Race and Party Politics, Part I – The 1964 Civil Rights Act

“A lie told often enough becomes the truth.” Vladimir Lenin

America as a whole has a two party political system, with each party typically getting the support of about half the nation’s voters, but things are different on college campuses. University professors are an extremely partisan bunch; they vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party, and do all they can to influence their students to vote the same way.  The word “diversity” may be a popular catchword on campus, but there is very little diversity in evidence when it comes to political opinion.

History professors, and the textbooks they write, sometimes go to extremes to make their own party look good, and the hated Republican Party look bad. One of the more egregious examples of this partisan bias is the way mainstream history textbooks misrepresent the roles of the respective parties in the debate over the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

What Actually Happened

There is no question that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was an over-due solution to a shameful problem. Black Americans suffered unconscionable oppression in the South in the 1950’s and 60’s. All the Southern states had “Jim Crow” laws; laws that forced businesses to keep their customers segregated by race. Many Southern states forced discrimination in hiring practices; forbidding hospitals, for example, to hire black doctors or nurses. Police departments often refused to investigate crimes committed by whites against blacks.

In 1963 President Kennedy urged Congress to pass a civil rights law to protect the constitutional rights that Southern state governments were violating. Republicans in both House and Senate overwhelmingly supported the bill, but many Democrats opposed it.

In the Senate a determined group of Democrats conducted a 57 day filibuster in an effort to kill the bill. At one point Senator Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat who had been an “Exalted Cyclops” of the Ku Klux Klan, stood on the Senate floor and talked non-stop for over 14 hours as part of the effort to wear down the bill’s supporters. J. William Fulbright, a very liberal Democrat from Arkansas, and eventual mentor to an up-and-coming politician named Bill Clinton, participated in the filibuster. So did Al Gore Sr., a leading Democrat and the father of the party’s 2000 Presidential nominee.

Filibusters are not allowed in the House of Representatives, but a racist Democrat named Howard W. Smith used his position as chairman of the House Rules Committee to keep the House version of the bill from coming to the floor for debate. The House was able to debate the bill only after a majority of Representatives signed a “discharge petition” to force the matter.

As a previous Other Half of History column points out, business interests and political conservatives had always opposed the Jim Crow laws. When the 1964 Act was being debated, Republican politicians from around the nation could take a stand for equal rights without having to fear much of a backlash from their constituents and supporters.

Southern Democrats, on the other hand, depended on the support of large numbers of racist white voters who demanded segregation. The party fought for segregation as a way to keep the support of racist voters.

The House and Senate voting on that 1964 bill showed the nation pretty clearly which party stood where. The Republicans overwhelmingly opposed segregation, while Democrats were divided into two factions; one side opposing segregation, and one supporting it; with the greatest passion demonstrated by the pro-segregation side.

During the 1970’s, after the federal courts had made it clear that the states really would be forced to abide by the ’64 Civil Rights Act, the Democratic Party began to lose its grip on the South. Southern voters had always tended to agree with the Republicans on military and foreign policy issues, as well as business and religious issues. Once the segregation issue was off the table, Southern voters began to have little use for the Democrats.

From the 1860’s through the early 1970’s Dixie was solidly Democrat; today the opposite is true.

And race relations and voting patterns are not the only things that started to change around 1970; the end of the Jim Crow Era meant the end of economic backwardness in the South. Economic growth in the eleven Southern states has out-paced that of the Northern states from the 1970’s to the present day. In 1970 only twenty-nine companies headquartered in the Southern states were prosperous enough to be listed on Fortune Magazine’s “Fortune 500” list. By 1990 eighty-nine Southern companies were on the list. The 2010 list offers a handy breakdown by state, which shows that 139 Fortune 500 companies call Dixie home today.

History with a Partisan Spin

College professors and other modern day Democrats don’t like to admit that their party was the party of segregation. The way most mainstream history books tell the story, it was conservatives and Republicans who were eager to deny black Americans their constitutional rights in 1964.

Dr. Eric Foner’s textbook,1 for example, does not tell the reader that House and Senate Republicans voted for the bill by huge majorities while Democrats ended up voting for it by much smaller majorities. Nor does he mention a single word about the Democrats who filibustered for 57 days to block it.

Foner’s book names only one Senator who voted against the Civil Rights Act: Barry Goldwater, a Republican.2 The book spins the political fallout of the bill to make it sound like Republican politicians were the darlings of racist white voters: “Johnson knew that many whites opposed the new law. After signing it, he turned to an aide and remarked, ‘I think we delivered the South to the Republican Party.’”

Most history professors apply the same dishonest spin. I review seven of the most widely used freshman history textbooks in preparing these Other Half of History columns, and only one of them mentions that Democrats filibustered to block the Civil Rights Act.3 Another book alludes vaguely to a “Southern filibuster in the Senate,” and the other five books don’t mention the filibuster at all.

One widely used textbook gives President Johnson and his fellow Democrats all the credit for ending segregation: “Johnson and the Democratic Party were clearly not ready to share power with African-American activists, but they were ready to end legalized segregation. In July, with Johnson’s prodding, Congress adopted the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed racial discrimination in public places.”4

Conclusion

Students (and parents) who pay today’s astronomical tuition rates for a college education have the right to expect an education, not a partisan indoctrination. Whatever the relative merits of the two political parties may be, college faculties should not subvert accuracy and truth to build support for one party at the expense of the other.

Blatantly biased portrayals of the parties’ roles in the civil rights debate are just one example of how tendentious professors are short-changing their students.

Al Fuller

1Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty (Volume II, 2006 edition)
2ibid., p. 857
3Rorabaugh, Critchlow, & Baker; America’s Promise; consistently the least biased of the seven textbooks
4Boydston, Cullather, Lewis, McGerr, & Oakes; Making a Nation (Volume II, 2004 edition); p. 676

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5 thoughts on “Race and Party Politics, Part I – The 1964 Civil Rights Act

  • Mike, you complain that I didn’t write enough about what happened after 1964 with the racist white Democrats I mentioned in this column. Here, per your request, is some more detail.

    Robert Byrd remained a liberal Democrat throughout his long career in the Senate. On four different occasions the Democrats, when in control of the Senate, made Byrd the President Pro-tem; which among other things put him third in the line of succession to the President of the United States.

    J. William Fulbright, who had been Joseph McCarthy’s biggest nemesis in the Senate in the 1950′s, remained a liberal Democrat through his long career, too. In 1966, just two years after he helped filibuster to block the Civil Rights Act, he became the mentor of an up-and-coming young politician named Bill Clinton, who would later be nominated by the Dems for President.

    Al Gore Sr remained a liberal Democrat throughout his political career as well. He too was the mentor of a younger Democrat whom the party eventually nominated for President.

    Howard W. Smith remained a Democrat for what was left of his political career, losing his re-election bid in 1966.

    Be careful what you ask for.

  • I thought you were on the right track, but you left out what happened to the Southern Democrats after President Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The racist segment of the party you referred to, switched to the Republican party, and over time took control, and moved it to the right of conservatism.

    If you are going to try and tell the truth, you have to tell the whole truth.

  • Somehow, some way, we need to ensure that future history books tell the WHOLE story, especially of black history. It is a shame that blacks have had most of this history defrauded with liberal lies.
    This is critical.

  • This did help me!!!

    I loved the information on how the politics were the same and different through the years.

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