Essay — From the June 2014 issue

The Civil Rights Act’s Unsung Victory

And how it changed the South

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When I was a kid, in the early Sixties, my mother and father meticulously prepared our car for holiday journeys from our home in Washington, D.C., to my birthplace in Columbia, South Carolina. They packed coolers filled with sodas, deviled eggs, chicken wings, sandwiches of all varieties, cookies, and candy. I thought of this at the time as an effort to make the eight-hour ride into a party for me and my older brother and younger sister. Only later did I learn that their preparations stemmed from fear. Having fled the Jim Crow South in the Fifties, my parents were seeking to limit our contact with filling stations, restaurants, motels, and other public accommodations along the way, where their children might be snarled at by white cashiers and attendants. As I matured, I saw that once we crossed the Potomac River and ventured into Virginia, we encountered a terrain that filled my parents with dread.

My father was particularly burdened by the drive. He became noticeably nervous at the sight of police officers. Over the years several of them pulled him over. They did not charge him with any infraction. Rather, they stopped him seemingly out of curiosity and a desire to test his willingness to accept the etiquette of white supremacy. Their colloquies went something like this:

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is the Michael R. Klein Professor of Law at Harvard University. He is working on a book about the legal history of the civil rights revolution.

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  • kingless

    Interesting reading, recently having seen (again!) the ‘freedom to oppress’ argument in McPherson’s single volume history of the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom.

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