The Civil Rights Act of 1964
I just finished reading Clay Risen’s terrific book on the debate that culminated in the enactment of what he calls “The Bill of the Century.” Here are some things that I learned:
1. “Judge” Howard Smith, the segregationist chairman of the House Rules Committee, famously amended the Act to include “sex.” I’ve always understood that this was a poison pill that failed to derail the bill. It turns out, though, that Smith was a strong advocate for (white) women’s rights throughout his career. So he may have been sincere (or at least have had mixed motives).
2. Much of the debate early on centered on whether the Act should rely on the Commerce Clause or on Section Five of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Commerce Clause was chosen for a couple of reasons, but one factor that I had not considered was that the Fourteenth Amendment was seen as a “Republican” way of handling the problem whereas the Commerce Clause was seen as the “Democratic” way. That just shows how far we’ve come in the last fifty years. Nobody today thinks of the Fourteenth Amendment in partisan terms.
3. The book argues that LBJ gets too much credit for the passage of the Act, and that many other people (Hubert Humphrey, Mike Mansfield, Nick Katzenbach, Everett Dirksen) did more. I think this assessment is correct, though I’m much more skeptical of the book’s implication that JFK would have gotten the Act passed had he not been killed. Partly I suppose that’s because I’m not a JFK fan (for one thing, he gave us Justice Byron White, one of the worst modern Justices on a par with Blackmun and Burger.)