In An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, his highly readable popular history of the politics behind the groundbreaking civil-rights legislation, Todd S. Purdum closes by describing a 1963 scene in which Robert F. Kennedy indulged in a bit of prediction: according to Kennedy, “there was every reason to believe that there could be a ‘Negro president’ in forty years,” Purdum writes. “He was wrong of course. But only by five years.” With this kicker of an ending, Purdum implies that without the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Barack Obama’s presidency would not have been possible.
In that spirit, it seems fitting to recall a certain controversy that popped up during the current president’s historic bid for the White House in 2008. Hillary Clinton, Obama’s principal challenger in a hotly contested primary battle, observed that “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do, the president before had not even tried, but it took a president to get it done.” This comment—truncated, distorted, and editorialized to a near vanishing point at the time—summoned a small tempest of criticism, but Clinton was merely hitting a consistent talking point in her own campaign: Obama could give inspirational speeches but lacked political acumen; his was a candidacy of style over substance.
The criticisms of Clinton’s remark proved far more telling. Some commentators assailed her for privileging a polarizing figure like Lyndon Johnson over an iconic figure like Martin Luther King. Some read veiled racial implications into the statement, believing she had suggested that it took a white man to get the legislation passed. Clinton was quick to correct those mistaken assumptions, and the controversy flamed out eventually, but popular debate never really tackled the more difficult questions that Clinton raised—particularly how to parse the relationship between grassroots social movements, national politics, and public policy. In the popular public imagination, consistently stuck in a rather naïve frame of historical consciousness, events like these tend to be reduced to crude causalities that skitter along a racial axis. Either L.B.J. (white president) did it, or Martin Luther King Jr. (black activist) did it. For good or ill, this is how we experience the civil-rights movement in this country: in acts of symbolic affiliation and contestation within an imagined, simplified history.
This popular tendency makes An Idea Whose Time Has Come especially necessary and timely. (It’s also timely in appearing precisely fifty years after the Civil Rights Act passed, though Purdum’s is not the only book on the subject to be published this spring.) Thankfully, Purdum is open to messy, multi-causal explanations involving a large cast of historical characters. This book convincingly shows that the credit for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 should go to many people in many venues who intermittently agreed with one another on a few fundamental ideas about equality. In our overheated political climate, characterized as it is by very vocal and polarized political binaries, a book in praise of moderation seems awfully welcome.
Many parts of this story have been told before in other places, so the merits of An Idea Whose Time Has Come lie in the lively way that Purdum tells his story and in the political figures he chooses to emphasize. Drawing largely on memoir and synthetic histories of the period, along with some archival work, the author considers the political negotiations that went into the bill, first in the House and then in the Senate, deftly weaving in pauses for character development. As this or that historical actor enters the story, Purdum provides a sense of the figure’s personal background, as well as the motivations that drive him, before returning to the action. This narrative strategy works for supporters of the civil-rights bill in particular, from Senate figures like the warhorse Everett Dirksen and the crusading Hubert Humphrey to House power-brokers like Charles Halleck, Emanuel Celler, and the oft-forgotten William Moore McCulloch; from largely unsung civil-rights operators like the NAACP’s Clarence Mitchell to major national figures like the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Lyndon Johnson. Among the bill’s opponents, Richard Russell of Georgia garners the most sustained attention.
Purdum has a wonderful journalistic eye for the odd detail: we learn that McCulloch, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee at the time and a critical figure in the shaping of the bill, was “a frugal man of simple tastes, he favored red suspenders and loved pumpkin pie (served with cold turkey gravy at the local Elks Club).” Dirksen, on the other hand, “the single most flamboyant senator of his day, with a rumbling baritone foghorn of a voice … kept his vocal cords lubricated with a daily gargle of Pond’s cold cream and water (which he swallowed) and subsisted on a diet of Sanka, cigarettes, Maalox, and bourbon whiskey.” The book is full of this kind of color, and it enlivens the rather knotty political wrangling at the heart of the story. Yet Purdum succeeds in those details, too. In conveying a sense of how power and compromise work, he patiently takes us through the arcana of House and Senate rules, from committees on up to the full bodies of the House and the Senate, showing the role personality and procedural quirks played in the story of this landmark legislation.
In a book full of stories about the compromises and ambiguities that mark the success of politics, a couple of moderate Republicans emerge as unlikely heroes: William Moore McCulloch and to a lesser extent, Everett Dirksen. Dirksen’s paraphrase of Victor Hugo: “Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come” supplies the book’s title. In the end, though, Purdum’s truly original contribution lies with McCulloch, whose critical role in shepherding the bill through the House has gone largely underappreciated. Purdum plucks out an especially apt comment McCulloch made on the eve of his retirement in 1972: “The function of Congress is not to convert the will of the majority of people into law; rather its function is to hammer out on the anvil of public debate a compromise between polar positions acceptable to a majority.” Fifty years after the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, those words will likely either put us in the grip of a bitter nostalgia or goad us with their lesson.