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

Notwithstanding the 1957 legislation, Congress and the White House were reacting to events, not leading them, and the 1957 bill was a response to the ferment caused by King, the NAACP, and the courts. The same could be said of the 1960 civil rights bill. In February of that year, in Greensboro, North Carolina, four students from a local college sat down at a lunch counter marked "for whites only" and refused to move. Within days, their ranks had swelled, and suddenly there were sit-ins everywhere. Countless young men and women throughout the South planted themselves at whites-only lunch counters, where they would remain until the stores closed for the day or the police arrested them for disturbing the peace. The sit-in movement attracted widespread publicity during the presidential campaign, as yet again, grassroots organizers forced civil rights onto the national stage.

Events in Greensboro marked a sea change within the civil rights movement. Since Montgomery, the more traditional tactics of the NAACP were being eclipsed by the activities of mass-based organizations such as King's SCLC. Moreover, there was an immediacy to the actions of these nascent organizations. The students who began the Greensboro sit-in seemed to have acted spontaneously, and, while such an approach was not completely novel, in the climate of the early 1960s, their protest was like touching a match to dry tinder. Eventually, the effects of the conflagration would spread to policymakers in the nation's capital.

No longer would the civil rights protest be an elite-driven phenomenon, as had been the case for decades. The new leaders were mostly young men, who, at times, could scarcely conceal their scorn for the staid ways of the NAACP. However unfair their attacks on the NAACP-it was too conservative, too patient, and ineffective, they asserted-the proverbial torch had been passed to a new generation of leaders who were swept up in the passions of the moment. And indeed, such grassroots activism would lead Washington to act.

In the Senate, Lyndon Johnson used the sit-ins as a pretext for pushing through a new civil rights bill. But this time, unlike in 1957, the southern bloc was more adamant in its opposition. Richard Russell, the courtly Georgian who was devoted to the traditions of the Senate and the South, was the most moderate leader within the southern bloc. According to Russell, it was imperative to hold the line: the South had to prevent passage of federally mandated desegregation of public facilities and the provision of voting rights for black Americans. But Lyndon Johnson knew a civil rights bill, even an anemic one, would help the Democrats in the upcoming contest for the White House. While the final bill was largely symbolic, it contributed to the sense that progress on race reform was inevitable, and, more importantly, it suggested that the southern bloc could no longer stand in the way.

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