Commentary
1:50 pm
Thu May 29, 2014

The Role Moderate Republicans, Including Kentuckians, Played in the Civil Rights Act

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Some will remember the dramatic scenes in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” in which the House of Representatives, under  pressure from Abraham Lincoln, debates, and then passes, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which barred slavery. Others may remember the musical film “1776,” based on historic records, which recreated the debate in Philadelphia over the Declaration of Independence. In both cases, the opponents were generally men of property (yes, they were all men then) and men whose sympathies were with landed Southern aristocracy. And so it also was, 50 years ago this spring and summer, when the Congress was roiled by the struggle over the Civil Rights bill.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that struggle in recent months. I was 13 during the debate, a teenager with a rapidly developing interest in public affairs and journalism. As I have written for this space recently, the Kennedy assassination and the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement had absorbed my interest, and sparked my adolescent involvement. I often think of the words of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote of his own generation during the Civil War: “In our youths, our hearts were touched by fire.”

The fire that swept America in early 1964 was a derivation of the one that incinerated the nation in 1861: the scourge of slavery and the curse of segregation that followed the Civil War. Gradually, President Kennedy (who had been elected with the support of old-line, segregationist Democrats in the South) moved toward supporting a law that would grant blacks equal opportunity in public accommodations, jobs, etc. But not many months after he made a dramatic speech on June 11, 1963 at the University of Virginia, Kennedy was assassinated. And his successor, Texan Lyndon Baines Johnson, protégé of the Senate’s leading segregationist Richard Russell of Georgia, was in a position to make, or break, the cause of reform. Fortunately for America, LBJ was on the right side. And he had the skills—even greater than his Southern mentor—to achieve his goal.

The spring of 1964 in Louisville (and most of Kentucky) was a challenging one. The winter snows, heavy at times, shifted to rain by early March. The spring rains swelled the rivers and creeks in Eastern Kentucky. In Frankfort, Dr. Martin Luther King led a dramatic march in favor of a public accommodations act, and in short order Gov. Edward T. Breathitt signed the first such piece of legislation in a state south of the Mason-Dixon Line. In Washington, where a late winter afforded the capital a snowy Easter Sunday, our state’s two senators, as well as Indiana’s two senators, Vance Hartke and Birch Bayh, were deeply involved in efforts to break the logjam that prevented a vote on the Civil Rights Act that had been advocated by President Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, in the last months of JFK’s administration.

Those events, and the successful effort to break that logjam, are compellingly retold in Todd Purdum’s new book, "An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964" (Henry Holt, 399 pp., $30).

While Purdum gives the Kennedys and President Lyndon Johnson a tremendous amount of credit for the bill that passed, significant praise also goes to the moderate and liberal Republicans who were part of the effort to enact the legislation.

The two most significant of these were Rep. William M. McCulloch, a Republican congressman from Ohio’s Fourth District, roughly the same part of the Buckeye State represented today by Speaker John Boehner. Other than geography, there is no discernable similarity between these two congressmen.

The other lawmaker of great note was Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen, the colorful minority leader, whose curly head of snowy hair and mellifluous voice made him known to millions in his time. Dirksen hailed from Pekin, Illinois, just down the road from Peoria. And in many ways he carried on the tradition of his Illinois neighbor, Abraham Lincoln. Sadly, both McCulloch and Dirksen are all but forgotten today, an oversight that Purdum helps to rectify. (It was Dirksen, in a speech, who declared that the Civil Rights Act was “an idea whose time has come,” quoting the French novelist Victor Hugo.) The week the Senate passed the act, it was Dirksen who appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and the following week, when the bill was signed into law, it was Lincoln’s image that graced the cover.

Another key Republican player who has been lost to history is the House Minority Leader, Charles Halleck, who came from central Indiana. Purdum careful notes that all of these Republicans were fiscal conservatives who looked with some skepticism upon economic elements of policies the Democratic Kennedy and Johnson administrations wanted to do. But true to their party’s heritage—stretching back to the era before Lincoln was nominated in 1860—they were pro-civil rights and were willing to make deals and compromises to achieve the goal of passage of what many believe to be the most significant piece of legislation in the 20th Century.

Other supporters included Kentucky’s senators John Sherman Cooper and Thruston Morton, both moderate Republicans. Although Morton was a highly partisan figure (who headed the Republican National Committee in 1960 when Richard Nixon was the candidate), Cooper was admired by both parties, and by people from the North and South. A close personal friend of Jack Kennedy, he had served on the Warren Commission that investigated the assassination (and, in fact, much of his time during the spring of 1964 was devoted to that sad duty). It was significant that on the afternoon of July 3, 1964—when LBJ called key figures to the White House for signing of the legislation—John Sherman Cooper was right there.

Today in Washington, one of Kentucky’s senators actually declined to say how he would have voted on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When asked if he were “Mr. Woolworth," had a lunch counter and should he have to serve Dr. King, Rand Paul said no. I know this, because I was the person who asked now-Sen. Paul that question at his endorsement interview with The Courier-Journal’s editorial board in 2010.

Although he is a revered figure today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not beloved by many in 1964. Even President Johnson was cautious about him; there were still accusations that he was a Communist, and that his brand of non-violence was still a threat to successful passage of the Civil Rights Act. While hindsight tells us he was a critical player, it is useful to view the period through Purdum’s eyes. And to realize that many did not consider him the sainted figure we do today.

Purdum also documents the crucial influence that religious leaders had on passage of the legislation. Their personal lobbying of people including Sen. Dirksen made a huge difference in the outcome.

In the end, of course, it was the vote to break the Southern filibuster that allowed the votes to make the bill into law. And in the process, some of the lions of Congress like Sen.  Russell (a man so beloved by the Johnsons that the President’s daughters called him “Uncle Dick”) were humbled.

This book pairs nicely with Rick Perlstein’s outstanding 2008 book, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, which documents the politics that followed the Civil Rights Act’s passage and the realignment of the old Democratic South as part of the Republican Party’s “Southern Strategy.” LBJ foresaw it all when he told his press secretary, Bill Moyers, the night he signed the 1964 bill into law: “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”

What is so very sad, on this 50th anniversary of passage, is that the noble Republicans of 1964, some of whom stood with Sen. Morton on a platform at their own convention in San Francisco later that year and were booed—on the topic of civil rights. These GOP figures were driven from the party over time by the “thunder on the Right,” led by Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona—one of the few GOP senators to oppose the Civil Rights Act. Lyndon Johnson buried Goldwater at the polls in the fall of 1964, but the decades since have seen the transformation divide the nation to the point where today. With a black man in the White House, we have gridlock in the Capitol that once was the scene of noble achievement.

Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal.

Read his past WFPL commentaries here.