Fifty years ago, on 2 July 1964, American President Lyndon B Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act, outlawing discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex or national origin in public accommodations.
The Voting Rights Act, which ended the systematic disenfranchisement of African-Americans in Southern states, followed the next year. Together, they represent some of the most significant bills to survive the US Congress in the past century.
Johnson tends to get a lot of credit for pushing through these laws. This April, President Obama and three of his predecessors – George W Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter – appeared at a Texas summit to commemorate the anniversary of the bills’ passage. The event lauded the presidential contribution to civil rights history, with Obama underscoring Johnson’s reputation as a legislative mastermind and hard-nosed negotiator.
Back in 2008, while running in the presidential primary, Hillary Clinton also highlighted Johnson’s role, arguing that Martin Luther King’s ‘dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act’.
‘It took a president to get it done,’ she pointedly added.
Clinton’s comment created a small firestorm. Critics felt that her valorization of White House power short-changed the citizens who risked their lives through years of mounting protests against Jim Crow racism – braving police dogs, fire hoses and Ku Klux Klan lynchings.
The problem with Clinton’s statement is not that Johnson’s part was insignificant: social change often requires the combined efforts of outside dissidents who make an issue a matter of heated public concern and inside reformers who translate that pressure into policy.
The problem is one of emphasis.
We know a lot about the processes of insider lawmaking. Our entire pundit class is focused on it. They glamorize the art of legislative arm-twisting and validate the work of those oily enough to slide into mainstream politics.
Far less often do we seek to understand how social movements propel change. Yet the civil rights movement is one of the clearest examples we have of how dedicated activists forced politicians – Johnson included – to confront an issue they would have preferred to avoid.
Protests in Birmingham, Alabama, served as a key turning point. There, nonviolent insurgents launched a carefully planned uprising against segregated businesses in the spring of 1963. Police chief Bull Connor, who was certain that civil rights groups would ‘run out of niggers’ willing to face the beatings and arrests administered by his forces, played brilliantly into their hands – sparking an internationally publicized crisis.
Not only did Birmingham citizens defy Connor’s predictions, but their actions were replicated in mass demonstrations throughout the country.
‘For two years, [Attorney General] Robert Kennedy had attempted to deal with each racial crisis on an ad hoc basis,’ writes historian Adam Fairclough. ‘Birmingham finally convinced him that the crises would recur with such frequency and magnitude that the federal government, unless it adopted a more radical policy, would be overwhelmed.’
Shortly thereafter, President John F Kennedy announced the legislation that ultimately became the Civil Rights Act.
Two years later, Martin Luther King highlighted how the sea change in public opinion brought about by social movements not only propelled legislation through Congress, but ensured that the law, unlike previous Supreme Court rulings on school desegregation, was respected in practice.
‘[I]t was thought that the issue of public accommodations would encounter massive defiance,’ King noted. ‘But this pessimism overlooked a factor of supreme importance. The legislation was not a product of charity of white America for a supine black America; nor was it the result of enlightened leadership by the judiciary. This legislation was first written in the streets.’
The end of child labour, minimum wages, women’s right to vote, environmental protections, gay marriage – these, too, have been written in the streets.
Politicians who enjoy lauding their brethren may choose to forget it. But future progress depends on our refusing to follow their example.
Mark Engler, a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus, is currently writing a book about the evolution of political nonviolence. He can be reached via the website DemocracyUprising.com.