 2006

As someone who has worked in politics, and has an interest in legislation, I found this topic very interesting. It is interesting to know the give and take that was required for the Civil Rights Act to pass, and how both Republicans and Democrats worked together to ensure passage of meaningful legislation. Because of Southern opposition to desegregation, Republicans and Democrats from the rest of the country needed to unite in order for there to be any progress on civil rights. Although the book’s purpose is to give a history of how the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law, it also gives the reader an understanding of the legislative process and a history of the national political situation during this time period. What is interesting is that the book is often critical of liberal civil rights activists, who the authors appear to feel were unreasonable in their demands, while generally supportive of the Kennedy/Johnson Administrations efforts and the efforts of moderate Republicans who worked to ensure that the bill would be passable. Given the fact that one of the authors of the book, Charles Whalen, became a Republican Congressman from Ohio several years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it should not be too surprising that he took this path, especially his strong support and admiration for Bill McCullough’s role in passing the legislation.

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