The Long View

Clip: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Civil Rights Act of 1964

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This week, three former presidents — Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush — and current President Barack Obama are gathering in Austin, Texas, to remember the legacy of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who signed the Civil Rights Act into law 50 years ago this July. The LBJ Presidential Library is hosting a three-day Civil Rights Summit (you can watch the live stream here) to commemorate the Act and LBJ’s role in getting it passed.

Bill Moyers was a young special assistant to Johnson at the time, and witnessed first-hand his aggressive approach, utilizing both arm-twisting and charm, to getting legislation through Congress. In this 2008 essay from Bill Moyers Journal, Bill remembers Martin Luther King Jr.’s push for civil rights legislation and the behind-the-scenes cooperation between King and Johnson that led to the passage of the 1964 Act.

Bill recalls Johnson facing down a Congress controlled by Southern Democrats who were “die-hard racists—all of them, including some of his old mentors, white supremacists who threatened to bring the government, if not the country, to its knees before they would see blacks eat at the same restaurants, go to the same schools, drink from the same fountains, and live in the same neighborhoods as whites.”

Despite those convictions and other challenges, such as an unpopular war and growing unrest at home, Johnson was able to pass an impressive number of initiatives on his “Great Society” agenda, more than any president since. As The New York Times noted in an article about this week’s summit, Johnson’s presidency “represented the high-water mark for American presidents pushing through sweeping legislation — not just the Civil Rights Act, but the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, the Fair Housing Act and major measures on immigration, education, gun control and clean air and water.”

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