Excerpt: 'Kennedy, Johnson, and the Quest for Justice'

The Democratic Party, which controlled the House and the Senate in this period, was unwilling to move on civil rights, mainly because it was paralyzed by the opposition of southern senators. Led by northerners and midwesterners, the Republicans perceived a golden opportunity to take advantage of the Democrats' reluctance to act. While Eisenhower was largely indifferent to federal civil rights reform, the potential political gains that could be derived from proposing a bill were too great to forgo, and if nothing was achieved on the legislative front in 1956, the fact that the administration had decided to act pulled some northern black voters back into the Republican Party.

The following year, the Democrats took up the bill. Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson, aware of the damage that intransigence on civil rights was doing to his party and to his own political aspirations, intended to shepherd some sort of legislation through the upper chamber. At the same time, Johnson also realized that the southern bloc would never permit passage of a genuinely effective bill and that he would harm his own political future in Texas if he was thought to be too far out front on civil rights. In what would serve as a preview of his adept handling of the far broader 1964 bill, Johnson steered the legislation through the Senate. First, he mollified northern liberals like Hubert Humphrey by convincing them half a loaf was better than none. And then he satisfied the southern bloc, led by Georgia's Richard Russell, by allowing them to gut those portions of the bill that permitted federal troops to be used to enforce desegregation and that gave federal courts the power to impose criminal penalties on those who infringed on black voting rights.

The bill passed by a wide margin, and civil rights leaders took solace from this fact, even though the bill itself was weak. In the words of the NAACP's Clarence Mitchell, "not only did it have some substantive value, but it also represented a breakthrough. Up until that time, it had been assumed that Congress would not and could not pass any civil rights legislation." Roy Wilkins, the head of the NAACP who had tirelessly lobbied members of Congress, dismissed the bill's critics as unrealistic. While he recognized the bill's limitations, Wilkins kept his eyes on the big picture. As he and other civil rights leaders knew, Congress had last passed civil rights legislation in 1875, a law the Supreme Court had declared unconstitutional. Eighty-two years later, the High Court was no longer an obstacle, and Congress had taken a small step down a road it had rarely traveled before.

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