Fifty years later, it’s hard to imagine the enactment of the Civil Rights Act by today’s polarized Congress. Maybe, as the old saying goes, today’s fighting is so vicious because the stakes are so small.
We Americans fight less among ourselves when we clearly face a common enemy or crisis. In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, for example, we showed a heartwarming level of national unity and sense of purpose for, oh, at least five or six days or so.
Today the bitter partisanship in Washington is so fierce that one almost blinks in disbelief to see former President George W. Bush, a Republican, appearing on the same program with current President Barack Obama and two other Democrats, former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. But the occasion was a Civil Rights Summit at the LBJ Library to mark the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s biggest legislative breakthrough, in my opinion, the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
This is an appropriate time for such a look into the rear-view mirror of time, if only to appreciate with new eyes the historic significance of the battle to pass the Civil Rights Act. It amounted to nothing less than the last lingering battle of the Civil War - if you believe (as some people apparently don’t) that the Civil War is really over.
In the space of what now seems like a few short years, which also were my early teen years, a new war seemed to be breaking out. The ferocity was enhanced by television news, an industry still coming of age. Almost daily in 1963, we were exposed to images such as Birmingham police dogs and firehoses sicced on peaceful civil rights protesters, a bombed Birmingham church where four little girls were killed on a Sunday morning and the assassination of Medgar Evers, a Mississippi civil rights leader, shot by a sniper on the very evening after President John F. Kennedy announced his introduction of the civil rights bill.