Essay — From the June 2014 issue

The Civil Rights Act’s Unsung Victory

And how it changed the South

Download Pdf
Read Online
( 2 of 6 )

Prior to the Sixties, white supremacists often expressed themselves candidly. When Senator Benjamin “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman criticized President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901 for inviting Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House, he remarked, plainly, “Entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place again.” “White Supremacy will be maintained in our primaries,” South Carolina governor Olin Johnston declared frankly at a special legislative session he called in 1944 to respond to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that invalidated the barring of black people from voting in Democratic Party primaries. “Let the chips fall where they may!”

By 1964, however, outright expressions of racist sentiment were increasingly seen as ugly. So white supremacists had to find a politically palatable way to do what “nigger” had formerly done. They developed a vocabulary of obstruction that remains very much with us today, a lexicon that relies strongly on claims to liberty (as opposed to equality) and states’ rights (as opposed to federal regulation) and freedom of association (as opposed to inclusiveness). Opponents of the Civil Rights Act warned that its implementation would further empower an already tyrannical federal government, just as enemies of the Affordable Care Act warn us today. They depicted it as snatching freedom from white business owners in order to propitiate lawless blacks by securing them preferential treatment — the precursor to recent arguments about “reverse discrimination.” Segregationists asserted that the civil rights movement was part of a global communist conspiracy, just as many Americans now say they fear a socialist takeover of their government.

It’s clear that conditions have changed dramatically over the past half century. In 1964 there had never been a black Cabinet official, a black Supreme Court justice, or a black Fortune 500 CEO. But even though we are living in the second term of a black president, American politics remains divided along the same racial lines that fragmented debate over the Civil Rights Act.

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $23.99/year.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Share
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.

More from Randall Kennedy:

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2020

Trumpism After Trump

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“My Gang Is Jesus”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Cancer Chair

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Birds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Skinning Tree

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Interpretation of Dreams

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dearest Lizzie

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

Close

You’ve read your free article from Harper’s Magazine this month.

*Click “Unsubscribe” in the Weekly Review to stop receiving emails from Harper’s Magazine.