Republicans joined Democrats to pass the American Civil Rights Act of 1964 in an act of bi-partisanship that’s rare today.
“Nothing could pass the Senate 73-to-27 today. Not an agreement on the shape of the table. It’s kind of breathtaking,” said Todd Purdum, author of An Idea Whose Time has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Purdum said in proportional terms, Republicans were far more important than Democrats in passing the legislation. He said Democrats from southern states were adamantly opposed to it.
Purdum also said that while President John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon B. Johnson, and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. are frequently associated with the measure, grassroots efforts played a large role in making its approval possible. For example, a huge coalition of interfaith groups worked on the act’s behalf.
“(They) targeted their efforts really strategically on the Midwest and the plains states where congressmen and senators did not have large black constituencies but had lots of Methodists and Presbyterians and Baptists and Catholics and would be susceptible to an appeal from the pulpit,” said Purdum.
“And with almost pinpoint precision they focused on those particular members and had a devastating effect.”
Purdum grew up in Macomb and was back in town to sign copies of the book at New Copperfield's Book Service. Purdum is currently an editor and political correspondent for Vanity Fair.
Purdum was a child when the Civil Rights Act was passed and signed and, because of his young age, he was not aware whether it made in impact in his community in those years. He acknowledged he did not know many black people when he grew up. He said there were few black families in Macomb at that time.
Purdum said it was similar for President Kennedy and most members of Congress. In fact, there were only five black members of Congress at that time. Purdum feels Kennedy did a remarkable job of coming around on the issue and gave a speech in June, 1963 that Purdum feels was perhaps the bravest of his life.
“He (Kennedy) said, ‘This is primarily a moral issue as old as the scriptures and as clear as the American constitution.’”
Purdum said Senator Howard Smith from Virginia tried to muddy the waters on Civil Rights Act by adding a provision to prohibit gender-based discrimination in the workplace. Congress was dominated by white males and Smith felt they would vote against the bill because of that provision.
But the few women in Congress argued the provision actually made the bill stronger because women were also subject to employment-based discrimination.
“It gave a tremendous boost to the women’s movement all because of this horrible old racist who was hoping to scuttle the bill,” Purdum said.
He said once the Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission was ready the following year, the first flood of workplace discrimination complaints it received came from women.