Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Fifty Years Later

Clay Risen, author of The Bill of the Century, comments on the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act

This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act, and both NPR and NBC’s Meet the Press have tapped Nashville native Clay Risen, frequent Chapter 16 contributor and author of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act, for commentary on the contentious law.

In the nearly twelve-minute interview with NBC’s David Gregory, Risen engages in a far-ranging conversation about the background of the Act—beginning with President John F. Kennedy’s recognition of the need for federal civil-rights legislation in the wake of Bull Connor’s order to unleash attack dogs and fire hoses on peacefully assembling African Americans, including children, in Birmingham, Alabama—before turning to the bi-partisan alliance of effort that ultimately led to the passage of the Act. “Until the early sixties, you had a really tight alliance between Southern Democrats and conservative Republicans from the Midwest,” Risen told Gregory; “and that started to break down for a variety of reasons. … A lot of those Midwestern Republicans just had to be convinced that this was a moral issue. The didn’t have black constituents in their districts, so they just didn’t understand why it was important. And a lot of the story is convincing them that, yes, we have to do something.” Watch the full interview here.

Meanwhile, over at NPR, Risen joined a group of other scholars and journalists to analyze the language of the bill, passage by passage. Risen again emphasized the bi-partisan effort required to pass the controversial legislation:

This language was the result of significant, contentious debate between the bill’s Democratic and Republican supporters. The first part, regarding commerce, was pushed by the Democrats, because in constitutional terms it grounds the title in the Commerce Clause, which Democrats had used extensively to expand the federal government during the New Deal. But Republicans feared the unchecked power of the Commerce Clause, and preferred to rely on the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, which was interpreted to ban discrimination only in cases where state action is involved—say, by businesses licensed by the state. (They also took pride in the 14th Amendment as “their” amendment, having been pushed by Republicans after the Civil War.) In the end, the bill relies on both.

Read the full NPR analysis here. To read Chapter 16‘s review of The Bill of the Century, click here. And to read Clay Risen’s latest review for Chapter 16, click here.