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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  • Anonymous

    Really when you look at the accomplishments of the Johnson administration and how many people were served by those Bills he pushed through , who cares whether he was a rude bully etc. – he got it done. Sometimes it takes a not so nice person to accomplish these things –

  • cloudy

    Thank you Bill for reminding all of us just how much legislation Johnson ushered through Congress during those years. I do not believe that anyone else could have gotten the civil rights legislation through in 1964 other than Johnson. We do not need any more folks trying to rewrite history to satisfy their agendas-

  • Whodunit

    Accomplishments aside, the reason behind LBJ’s push on legislation was to make a name for himself. It was not because he felt the southern blacks were being exploited. He wanted to stand out and claim that he was able to do what Kennedy could not do. Problem is he did it by doing political favors for others so they would vote for legislation that made him look good throughout history. I was there too.