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Civil Rights Act of ’64: celebrating anniversaries and questioning progress

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.

Vice President Hubert Humphrey

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. 

Rep. Martha Griffiths

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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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Jeff Michaels on 07/28/2014 - 01:50 pm.

    GOP support of 1964 Civil Rights Act

    I suspect I am not the only reader wondering why Arvonne mentioned the precise number of Democrats and Republicans voting for the 1964 Civil Rights Act rather than the percentage. Most liberals, who receive their information these days only from the establishment news media, have no idea Republicans were much stronger supporters of civil rights in the 1960s. Consequently, it is a real sore point for them to learn a greater percentage of Republicans supported ciivl rights.

    The Senate party breakdown in 1964 was 66 Democrats and 34 Republicans. In other words, 79 percent of Republicans senators supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act compared to only 65 percent of Senate Democrats. Put another way, 22 Democrats voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act compared to only seven Republicans.

    History can be an annoying thing.

    • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 07/28/2014 - 03:25 pm.


      History is only annoying when you try and bend it to support a conclusion. If you apply some context to your history, it paints a clearer picture.

      The facts are that once the Democratic Party adopted civil rights as a party plank, the racist (or at least, pro-segregation, though I see that as exactly the same thing) democrats all left the party and formed the Dixiecrat (aka States Rights) party, nominating Strom Thurmond as their pro-segregation candidate for the presidential election in 1948. The dixiecrats lost, and were largely incorporated into the GOP over the next few election cycles. Fast forward 54 years, and Republican Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott is praising Thurmond for his pro-segregationist politics, and 6 years after that the GOP is losing the non-white vote in presidential elections by insurmountable margins. So… parties change over time. I mean, the EPA was created by a Republican president, and now the modern GOP thinks that should be destroyed… so in your mind, is the GOP the party of environmental conservation too?

    • Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 07/28/2014 - 04:48 pm.

      Thanks for the clarification. Democrats do not like to admit that a lot of them were on the wrong side of history. One only has to do a little homework to find that the majority of “Segregationists” were indeed Democrats, namely Bull Connor, Lester Maddox and the king of them all, George Wallace. Also one of the staunchest opponents of the Civil Rights Act was Albert Gore Sr.

      • Submitted by Tom Lynch on 07/28/2014 - 06:55 pm.

        So what’s your point?

        Southern Democrats of 50 years ago or more were segregationists for the most part. With Democrats having large majorities in both the House and the Senate in those years, it was northern Democrats that led the fight for civil rights, with help from northern Republicans. After the Civil Rights Act was passed, and even before, the southern Democrats left the party and became Republicans. And now these southern Republicans are the core of the GOP. With the same reactionary attitudes as when they called themselves Democrats. Or worse.

        And what Democrat doesn’t admit southern Democrats were wrong? Heck, even northern liberal Democrats didn’t like these southern Dems back in the day.

        Your supposed argument is just ridiculous. Again, what’s the point? That southern Dems were racist? Wow! What a news flash. Here’s a better point: liberals were for civil rights, conservatives were against it.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 07/29/2014 - 07:23 am.

    Revisionist history indeed

    Virtually all of the recent articles that have recalled the events leading up to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, whether they mentioned HHH or not, seem to feature the same meme of how the senate democrats knew they were going to need republican votes to pass it, and thanks to some good old arm-twisting on Everett Dirksen, they got it done.

    In reality, the republican votes were never in question, as 82% of the republican senators voted for passage with only 6 opposed (27–6 = 82–18%). Conversely, only 66% of democrats voted for cloture with 23 opposed (44–23 = 66–34%).

    The objective of the party of Lincoln has always been to fight for the freedom of oppressed people. That was true then and it’s true today. And it’s ironic and instructive then that in this piece, the Tea Party incarnation of that tradition, who’s mission of more freedom and less government intrusion is a mission consistent with the tradition manifested in their vote for the Civil Rights Act, is now seen as “resistance by those who dislike or fear change.”

    • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 07/29/2014 - 09:07 am.

      Except no modern Tea Partier would vote for any Civil Rights Act, now or then… and certainly not under a Democratic President. Just recently, SCOTUS gutted parts of the Voting Rights Act, which was integral to the greater civil rights struggle, and Tea Partiers and conservatives were overjoyed.

      Times change. People Change. Parties Change. The current Republican party is the party of the Iraq War, legitimate rape, self-deportation, debt defaults, homophobia, forced vaginal ultrasounds, wealth disparity, chickenhawk bluster and scientific ignorance.

      • Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 07/29/2014 - 07:21 pm.

        Here we go….

        again with all of the stereotypical labels that the Dems are so fond of placing on anyone who disagrees with their view of the world.

        • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 07/30/2014 - 08:56 am.

          You can change it

          Like it or not, the Republican party is dominated by people who proudly wear the labels you decry. Parties can change, and the Republican party doesn’t have to be this way. If you don’t like it, do something about it.

          • Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 07/30/2014 - 04:13 pm.

            There are plenty…

            in your party as well. Liberals see people in one of three categories. They see minorities as victims. They don’t think minorities can realize their goals by themselves and continually remind them that they are discriminated against. Then they see their political opponents as victimizers. They are the reason for the misery. Third they project themselves as champions of the downtrodden to the victims and their leftist policies are their only hope.

            Liberals are preoccupied with discrimination, be it real or imagined. Everyone (except themselves) is either dscriminated against or is guilty of discrimination.

            • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 07/31/2014 - 09:27 am.

              Plenty of what?

              Hypocrisy, perhaps? I mean, complaining about labels ascribed to your own party, and then using labels to define another party…

              This liberal isn’t locked into lumping people into three categories. Plus, I didn’t say that all Republicans harbored those beliefs, only that they let their party get dominated by those who do, and they have come to define the modern Republican party.

              • Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 07/31/2014 - 06:47 pm.

                Please name some overt racists in the Republican Party and cite their racist actions.

                • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 08/01/2014 - 11:14 am.


                  Well, I never actually called Republicans racist in the above posts (except for Strom Thurmond, who was obviously racist, and formerly a democrat…), but since you brought it up (I may hit the character limit)…

                  Republican former governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee’s refusal to accept that the nation’s first black president wasn’t born in Africa.

                  Republican governor and apparently perpetual presidential candidate Rick Perry’s refusal to criticize rancher and deadbeat Cliven Bundy’s racist rants… But then Perry and racism and ranching are nothing new. Oh, AND CLIVEN BUNDY

                  Paul Ryan’s statements about lazy inner-city (code for black) men… “We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with…”

                  Republican former Gov. George Allen’s casual racism… ‘macacca.’

                  Republican former governor Bob McDonnell’s whitewashing (punny, no?) any mention of slavery out of his proclamation of Confederate History Month.

                  Newt Gingrich, on so many occasions, the one coming to mind right now about spanish being the language of the ghetto.

                  Republican former Congressman and current Fox News”contributor Allen West and his overt racism towards arabs and muslims.

                  The Republican National Committee running a racist ad on behalf of Sen. Bob Corker.

                  Republican Rep. Steve King

                  Republican Rep. Peter King

                  Republican Rep. Lynn Westmoreland calling the nation’s first African-American president “uppity.”

                  Republican Rep. Geoff Davis calling the nation’s first African-American president (who also happens to be older than Davis) “that boy.”

                  Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert concerned that “federal funds going to China for the protection of rare cats and dogs may actually result in ‘moo goo dog pan or moo goo cat pan’,” and comparing civil rights laws to protecting lizards and chickens.

                  At The 2012 Republican National Convention, a black CNN camerawoman was pelted with peanuts because “this is how we feed animals.”

                  Colorado State Sen. Vicki Marble (R) – “poverty is higher among the ‘Black race’ because they eat too much chicken.”

                  And this doesn’t even get into Republican policies that specifically target african-american or other minority constituents, like voter ID laws.

                  • Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 08/02/2014 - 09:08 pm.

                    Most of the examples…

                    Most of the examples you list are questionable at best. The left tells us not to judge a particular class of perceived victims (muslims for example) by the actions of a radical few yet they consider all Republicans to be racist bigoted homophobes because of the actions of a few.

                    • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 08/05/2014 - 11:08 am.

                      Good lord

                      You brought up racist republicans, then requested I name names: I did so, with several of those names being people who have made serious runs at the GOP Presidential nomination, including one who was that party’s VP nominee, and someone who was the Repub speaker of the house in the 90s, so I don’t think that it’s limited to a ‘radical few.’ These are actual party leaders.

                      Whether you consider their prejudicial statements to be racist or not, I am not the one saying all Republicans are racist.

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