Civil rights in the 1960s: A saga of moral force and political brillance -- and a lesson


&TC; The United States has failed to bring vast numbers of its citizens into full citizenship. I have no patience with those who put aside those failures as hopelessly intractable, as matters of practical inevitability. That sort of resignation, however, seems to me today to be the preponderant consensus among Democrats and Republicans alike.

It was not ever thus.

Exactly a third of a century ago, the United States rose up as a moral nation. Led by men and women of amazing courage and decency, it wrestled with its own soul on the precipice of massive violence, on the very edge of something that could have approached civil war. In agony and joy and indomitable determination, it wrought a civil rights revolution.

Much has been written about that process. Some of it is dutiful, some plodding. A bit is magnificent (I put Taylor Branch's "Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63" at the top, but there are others).

Now comes a major new contribution: "The Walls of Jericho, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Russell, and the Struggle for Civil Rights" by Robert Mann (Harcourt Brace. 609 pages. $32.00). Anyone who was too young to remember or too indifferent to have been drawn into the drama at the time would do well to read it - if for no other reason than as moral therapy.

Moving detail

I am not too young. As a newspaper correspondent I was on Washington's mall pressed amid the kindest-spirited mass of people I have ever witnessed, when Martin Luther King Jr. told us, again and again "I have a dream." I was in the House gallery on the night Lyndon Johnson, long thought a true Southerner, declared: "We shall overcome." Both are among the most stirring moments of American history.

My memory is quite sound. Yet I found Mann's book marvelously informative and moving.

Mann sets the scene of immediate postwar America deftly, clearly, and explores the personalities of the men who were to become the major players in the Congressional battles of the early and mid 1960s.

And then it all begins.

The evolution of principles in post-WWII America, joined by the energies of men and women of valor and conviction who made civil rights an explosive national concern, confronted the implacability of Southern stalwarts and the complacency of the mass of liberals.

Mann's recitation of the events of that confrontation is encyclopedic. I am strained to think of a book that is the match of this one for richness of anecdotal detail in tracing the technical developments through the Congress, especially the Senate, in ways coherent to general readers.

The book's elegance is the elegance of destiny. It is not particularly literary, but the message, the story, cumulatively, is born by such a tide of morality that it begins to sing, and then gradually rises to the eloquence of a mighty choir.

A surge of liberal expectations came with the Kennedy administration. Yet as Mann writes in typically clear-eyed

directness, "Active and eloquent on so many other fronts, Kennedy drifted aimlessly in the sea of civil rights, tossed back and forth by the rolling waves of competing interests and ideologies. The seas, meanwhile, only grew more tumultuous." Alas, expectations never became reality.

So the real drama began with the Johnson presidency. Almost immediately, Johnson made major civil rights legislation his highest priority.

The story of Johnson's manipulating, dodging, bobbing, weaving, wheedling, threatening, punishing is fascinating. The portrait of Johnson is far from simple: part opportunist of the most cynical stripe, sentimentalist of the most deeply liberal spontaneous motivation. This is the story of the evolution of a consciousness. Finally it celebrates the full-grown Johnson as a great moral hero.

Legions of heroes

There are other heroes of course, Hubert Humphrey, Everett Dirksen, Mike Mansfield, more. But the main one is Martin Luther King Jr., relentlessly, brilliantly pressing against not only the failure of the national liberal establishment to be aggressive, and the failure of President Kennedy to lead, but also against even the resistance of more passive or conservative African American clergy in such places as Birmingham, Ala.

Heroes abound: Clergy and students, hitherto indifferent citizens, tired and beaten-down people and privileged ones, drawing together in the face of often mortal danger from Southern officials and mobs, marching and bleeding and dying to fashion a national awareness that translated with breathtaking swiftness into the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In the 89th Congress, 1965 to 1966, 181 of Johnson's 200 legislative proposals were enacted into law, many of them in this same cause. Then came Vietnam, and the tragedy of the presidency. On March 31, 1968, a broken Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run for reelection.

It is a different time now. Millions of Americans have benefited from those two great laws and their ancillaries. It is hard to contrive that any American has suffered from them.

But for all the immense progress since the 1960s, the United States suffers bitterly from residual agonies associated with race and voicelessness and exclusion.

Setting those things right cannot be easy. But there is a profound, irrefutable, lesson for today from the 1960s and from Robert Mann's book. It is this: When moral might and courage and leadership unite in a noble cause here in America, nothing - nothing - is impossible.

! Pub date: 5/19/96

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