Fourth of July 1776, 1964, 2010
By FRANK RICH
With the holiday weekend approaching, Johnson summoned the television networks for the signing ceremony on Thursday evening, July 2. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, first proposed more than a year earlier by John F. Kennedy, banished the Jim Crow laws that denied black Americans access to voting booths, public schools and public accommodations. Johnson told the nation we could “eliminate the last vestiges of injustice in our beloved country” with the help of a newly formed “Community Relations Service” and its “advisory committee of distinguished Americans.” Talk about an age of innocence!
Still, there were some heartening reports of America’s first full day under the new law. A front-page photo in The Times on July 4 showed 13-year-old Gene Young of Kansas City being shorn by a white barber at the Muehlebach Hotel shop “formerly closed to Negroes.” But that Norman Rockwell-like tableau was paired with the image of a white businessman, Lester Maddox, and a teenage accomplice respectively wielding a pistol and an ax handle as they turned away blacks from Maddox’s restaurant in Atlanta. The summer of 1964, which had begun with the lynching of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss., would soon erupt in a bloody wave of terrorism, marked by dozens of bombings of black churches, homes and businesses.
A presidential campaign was in the wings. The soon-to-be Republican nominee, Barry Goldwater, had committed heresy by casting one of the Party of Lincoln’s few Senate votes against the Civil Rights Act. But not even Goldwater had been as implacably opposed as a Democratic senator from West Virginia, Robert Byrd. Of all the filibusters trying to block the bill, largely from Southern and border state racists then welcomed by the Democratic Party, Byrd’s was the longest (some 14 hours) and perhaps the most appalling. As the historian Taylor Branch recounted, Byrd even let loose with ornate “segregationist interpretations of Luke and Paul.”
This was typical of Byrd. He had been an Exalted Cyclops in the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1940s. As he moved toward a political career after World War II, he wrote to a notorious bigot, the Democratic Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, to rage at President Truman’s efforts to integrate the military: “I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels.”
That letter was not unearthed until the late 1980s, but by then Byrd had long since renounced and apologized repeatedly for his ugly past, with words as well as deeds, including his avid support for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in 1983. Byrd referred to his K.K.K. association in interviews as an immutable stain. He always noted with rue, not complaint, that it would haunt his obituaries. He wasn’t wrong. But when those obituaries finally appeared last week, after his death at 92, Byrd’s résumé in racism was dwarfed not just by his efforts to atone for it but by his legislative achievements on many fronts during his epic Senate career.
Byrd’s evolution often parallels that of a country that has now elected its first African-American president. But the story of America and race is hardly resolved, and progress is not inexorable. Even in the new century, we still take steps back and forward in bewildering alternation. New Yorkers could only be embarrassed to learn last week, courtesy of The Times, that in a city where the non-Hispanic white population is 35 percent, 70 percent of the senior officials hired by Mayor Michael Bloomberg are white — a record worse than that of all three American cities of comparable population, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston. The title that an independent panel gave to its newly issued report on the altercation between Henry Louis Gates Jr. and a Cambridge, Mass., police officer — “Missed Opportunities, Shared Responsibilities” — might apply here too.
Yet paradoxically the news in New York was preceded by happier tidings from South Carolina, where the flag of the Confederacy still flies at the state Capitol. Republican primary voters there gave victories both to an African-American candidate for Congress, Tim Scott, and an Indian-American gubernatorial hopeful, Nikki Haley. Liberals have argued that these breakthroughs come with a caveat: Scott and Haley are often ideologically to the right of even their conservative competitors. True enough, but that doesn’t alter the reality that some very conservative white voters in the land of Strom Thurmond did not let any lingering racial animus override their other convictions. They voted for Haley, the daughter of Sikh immigrants, despite the urging of a local G.O.P. official that they reject a “raghead.”
Scott’s victory had an added irony because he defeated Thurmond’s son. But we shouldn’t read too much into these results from low-turnout primaries — just as we shouldn’t draw too much solace from the pleasing morality tale of Byrd’s atonement. Even as Washington paid homage to Byrd’s triumph over his origins last week, the Capitol played host to what the Supreme Court’s only black justice, Clarence Thomas, might call a “high-tech lynching.” The victim was, of all people, Thurgood Marshall — the nation’s first black solicitor general and first black Supreme Court Justice, nominated to both jobs by L.B.J.
The pretext was Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearings in the Senate. Marshall had been a mentor to Kagan, for whom she clerked in 1988. He is also a hero of our history, a brave and brilliant lawyer whose advocacy in many civil rights cases, and most especially Brown v. Board of Education, helped open the doors for landmark legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Even before last week’s ceremonial hazing of Kagan, the G.O.P.’s only national black political figure, Michael Steele, attacked her for writing approvingly of a speech Marshall had given calling the original text of the Constitution “defective” — a restrained adjective, actually, for a document that countenanced slavery. On the first day of the Kagan hearings, Marshall received many more mentions (35) than even that other Republican archenemy, President Obama, in the accounting of Talking Points Memo. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma said they weren’t sure they could have voted to confirm Marshall to the court. Jon Kyl of Arizona, a state that suffered years of economic boycotts because of its opposition to the King holiday, faulted Marshall’s jurisprudence for advancing “the agenda of certain classes of litigants” (wonder who?) and for being out of the “mainstream.”
These senators were in the tradition of Thurmond, not Byrd — indeed, they are Thurmond’s direct heirs. Like Byrd, Thurmond had been an ardent Democratic foe of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Unlike Byrd, he left his party in disgust that year and endorsed Goldwater, jump-starting the migration of the Democrats’ racist cadre and their political toxins to the G.O.P. and setting the stage for the Republican “Southern strategy.” That strategy isn’t dead. Witness just recently the Virginia governor Bob McDonnell’s declaration of a Confederate History Month that omitted any mention of slavery, and the Kentucky Senate nominee Rand Paul’s revival of Goldwater’s “constitutional” objections to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Thurmond, who died at 100 in 2003, never recanted his racist past. He chose instead to pretend it never happened. He told interviewers that his “reputation as a segregationist” was “just misunderstood” and that he helped “the people of both races” throughout his lifetime. This from a man who, when running as a Dixiecrat for president in 1948, exclaimed that “all the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches and our places of recreation.” Only after Thurmond’s death did we learn that his record also included fathering a daughter with a teenage black maid in the 1920s — and then shunting her into the shadows.
The senators trashing Marshall last week almost uncannily recycled Thurmond’s behavior from July 1967, when, as a freshly minted Republican senator on the same committee, he pelted Marshall for an hour with windy, truculent and arcane questions during Marshall’s own Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Indeed, some of the coded invective — such as Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions’s decrying Marshall as “a well-known activist” — was coined by Thurmond and his peers then. Thurmond not only voted against Marshall but declared him too deficient in constitutional knowledge to qualify for the court.
“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” wrote our current Supreme Court chief justice, John Roberts, in a smug majority opinion nibbling away at Brown v. Board of Education in 2007. His conservative self-righteousness, a product of his time, is as delusional as L.B.J.’s liberal faith in the efficacy of a federal “Community Relations Service” was in 1964. On this Fourth, as on the 233 that preceded it, America is still very much a work in progress.