Anniversaries of significant events, whether it be a longtime marriage, the end of a war, or passage of landmark legislation, elicit comment. How and why the event came about, who were the crucial or influential people associated with it, and what were the results and consequences varies in these stories. Each writer or commentator has his or her own perspective. History is rewritten, reinterpreted. This year’s 50th anniversary of passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act is no different.
Louis Menand’s commentary on this landmark legislation in the July 21 issue of the New Yorker is an illustration. Headlined “A Critic at Large,” and entitled, “The Sex Amendment: How women got in on the Civil Rights Act,” it begs comment. A Harvard professor of English with a 2002 Pulitzer Prize for history, Menand says he teaches the history of ideas as a part of literary history, according to an October 2011 Harvard Crimson article about him.
While parts of this New Yorker piece are fascinating political history, for Minnesotans there is an unconscionable omission. Our venerable U.S. senator and later vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, is not mentioned. Humphrey made history at the 1948 Democratic convention when he urged delegates to act to make “the bright sunshine of human rights” displace “the shadow of states’ rights,” directly challenging Southern Democrats’ support of racial discrimination.
By 1964, then Sen. Humphrey, as Democratic whip, was floor leader when that body took up the civil-rights bill. Southern Democrats mounted a filibuster lasting 60 days. Everyone knew it would take Republican votes to pass the bill. It was Humphrey who cultivated, flattered and cajoled Republican Sen. Everett Dirksen, the Senate’s minority leader, until he ultimately made a speech calling the civil-rights legislation “an idea whose time had come.” Twenty-seven Republicans and 44 Democrats voted for cloture, ending the filibuster. Menand credits the White House and the Justice Department for “keeping Dirksen in the loop.” He clearly doesn’t understand legislative dynamics or how political movements develop the constituency for ideas whose time eventually comes.
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Sexist jokes — and a marvelous put-down
Fifty years after this civil-rights bill that forbids discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, everyone understands that humor is a cruel but effective method of verbal discrimination. It demeans the other. Jokes about blacks and women are no longer proper standard openers for white male speakers. Thus, it seems a bit gratuitous for Menand to quote rather extensively various white males’ jokes about women and the inclusion of the word “sex” in the civil rights bill. But he does credit Rep. Martha Griffiths with a marvelous put-down during the House debate when sexist jokes were rampant: “If there had been any necessity to have pointed out that women were a second-class sex … the laughter (by male members of the House) would have proved it.’” The House passed the bill with the word “sex” in it.
Menand’s story is only one of many this anniversary year reinforcing the old notion that history is made primarily by great men, giving credence to the oft-expressed feminists’ view that history too often is, as the word implies, “his story.” Menand purports to rewrite the history of the women’s movement based on a new biography of Alice Paul, a radical feminist of the suffrage era. She was only part of the story. And he seems unaware of the long collaboration — and competition — between women and men of different races in the anti-slavery movement.
Two American delegates to the 1840 World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, decided they would go home and hold a women’s rights convention after women delegates were told they could only sit behind a curtain and listen — not participate — in the convention. Menand points out that Frederick Douglass, a noted black abolitionist, opposed women’s suffrage at the 1848 women’s rights convention Stanton and Mott organized, but he doesn’t mention that Douglass supported the other planks in the platform of that 1848 women’s rights convention.
Political movements are often led and supported by people who have the time, money, education and security to be activists. “Elites” is the word used to disparage them. Menand reports that Alice Paul attended Swarthmore and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1900s — a rare accomplishment for a woman then — and that she went on to study in Britain, clearly an example of a woman of means. He reports that the National Women’s Party which Paul led “was an organization of mostly wealthy white women.” Never does he give similar attention to male leaders.
Change — and backlash
As we celebrate passage of the Civil Rights Act, it is interesting to recall the media coverage of the recent political movement labeled “the Arab spring.” It was characterized as revolts of educated but unemployed youth who have cell phones and oppose their authoritarian rulers. Their goal was political, social and economic change. Political movements do generate new ideas, but they take time and also generate backlash, resistance by those who dislike or fear change. Our own Tea Party and the current congressional stalemate are testimony to the vehemence of backlash. After 50 years of the landmark anti-discrimination legislation, women and African-Americans have made much progress. But there is still much more to be done before we are considered and treated as equal citizens.
Arvonne Fraser was the national president of the Women’s Equity Action League (WEAL) that worked on additional anti-discrimination legislation following passage of the Civil Rights bill and is the author of “Becoming Human: the origins and development of women’s human rights.” (Human Rights Quarterly, November 1999, Johns Hopkins University Press.)
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