Unlike earlier civil rights legislation in 1957 and 1960, the legislation of 1964 mandated an aggressive expansion of federal power and represented a convergence between grassroots activism and decisions made on the national political level. For a variety of reasons both noble and pragmatic, the Civil Rights Act was supported by northern and western legislators, Justice Department officials, and the White House, all of whom responded to the words and deeds of civil rights leaders and activists who had worked for racial justice in the 1950s and 1960s. The law's passage in 1964 was the product of local efforts and federal activism. Neither by itself would have been sufficient, a fact amply demonstrated by decades of unsuccessful efforts to enact civil rights law. But together, grassroots reformers and national political leaders overcame formidable obstacles that had long made the passage of effective legislation unlikely if not impossible.
In many accounts of the civil rights movement, the federal government has been portrayed as either passive or, worse yet, hostile to the aims of the reformers. It has been said that Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy were unwilling to kneel before the altar of civil rights and that it was not until Lyndon Johnson entered the White House that the executive branch demonstrated a genuine commitment to work for change. And there is much to commend this view, although Truman and Kennedy were considerably more supportive of the movement's aims than Eisenhower was. If Truman and Kennedy feared that endorsing civil rights would spell the end of their political careers or the fragmentation of their party, Eisenhower seemed at best ambivalent about the moral necessity of the domestic struggle. The former general evinced little willingness to lead the country toward confronting institutionalized racial discrimination in the 1950s, and just as white Americans preferred to maintain the status quo, Eisenhower was content to do the same.
The tape recordings made by John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson open a new window onto the civil rights struggle. Although they do not invalidate earlier pictures of presidential uneasiness with civil rights reform, they do demand that we consider the obstacles two presidents faced in working for change. By allowing us to examine more clearly than before each man's commitment to the domestic crusade, these transcribed conversations reveal a dimension of the civil rights story that has never been fully considered, and they show that the White House played an active and constructive part in the quest for racial justice.
In highlighting the role played by the executive branch, the tapes in no way minimize the determination, skill, and heroism manifested by countless black Americans —leaders and followers — who helped transform the landscape of American race relations. The story of the struggle over civil rights should not be written according to the rules of a zero-sum game: there is not a fixed amount of credit to go around. Adding to the list of those who contributed to the passage of the 1964 bill does not mean that others need to be removed.