on October 11, 2008
Let's get a little fancy here and offer a Gestalt metaphor: from the election of FDR to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the far-from-United States of America fought second Civil War - longer and less bloody than the first but just as profound in its consequences and just as foreordained by Humanity in the inevitable victory of 'justice for all.' In this metaphor, the election of Lincoln aligns with the decision of FDR's Democratic Party to pursue the baby-steps of a Civil Rights agenda despite the furious opposition of its Southern party base. The next three decades can be likened to the gradual tightening of the cordon of decency around the Slaveocracy by Union victories at sea, along the upper Mississippi, at the mouth of the James River, and in New Orleans. Five presidents in a row - four Democrats and one Republican, two northerners and three southerners by birth - fought their skirmishes with their own parties and in Congress to establish a federal basis for civil rights policy. Eisenhower, the one Republican, was in many ways the key general in this war as he had been in WW2. The Vicksburg of this second Civil War comes with the Brown Vs Board of Education, so we'll have to take Justice Earl Warren as the metaphorical match for Ulysses Grant.
Following this metaphorical analysis, passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was surely the Gettysburg of our second War Between the States. It was the death knell of states' rights Dixiecrat rebellion against the Constitution and all that America stands for, as the land where "all men are created equal."
This is my metaphor, not that of the editor of this book, Robert D. Loevy. I have no idea whether professor Loevy would appreciate my post-modernist approach. His 48-page introduction is a model of simple and direct narrative. In it, he outlines the history of legislation, presidential action, and court decisions that prepared the federal government for the massive commitment to the enforcement of Civil Rights that climaxed during the administration of Lyndon Johnson. In no way a partisan of any one president or party, Loevy presents his outline with thorough integrity.
The bulk of the book consists of memoirs/memorials by participants in the passage of the 1964 Act, written very soon after the event, entailing the strategies and incidents of that dramatic victory. The first essay focuses on politics in the House of Representatives; it was written by Joseph Rauh Jr., a major lobbyist for the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. It is the only available first-hand account of the process in the House. The second essay is the first-hand Memorandum on Senate Consideration of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, written by Hubert H. Humphrey, the 'field marshall' of victory in the recalcitrant and obstructionist Senate. Then there are six memoranda, written by John G. Stewart, Humphrey's top legislative assistant, constituting the most ample account of the legislative battle on paper. Editor Loevy concludes the book with an essay on "The Impact and Aftermath of the Civil Rights Act of 1964" and a useful historical chronology of the campaign to pass that act.
Returning to my metaphor of the Civil Rights Movement as a second Civil War, I need to point out one more comparison. Just as the original Republican Party abandoned civil rights for ex-slaves in the 1870s, with the shameful election of Hayes putting political success ahead of ideals, so the Republican Party of the 1970s and '80s chose to pursue control of the federal government though final abandonment of its founders' ideals, by way of its "southern strategy" aligning itself as the party of states' rights and opposition to social justice.
Are we now to consider ourselves, in 2008, as in the midst or at the start of yet a third Civil War, with the same ideals at stake and with many of the same interest groups confronting each other in the acrimony of Red States and Blue States? It seems so to me. What is at stake is possibly the final renunciation of racial injustice and of values based on 'white supremacy.' This time we must not let victory be snatched away.