This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. President Lyndon Johnson overcame a determined filibuster by southern lawmakers and signed the bill on July 2, 1964. The new law banned discrimination in public accommodations, including restaurants and hotels, and ended the era of legal segregation. The Civil Rights Act also outlawed discrimination in the workplace and at the voting booth. The law is now regarded as one of the greatest accomplishments of the civil rights movement. This week, President Obama and three former presidents are gathering in Texas to mark the 50th anniversary. We discuss the struggle to pass the Civil Rights Act and how it changed America.


  • Todd Purdum Senior writer, Politico and contributing editor, Vanity Fair; author of "An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964" (April 2014)
  • Isabel Wilkerson Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of "The Warmth of Other Suns."
  • Michelle Bernard President, the Bernard Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy; author of "Moving America Toward Justice, The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, 1963-2013."
  • Evan Thomas Journalist and professor, Princeton University; author of "Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World" and "Robert Kennedy: His Life"


  • 10:06:54

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law banned discrimination in employment, public places and at the voting booth. This week, President Obama and three former presidents gather at the LBJ Library to commemorate passage of the landmark legislation.

  • 10:07:19

    MS. DIANE REHMJoining me to talk about the act, the struggle to pass the bill, and its legacy today, journalist and presidential historian Evan Thomas and Michelle Bernard of the Bernard Center. Joining us from a studio at NPR West, Tom Purdum of Politico and Vanity Fair. He's the author of a new book "An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964."

  • 10:07:53

    MS. DIANE REHMAnd joining us from a studio in Atlanta, Ga., journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson. She is a Pulitzer Prizewinner, bestselling author of "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Greatest Migration." I do invite you to take part in our conversation. Join us on 800-433-8850. Send us an email to Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Thank you all so much for joining me.

  • 10:08:31


  • 10:08:32

    MR. TODD PURDUMThank you.

  • 10:08:32

    MR. EVAN THOMASThank you.

  • 10:08:33

    REHMGood to have you all with us. Before we begin the conversation here in the studio and around the country, I'd like to hear President Kennedy as he introduces the Civil Rights Act back in June of 1963.

  • 10:08:59

    PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDYWe are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.

  • 10:09:20

    PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDYIf an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his changed and stand in his place?

  • 10:09:51

    REHMTodd Purdum, first to you, what lead President Kennedy to introduce the Civil Rights Act back in 1963?

  • 10:10:04

    PURDUMWell, a whole host of things, Diane. The country was really, 100 years after the Civil War, seemingly on the verge of another one. Demonstrations had swept the South, sit-ins at lunch counters, freedom rides to desegregate busses and in the spring of 1963, dramatic protests in Birmingham, Ala. in which Bull Connor's police dogs and fire hoses knocked children and young people to the ground, tore off their clothes, producing horrifying front page pictures in every newspaper in the country, in the world, and outraging John Kennedy who had temporized in his first two years on civil rights and suddenly knew he couldn't delay any longer, that he would have to confront this issue.

  • 10:10:41

    REHMEvan Thomas, how bold a step was it for JFK?

  • 10:10:47

    THOMASIt was very bold. And, as Todd said, he was uneasy about it. He'd been avoiding this issue as much as possible, but he stepped up to it. And you have to think about the political context here. Back in the early '60s, the solid South was Democratic. You know, he was giving away the base of his party by endorsing civil rights, by embracing civil rights.

  • 10:11:08

    THOMASHe, a Democratic president, was alienating the base of his party in the South. And that was a -- in modern terms, today's terms, almost unthinkable that a political leader would make a political sacrifice like that. Now, he didn't love doing it, but he did it?

  • 10:11:27

    REHMWhat do you mean, he didn't love doing it?

  • 10:11:30

    THOMASWell, I wouldn't say that his racial consciousness was the greatest. He made, as many in his generation did, he would make racist jokes. He would use the wrong words. I don't think he was deeply sensitive to the issue, but he got sensitized. He got sensitized by the civil rights movement, by Martin Luther King, and by the very brave people in the South who were raising heck down there.

  • 10:11:57

    THOMASAnd he got sensitized by his brother, the Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy, who had also been sort of indifferent to civil rights but woke up, woke up because he went south, and he saw how bad it was, woke up because he spoke to black leaders, and they sensitized him. They woke him up, and young Bobby Kennedy -- and we forget how young all these guys were -- got mad. He just got mad about it and said it's time to do something. And his brother agreed, and they did.

  • 10:12:26


  • 10:12:28

    PURDUMWell, and as Evan said, what John Kennedy said that night, in some ways, is under-remembered. He's remembered for "Ich bin ein Berliner" and "ask not what your country can do for you." But, I mean, to couch this question in moral terms was something that really not even Abraham Lincoln had ever done. So I think it was surely the bravest speech of his life. And we also tend to forget that, just four hours later in his driveway in Mississippi, the NAACP leader there, Medgar Evers, was shot in the back.

  • 10:12:54

    REHMMichelle Bernard.

  • 10:12:55

    BERNARDI was actually going, you know, say that Medgar Evers was shot, literally, just eight days before President Kennedy introduced the legislation. And if you think even a little bit more about what was happening at the time, the day before President Kennedy talked to the nation and introduced the legislation -- he convened a group of lawyers in Washington D.C. -- it was unprecedented.

  • 10:13:20

    BERNARDAnd he basically said, I need lawyers to engage in this moral battle and help me take the fight for civil rights from the streets to the courts. And I want to just -- I'd like to just share with you a quote from one of the lawyers who met with President Kennedy and became part of what was known as The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in terms of talking about what Mississippi was like during this time period.

  • 10:13:46

    BERNARDAnd this is Robert W. Ostrow, a Lawyers Committee volunteer, and he literally said back then -- and I quote him -- "Mississippi is a wasteland of lost and troubled souls, white and black. Mississippi is not a part of the United States. And if she is to join the other 49 states in the Union, she must be rehabilitated and democratized in the same fashion that Germany and Japan were democratized, through use of army occupation.

  • 10:14:12

    BERNARD"There is no law in Mississippi. Federal and state judges are perpetrators of injustice and are co-conspirators with peace officers. The Ku Klux Klan and white citizens council hoodlums in the most monstrous conspiracy to deny human rights to any group of persons since Hitler's Germany."

  • 10:14:30

    BERNARDThat's what President Kennedy was dealing with.

  • 10:14:32

    REHMIsabel Wilkerson, remind us what life was like for black living in the South at that time.

  • 10:14:42

    MS. ISABEL WILKERSONWell, at that time, it really was a country within a country when you think about the South. The South was essentially gripped in a caste system in which everything a person could or could not do was based upon what they looked like and such basic things. We all know about the water fountains and the restrooms, but that only begins to scratch at the surface of what it was like to live in that world.

  • 10:15:10

    MS. ISABEL WILKERSONEvery single thing that you could imagine was segregated, staircases and parking spaces and telephone booths and bank teller lines and ambulances. It was actually against the law to play checkers together in Birmingham. That's how extreme life was. And then, beyond that, of course, people could not vote. People were actually limited as to what they could do for a living.

  • 10:15:34

    MS. ISABEL WILKERSONFor example, in South Carolina, you had to apply, if you were African American, throughout much of the early part of the 20th century, you had to apply for any work that was outside of agricultural work or domestic work. And so the world was very narrow, and any breach of the caste system could mean one's very life. Every four days, in the early decades of the 20th century, every four days, an African American was lynched for some perceived breach of the caste system that I've described.

  • 10:16:02

    REHMSo, Michelle, talk about the kinds of jobs blacks could have at that time.

  • 10:16:10

    BERNARDWell, they were very limited. Remember, all of this was taking place shortly after the Supreme Court's decision in Brown vs. Board of Education that ended segregation in public schools. And you have a southern system -- it was in the north also, but primarily in the South where we've got George Wallace, you know, standing up and making his famous quote about segregation forever.

  • 10:16:31

    BERNARDSegregation today, segregation forever. And jobs were limited. There were southern members of Congress who got together and went to their states and said, please do not follow the Supreme Court's decision in Brown vs. Board. Keep segregation alive. So you were limited in the type of education that you could get and, as a result, in terms of the type of jobs you got. You could teach, but -- for example, but you were limited to teaching in black or African American schools.

  • 10:16:57

    REHMSo, Todd Purdum, President Kennedy knew he was taking on more than a hornet's nest when he introduced this.

  • 10:17:12

    PURDUMOh, yes. He was terribly worried. As Evan said, he was dependent on the southern bulls in Congress for the rest of his legislative agenda, which, at this point, included a major tax cut that he was hoping to pass as an economic stimulus, and he was worried, gravely worried, that the whole rest of his agenda would be put at risk. But, you know, coming back to something said earlier about his consciousness, the black people he knew were really limited to his own two successive black valets and the leaders of the movement itself.

  • 10:17:40

    PURDUMIn 1960, during the campaign, a black dentist in San Francisco asked him how many black professionals he knew. And he said he didn't know five whom he could call by their first name but that he would be working on it. And I think we have to remember just how far he came in his journey and just how much he was willing to put at risk, even though he was slow to the cause. When he jumped in, he jumped in with both feet.

  • 10:18:02

    REHMJumped in with both feet.

  • 10:18:04

    THOMASHe sure did. This wonderful speech that we heard earlier that has those great lines, that it's as old as the scriptures and as clear as the Constitution and moral duty, that speech, when he gave it, was not final -- they hadn't finished writing it. He winged the last third of it. This is called seizing the moment -- a little bit of background here, that day the Justice Department had basically integrated the University of Alabama over the defiance of Gov. Wallace and Kennedy had a politician's instinct, seize the moment.

  • 10:18:36

    THOMASSo he went on national TV with a half-unwritten speech.

  • 10:18:40

    REHMEvan Thomas, journalist, presidential historian. Michelle Bernard, Todd Purdum, Isabel Wilkerson. Short break, right back.

  • 10:20:01

    REHMAnd welcome back. We are talking about the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act which President Lyndon Johnson signed in 1964. We've been talking thus far about President John F. Kennedy who actually introduced the legislation in 1963. He introduced the idea and the ideal that he wanted to see this country push for. The question I have for you, Todd Purdum, is, would John F. Kennedy have been able to get this legislation through or did it take the fight, the battle that LBJ, Lyndon Johnson, was willing to pursue?

  • 10:21:00

    PURDUMWell, you know, Diane, that's the great imponderable of this whole question and historians disagree on it. I personally think that the bill was so far along the track and President Kennedy had staked so much of his reputation on it by the fall of 1963, by the time of his death, that he would've pressed forward. He had actually managed that October to get the bill out of the House Judiciary Committee with a series of very impressive legislative maneuvering and personal lobbying of congress wavering Democrats, in which he put his prestige on the line by calling them into the Oval Office.

  • 10:21:32

    PURDUMAnd, you know, Kennedy doesn't often get credit as knowing much about the legislative process. But in that fall he was really awfully brave and in some ways very daring. Because what was happening was the civil rights advocates and the most liberal members of the House were pushing for a bill that would be so strong that would extend to state and local elections, for example, and other things that they -- the cooler heads felt it would be unpassable in the House and then in the Senate.

  • 10:21:56

    PURDUMSo I think Kennedy would have stuck with this. It's a question about whether he could've gotten it before the 1964 election but I think he would've stuck with it.

  • 10:22:04


  • 10:22:05

    THOMASThat's true and I agree, it took enormous bravery, somewhat uncharacteristic bravery on JFK's part because he was a pretty cautious politician to push this. But there's no question, LBJ was the master legislator and LBJ formed this great alliance with Everett Dirksen, the Republican leader in the Senate. This is an important point for us to remember today. This was bipartisan.

  • 10:22:29

    THOMASThey didn't try to just do this with the votes of their own party. They needed -- they knew they needed the votes of both parties because there were a lot of southern Democrats in the congress who were going to vote against it. So LBJ, who was great at twisting arms was able to get, not just Democrats, but Republicans on his side and use his moral force and his juice and his sheer oomph to get it done.

  • 10:22:53


  • 10:22:54

    BERNARDWell, you know, if you think about the imagery at the time, for the first time American's could actually look in the newspapers and listen on radio and watch on television these horrific images of children being blocked from the schoolhouse door, African Americans being hosed down and chased with dogs.

  • 10:23:11

    BERNARDYou know, the assassination of Medgar Evers, being able to see those images I would guess would have made it very, very difficult for most members of congress at that time to completely ignore this and say, this is just a southern problem. We don't have to worry about it. This effort of bipartisanship was absolutely critical to getting the act passed.

  • 10:23:34

    REHMIsabel, what role did the great migration of African Americans from the south to the north play in the passage of the Civil Rights Act?

  • 10:23:49

    WILKERSONWell, it meant that there were 6 million African Americans who had fled the south and were now in the north and the west. And these were brand new voters. These are people who had not been able to vote in the south where they had come from, although they were American citizens.

  • 10:24:05

    WILKERSONAnd so that meant that there was a counterweight in the northern and western parts of the country. When it came to electoral politics it means that it could -- these numbers -- these voters could now figure into the calculus of elections. They also, by their departure from the south to the north, put all kinds of pressure because in some ways they were -- their departure was a referendum on conditions in the South.

  • 10:24:30

    WILKERSONAnd they were, by their position in the north, able to help to fund part -- much of the civil rights efforts that were making the impression on people with the young people who were facing the sheriff's hoses and the dogs so that all of that worked together. It's a reminder that it took everything, you know, all the branches of government. It took strong and powerful leadership, as Evan and Todd have described. And it also took on the ground realignment of voter power, you might say, in the country.

  • 10:25:07

    REHMNow, isn't it true that there was actually a civil rights bill, Isabel, as far back as 1866?

  • 10:25:19

    WILKERSONAbsolutely. This is, in some ways -- you know, it's fascinating to see the 100-year gap, which is what Todd had made reference to as well. You know, the post-reconstruction civil rights bills of the 1860s which did not have the strength obviously that this 1964 bill would ultimately -- legislation would ultimately have. But you can see that this is the 100-year march toward ultimately freeing these people. And it took everything in order to make it happen.

  • 10:25:55

    REHMTodd, I know you wanted to add to that.

  • 10:25:59

    PURDUMWell, I was just going to second what Isabel said about the migration, because arguably black voters, and black voters in Illinois in particular, may well have been responsible for John F. Kennedy's election to the presidency in the first place. So he was whipsawed. He had to be worried about the southern Democrats, but he also was very concerned about urban black northern voters. And he knew that they too would have a great deal of power in the upcoming 1964 election.

  • 10:26:20

    REHMEvan Thomas, when did Lyndon Johnson actually decide he would finish the work of the civil rights bill?

  • 10:26:32

    THOMASWell, he -- one thing he did was he realized he had a lot of power from Kennedy's death, that there was a lot of feeling in the country of unfinished business. And that it was kind of an emotional thing, a sentimental thing but a very shrewd political thing. He saw there was force there in martyrdom and he comes right in and says, I'm going to finish the work of President Kennedy. And that gave him some momentum. Yes, he had his arm twisting and his own ties in the Senate but he's also using Kennedy's death to get this done.

  • 10:27:02

    REHMWho did he have to arm twist?

  • 10:27:06

    THOMASWell, his closest friend, Richard Russell, a senator from Georgia as again...

  • 10:27:11

    REHMThere's a photograph of that, isn't there?

  • 10:27:13

    THOMASThey are the best buddies there are. And Russell says, man you can't do this. You're dueling your political career. And Johnson does it anyways over the objections of his closest friend, his mentor, his guide, if you will, in the U.S. Senate.

  • 10:27:29


  • 10:27:30

    BERNARDWell, and what was fascinating and wonderful about LBJ is that he took up the mantle for President Kennedy, he took on civil rights. He also, you know, took on poverty. Under him we later see the Voting Rights Act of 1965 introduced and passed. We see the Fair Housing Act of 1968 introduced and passed. We get Medicaid. We get Medicare. We get Head Start. All of these happened under LBJ.

  • 10:27:54


  • 10:27:56

    PURDUMIt's all true, and in some ways it's all the more remarkable because one of the lessons that I learned, somewhat to my surprise, is that during the actual Senate debate LBJ had to be very careful not to micromanage the process, not to insert himself too directly because he knew that his former Senate colleagues would resent that.

  • 10:28:12

    PURDUMAnd the tapes, those wonderful secret tape recordings that both he and John Kennedy made in the White House, you can hear him just chafing and chomping at the bit that the Democratic Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and the bill's floor manager Hubert Humphrey are letting the southerners talk. Letting them spend themselves where Johnson wants to go around the clock sessions, try to wear them down.

  • 10:28:32

    PURDUMHumphrey and Mansfield thought that if the southerners had their day and had their say, they would be able to eventually beat them and the southerners would go home to their constituents and say, we lost but we lost fair and square. And Johnson is constantly having to pull back. And so I think in some ways, the story of this bill is how he did not exert the Johnson treatment sometimes when he might have wanted to in his gut.

  • 10:28:54

    REHMBut, Todd, didn't LBJ also say he knew that the south would be lost to the Democratic Party as a result of this 1964 act?

  • 10:29:10

    PURDUMYes, he was quite pressioned about that. And on the night he signed the bill, July 2, 1964 his aide Bill Moyers found him not exultant but kind of very sober and even a little despondent. And he asked him why. He was reading the Bulldog edition of the next day's Washington Post. And Johnson said, I fear we've handed the south to the Republicans for a generation.

  • 10:29:28

    PRESIDENT LYNDON B. JOHNSONWe believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty, yet millions are being deprived of those blessings. Not because of their own peers, but because of the color of their skin. The reasons are deeply imbedded in history and tradition and the nature of man. We can understand without rancor or hatred how this all happened but it cannot continue. Our constitution, the foundation of our republic forbids it. The principles of our freedom forbid it. Morality forbids it. And the law I will sign tonight forbids it.

  • 10:30:22

    REHMSo, Evan Thomas, even though he had somehow foreseen very presciently what the result of his signing was going to be, he was going to do it anyway.

  • 10:30:40

    THOMASWell, think about this, in modern terms, in today's terms can you imagine politicians today, presidents, leaders of their party handing over their political base to the other side for a moral principle? It's just -- it boggles the mind.

  • 10:30:55

    THOMASIt's as if President Obama said, you know, even though the Democratic Party's been protecting Social Security all these years and protecting seniors' right to get this money, I'm going to cut Social Security because that's the right thing to do. That's the moral equivalent of what happened in those days. It's as if a Democratic president deeply cut Social Security and Medicare.

  • 10:31:22

    REHMDo you agree with that, Todd Purdum?

  • 10:31:25

    PURDUMI think it's a pretty close analogy. And, I mean, we forget just what an overwhelmingly bipartisan effort this was. It wasn't just the Democrats who put themselves at risk -- I mean, President Johnson. It was Republicans who did the same thing. One of my favorite unsung heroes of the story is a conservative congressman from Western Ohio named William McCulloch, he was the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee in the House.

  • 10:31:47

    PURDUMHe represented the district that's now represented by Speaker John Boehner. He was against federal aid to education. He was against gun control and foreign aid but he was descended from abolitionists before the Civil War. And he was a fervid supporter of civil rights. And in the summer of 1963 when the Kennedy Administration proposed the bill, he made a deal.

  • 10:32:05

    PURDUMHe said, if you won't water this down in the Senate the way you always have in '57 and '60 with those civil rights bills, and if you promise to give the Republicans equal political credit going into next year's presidential election, I'll bring along the House Republican caucus. And that's what he did. And that's what the House Republican Minority Leader Charles Halleck of Indiana did. And the next year Halleck was voted out of his leadership role.

  • 10:32:29


  • 10:32:30

    BERNARDI wanted to just add to that what we saw was so unprecedented, not just from the president and from the legislative branch, but from the bench and the bar as well. We get passage of the act. We have passage of Brown vs. Board of Education and lots of other laws. But without judges who were actually willing to analyze every single case on the basis of the facts and follow the law, none of this would've worked.

  • 10:32:55

    BERNARDSouthern judges, Eisenhower Republican judges in the Fifth Circuit made it possible for African Americans to attend the University of Mississippi, for example. They desegregated parks, bathrooms, all kinds of public accommodations. And it took enormous courage to do it in the face of cross burnings in the front yards of white southern judges all over the south.

  • 10:33:15

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." But, Isabel Wilkerson, how did passage of the act affect the lives of most African Americans?

  • 10:33:33

    WILKERSONWell, it was a sea change in the possibilities for people who had lived under such repression for generations. I think one of the things that I'm struck by when we talk about this is that this law, you know, actually helped to create, you know, the modern America as we know it. And it affected so many more people than just African Americans alone.

  • 10:34:03

    WILKERSONYou know, when you think about the different groups that were covered in this -- I think this is one of the things that we often miss when we think about this law -- it covered race, it covered color, religion and for certain aspects of it, sex and national origin. And so you realize that the entire country was affected by this law, not just African Americans.

  • 10:34:23

    REHMBut changing laws does not necessarily mean you change hearts or minds.

  • 10:34:31

    WILKERSONAbsolutely. One of the things that was going on even as this law was being fought over and hammered out was that not very far away from Washington in Prince Edward County, Va., the schools had been shut down for five years. This was started in '59 and went into 1964. And that was a result of the resistance to Brown versus Board of Education in that county. And other counties were resistant as well. But this is the most dramatic example.

  • 10:35:03

    WILKERSONThey actually decided to shut down the entire school system rather than to integrate. And that meant that white students actually, with the money that they had, they created academies to educate their children. And that black children had to go to neighboring counties or states to get educated or simply were not educated at all. And so this is the world in which, and the atmosphere in which this law came into being. And that meant that even though it was passed, it didn't mean that there was automatic acceptance by many, many people here.

  • 10:35:39

    REHMAnd indeed, Tom Purdum, yesterday the Senate voted down a pay equity bill. How did protections for women get included in the original civil rights bill?

  • 10:35:56

    PURDUMWell, it's an interesting story and it was the work of a very colorful character named Judge Howard Smith, a congressman from Virginia. And he was chairman of the House Rules Committee and he was a staunch segregationist. He was also something of a supporter of women's rights. He's been a longtime supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment.

  • 10:36:11

    PURDUMSo as the bill was coming toward final passage in the House on a Saturday morning, he sent the House into pandemonium by proposing to add sex as a covered category in the employment discrimination title. And the male chauvinist leadership of the House, including the supporters of the bill, were appalled.

  • 10:36:28

    PURDUMThey saw this as a poisoned pill, something that was going to scuttle a bill. But the women in the House immediately rose to their feet, Republicans and Democrats alike, and said, look, give us this crumb. It's not going to hurt you. And at the end of the day, they did, and, of course, it revolutionized the American workplace.

  • 10:36:44

    PURDUMAnd the other day, I happened to be talking to a young lawyer at the early EEOC, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and he said the first real flood of wave of complaints they got in the agency were in fact from women. And it became a kind of delegate balance because they had to, you know, work on whether they -- you know, how much money they should spend on complaints for African Americans versus women. And the women were the ones who were coming in with the complaints.

  • 10:37:07

    REHMTodd Purdum, he's the author of a brand new book. It's titled "An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964." Short break here. When we come back, your calls, your email. I look forward to hearing from you.

  • 10:40:01

    REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act in 1964. And we're going to hear now a clip from a speech that former President Bill Clinton made at these Civil Rights Summit taking place at the LBJ Library. He made these comments yesterday.

  • 10:40:38

    PRESIDENT BILL CLINTONIs this what Martin Luther King gave his life for? Is this what Lyndon Johnson employed his legendary skills for? Is this what America has become, a great, diverse, thriving democracy for, to restrict the franchise? I am concerned that on this 50th anniversary, these divisions and the lack of a spirit of coming together put us back in the dust bin of old history.

  • 10:41:19

    REHMIsabel Wilkerson, what was your reaction to President Clinton's comments?

  • 10:41:26

    WILKERSONWell, it was interesting to hear a harkening of some of the same language, a nod, a gesture to the spirit of what Lyndon Johnson had said when you played that clip as well. And I think it's obviously important that someone of his stature speak to the moral issues related to where we happen to be as a country now.

  • 10:41:51

    WILKERSONAnd one of the things about this Civil Rights Act is that because of its success, it's kind of obscured the reasons why it was necessary. And I think that, you know, Todd's wonderful word, under-remembering, is one of the challenges of today. In other words, because people are not remembering how the country was not so long ago, people are not aware of and appreciative of why it's necessary to still protect the rights and role of people who have been marginalized for so long.

  • 10:42:26

    REHMTodd Purdum, what was your reaction?

  • 10:42:31

    PURDUMWell, I think, you know, Isabel's right. And one of the challenges on this question is that each generation in American life has to fight this battle all over again. We're a country that was founded on two pillars that are totally contradictory, one, the Declaration of Independence's assertion that all men are created equal and the Constitution's description of slaves as three-fifths of a person. So we've been wrestling with that for our entire existence as a nation.

  • 10:42:55

    PURDUMAnd I think the president, you know, the president came of consciousness in this era. His mother once told me that she was so struck when he was 11 years old and during the Little Rock school desegregation crisis, he came to her and said, mother, this is just wrong. And she just said, you know, I didn't think a thing about it. I was probably turning an egg or something. But he knew this was wrong. And I think he feels it very deeply. So it was interesting to watch him there in his element last night. I'll be very interested to see what the president says today.

  • 10:43:23


  • 10:43:24

    BERNARDI was very thankful for the speech and the words of former President Clinton last night because the nation needs to remember every single day not just the sins of the past but the sins of the nation that we see today, in terms of racial profiling, the murder, I believe, of Trayvon Martin, the treatment of Jena Six in Louisiana, intentional acts of voter suppression all over the country, people's inability to vote.

  • 10:43:55

    BERNARDThere's a fellow at The New York Times, Adam Liptak, who has once said -- and I'm paraphrasing here -- that if time is money, waiting in line to vote for seven or eight hours is a poll tax that the underprivileged can't afford.

  • 10:44:11

    REHMEvan Thomas, what was your reaction?

  • 10:44:14

    THOMASWell, voter suppression is definitely going on. Obviously, Clinton has a political motivation. His wife may be running for president, and they want to turn out as many Democrats as possible.

  • 10:44:23

    BERNARDAnd African Americans.

  • 10:44:24

    THOMASWho tend to be Democrats -- in the next election.

  • 10:44:28

    REHMBut is he speaking the truth, as you understand it?

  • 10:44:34

    THOMASYou know, I teach at Princeton. And it's such an interesting example of how complex this has gotten. The minority kids there talk about micro aggression. They feel that they're in a place that's still white and that they are in some subtle ways discriminated against and put down and reminded of their minority status. But, if you're an administrator at Princeton, you say, you know, Princeton's about 40 percent of color now.

  • 10:45:02

    THOMASIt's not a white boys' school. It's 50/50 women. It's 20 percent Asian, 10 percent black, 10 percent Hispanic. You know, we've made tremendous strides towards having a true meritocracy with extraordinary diversity. So we've sort of done our job. So there's this kind of difficult gap. Although there's been a ton of progress -- look at the numbers -- and yet there still is a feeling amongst many of the students that they are in some way discriminated against.

  • 10:45:30


  • 10:45:30

    PURDUMWell, I think one of the challenges is on the night he proposed the bill, President Kennedy offered a very sobering set of differential prospects for black and white children born in the same place on the same day, some numbers that Harris Wofford had worked up for him in the '60 campaign to use in the debate with Richard Nixon. And on questions like access to education, life expectancy, health, things are so much better today for blacks. But on questions of income lifetime earning power they're almost exactly the same.

  • 10:45:56

    REHMAll right. We're going to open the phones now first to Martinsburg, W.Va. Hello, David. You're on the air.

  • 10:46:08

    DAVIDHi, Diane. Thank you so much for taking my call.

  • 10:46:09


  • 10:46:11

    DAVIDI am a 30-year-old white male, and I'm loving this discussion. I think it's a great discussion. It's very important that we have it. And it was very important that the Civil Rights laws were passed. In my lifetime, my parents respected people, irrespective of color. And it's funny, growing up, my family had many friends of just incredibly diverse ethnicities and color. When I was growing up, I didn't even realize there was a problem with racism.

  • 10:46:37

    DAVIDI honestly thought that racism had died. And with my friends, I just ignored color. They're just human. Just because somebody has a different color of skin doesn't really mean anything to me. But I think this conversation is interesting, and it's important because if we don't look at our history, we could very easily repeat it.

  • 10:47:00

    DAVIDHowever, I would like to hear your thoughts about whether or not we might have swung too far in the other direction. It seems that the topic of racism is always coming up in the schools, in the news. And while I don't dispute that it exists in some areas, I wonder if the fixation on righting the wrongs of our ancestors is counter-productive to moving on.

  • 10:47:21


  • 10:47:22

    BERNARDThe caller's comments are interesting. There are many people, myself included, who thought after we had elected the nation's first African American president that we were living in a post-racial America and these issues would be behind us. I was wrong, and I would state that anyone else who thought that was wrong also. We are having conversations about race, but not nearly enough.

  • 10:47:48

    BERNARDIf you look at, for example, the way a large majority of Americans reacted to the young woman, Rachel Jeantel, who testified during the Trayvon Martin case and just took a look at blogs or took a look at what people said online, the racial animus out there is so strong, it is so palpable. The fact that we still have inequities in our public education system -- our schools are still separate and unequal. Maybe in different ways, but you should not be -- we see African Americans and Latinos being resigned to a certain lifestyle simply because their education is based on their zip code.

  • 10:48:22

    REHMEvan, how do you see it?

  • 10:48:25

    THOMASWell, as I was saying, it's, you know, on the one hand, yeah, we've made this unbelievable progress. We're not going to turn back on that. That's, you know, we're not going to repeal the Civil Rights Act. But race still divides us. It does. I can see it where I teach school and in daily life. There's no question about it. I'm not sure what the cure to that is because we've done a lot of the hard legal stuff, but there's no question that the problem still exists.

  • 10:48:55

    REHMWhat about the election of Obama, Todd Purdum? Had people really thought that would put us into a post-racial era? Has it done so?

  • 10:49:14

    PURDUMWell, I think that's true, that people hoped that. I think the paradox for President Obama is that he sometimes has a very difficult time talking honestly and candidly about race. Not because he doesn't want to, but because sometimes his advisors don't want him to very much. Remember, they were terribly wary about his speech in 2008 in Philadelphia, when he talked about -- at the Constitution Center there.

  • 10:49:34

    PURDUMAnd the truth is every time he does touch on race, whether it's Skip Gates in Cambridge, with the Cambridge Police, Trayvon Martin, you name it, when he wades into these waters people jump all over him like a duck on a June bug and say, "Oh, you're playing the race card. You're talking about this." And I think it's very, very hard -- in some ways much harder for him, then it was for Bill Clinton to talk about these issues in a national dialog.

  • 10:49:57

    REHMAll right. To Ruth in Grand Rapids, Mich. Hi. You're on the air. Go right ahead.

  • 10:50:06

    RUTHDiane, thank you so much for your show and for giving voice to that which is essential to America. I've actually been quite tearful listening. I'm going to be 50 this year. And even in the midst of people contending that we haven't gotten Civil Rights laws, indeed, in so many ways, we have, if not by commission, certainly by omission. I'm grateful for Isabel's comments because, using the language from South Africa, we very much have (word?) to education right now in our schools.

  • 10:50:40

    RUTHAnd I am a white woman, married to a white man, white children, but what we are doing continually 50 years later to our black children with education is unforgiveable and deeply wrong. So my question for the panel is before -- in the midst of the Voting Rights Act -- and you talked about there was the -- ABC had been showing " Judgment at Nuremberg," and they interrupted that movie to show what had happened on the bridge in Selma.

  • 10:51:18

    RUTHAnd my question -- and part of what's touching, is when you listen to John Lewis talking about being with Dr. King the night that President Johnson addressed the Congress and ended his speech with the words, "We shall overcome." And even now as he talks about it, he says it in tears. So my question for the panel is, going with the presumption that I go with, not the previous caller, but indeed that we do continue to live in segregated times and indeed times of apartheid in America, I'm wondering, what does it take for people to get it?

  • 10:51:54

    RUTHWhen people saw the "Judgment at Nuremberg," and then seen the pictures, realizing how close we were to what we don't want to become -- and we still are 50 years later -- what does it take for people to see what I see?

  • 10:52:06

    REHMAll right. Isabel Wilkerson?

  • 10:52:09

    WILKERSONWell, one of the things is that I think it's a stunning reality that anyone born before the 1960s was not born in a democracy, if you think about it. And it's a reminder that this is living history, that this is not ancient history, and that those pictures that we see of the young people who are being attacked by the sheriff's dogs and hoses and the young people who are being hit with rocks and attacked and assaulted on the bridge in Selma, many of those people are still alive.

  • 10:52:49

    WILKERSONAnd those who were actually throwing the rocks and throwing the bricks are still alive. And that means that, as long as they're alive and as long as this is still with us, this is still going to be an ongoing challenge for us as a country. And I believe that understanding that and knowing the history and knowing why this Act is so important and why it remains important for all of us today is the thing that helps to clarify where we are.

  • 10:53:18

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Michelle?

  • 10:53:25

    BERNARDI don't know what it's going to take. I ask myself this question all the time. When you think about the issue of gun control and gun violence and how it impacts minority communities, for example, and you look on television at the images of all those children, you know, being slaughtered in Newtown, Conn, when we talk about children like Hadiya Pendleton, who was killed innocently, when we talk about these show-me-your-papers immigration laws or anti-immigration laws, I should call them, in Alabama and Arizona, all over the country where states are basically giving police permission to engage in racial profiling if they believe that you are Hispanic and might not be here legally, you have to ask yourself, when you watch this -- all of us watch this on the news every day -- what is it really going to take for members of Congress to act and fix this?

  • 10:54:22

    REHMAnd that's my question to you, Evan Thomas. Would anything as monumental, as gigantic, as earth shaking as the Civil Rights Act possibly go through Congress today?

  • 10:54:39

    THOMASNo. We can't get the smallest stuff done. I mean, Congress is completely paralyzed. There's such a contrast between the activism of the 1960s not just in the streets but politically, where, you know, great things got done. Now, they made mistakes. There were unintended consequences to a lot of these laws. And the great society was not all great. But there was a feeling in Washington that you could get things done. There were problems out there and you had to deal with them. That's not the feeling today.

  • 10:55:02

    THOMASNow, this is President Obama's fault to some degree, but it's also Congress' fault. It's all of our fault. We've become depressed and cynical about our political system. We don't really believe in it anymore and it's giving us -- basically feeding back our own beliefs. It's just stuck.

  • 10:55:17

    REHMTodd, having completed this marvelous book, "An Idea Whose Time Has Come," would you say that the country could somehow, perhaps under this president or any other president, reach a new level of agreement and understanding where they could pass new monumental legislation?

  • 10:55:45

    PURDUMWell, you know, it's one of the questions that was most in my mind as I was writing the book, in the back of my mind all the time. And, you know, you see how overwhelming the Civil Rights Act passed, 73-27 in the Senate, with 27 out of 33 Republican votes. And despite some resistance, it was widely and swiftly accepted around the country. Contrast that with President Obama and the Affordable Care Act, which he was forced to pass so narrowly and which is still being fought, hammer and tong, four years, five years later.

  • 10:56:10

    PURDUMSo I don't know whether we can ever again come together that way. It seems like a miracle. There were five black members out of 535 in Congress. And white people and black people, Republicans and Democrats came together to pass this bill with, I must say, tremendous spurring on from a broad interfaith coalition all across the country.

  • 10:56:29

    PURDUMVery strategically, they lobbied the Midwesterners who did not have large black constituencies, had no political reason to support civil rights. And I wonder what might happen today if some kind of coalition like that came together on an issue like immigration or gun control. I don't know.

  • 10:56:43

    REHMAnd we'll have to leave it there as those folks down in Texas await President Obama's speech, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. Todd Purdum is senior writer at Politico, contributing editor for Vanity Fair, and author of "An Idea Whose Time Has Come." Isabel Wilkerson is Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist, author of "The Warmth of Other Suns." Michelle Bernard, president of the Bernard Center for Women Politics and Public Policy. Evan Thomas, journalist, presidential historian. Thank you all so much.

  • 10:57:39

    WILKERSONThank you.

  • 10:57:39

    THOMASThank you, Diane.

  • 10:57:38

    REHMThank you, Diane.

  • 10:57:41

    BERNARDThank you.

  • 10:57:41

    REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.

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