A Historic Week, But Who Noticed?
Courageous politicians did big things to make the country a better place.
Regarding last week’s message, “A Teacher's Spirit Might Renew Democracy and Reinvigorate Critical Thinking,” my former colleague and current Augusta University Prof. David Bulla recalled a teacher who made a big difference in his life, and concluded with a profound statement: “If we save this ship (democracy), it will happen from the ground up,” meaning in classrooms, small groups, neighborhood gatherings, Zoom sessions, and by parents over the next decade, in conversations and questions initiated by all of us.
And maybe, if we are lucky, Dr. Bulla suggests, from “some great figure like Gandhi, Lincoln, or Churchill. I am not counting on the latter.” Read his full statement.
You may also have had teachers who taught you how to think, not what to think. I invite you to share those memories.
We are all eyewitnesses to history, either personal or cultural, whether we realize it or not. It may take decades to realize it. Keep your eyes open. And even if you don’t notice, history has its eyes on you, and all of us.
Congress has finally acted to pass major legislation on climate, firearms safety, and health care, to protect veterans and reduce what consumers pay for pharmaceuticals. This could be a historical turning point reminiscent of the 1960s. But who noticed?
Cable TV seemed to be far more obsessed with useless speculation in the outrageous soap opera of a certain celebrity-politician who shall remain nameless.
How many of you have ever toured the US Capitol and watched Congress, the People's House, in action? It was once where the action was, and proved to be so again last week.
Speaking of teachable moments, I came of age politically at the tender age of nine, when my mother, siblings and I took a trip to Washington and visited the US Capitol. At the time, Congress was dramatically deciding whether to end brutal Jim Crow segregation. My mother, a high school teacher, with my sister and me in tow, cornered North Carolina senators Sam J. Ervin and B. Everett Jordan, urging them to vote for the Civil Rights bill. She knew they were opposed to it, but tried to persuade them in the best school-marm lecture on their moral responsibilities, pointing out that even her nine-year-old son could see that segregated water fountains, bathrooms, lunch counters, movie theaters, and schools were wrong.
They sputtered and looked ashamed, at least in my nine-year-old eyes. Segregationist Democrats, they played to their base of unreconstructed White Southerners. Both voted against the legal end of segregation, which thankfully passed the Senate by a vote of 73 to 27 after nearly a decade of legislative maneuvering and lobbying Congress.
My mother, sister, and I almost literally ran into the then-famous Republican minority leader Everett Dirkson, who was charming as he explained his support for what soon became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. President Johnson persuaded Dirksen to lead the fight for the CRA by appealing to his ego. “If you do this, you’ll be remembered forever,” Johnson said. Well, maybe not. Only nerds like me know who Dirksen was. History isn’t necessarily kind even to those who make it.
North Carolina Senators Ervin and Jordan did redeem themselves somewhat in later years. Ervin, a Constitutional scholar, became a strong advocate for civil liberties and the right to dissent during the Vietnam War. Jordan championed environmentalism and pushed through Congress a huge public works project that was later named for him, the Jordan Lake Reservoir which provides a major source of water for central North Carolina.
Through the mid-1970s, while I was a student, courageous members of Congress were some of my heroes. At least once a year, I visited Congress, to watch what I considered fascinating debates, and participated in the marvelous Washington Workshops in which teens met with and questioned the nation’s leaders in person. Congress was, believe it or not, where great decisions were made. Not until I grew seasoned enough to cover Congress for myself as a journalist did I begin to view it with frustration at how long it took — years or even a decade or more — to pass laws of significance. By the 1980s, Congress had changed, not necessarily for the better.
Congress from about 1958 to about 1980 was filled with leaders doing great things — ending American apartheid by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, introducing Medicare, barring racial discrimination in voting, housing rentals and sales, protecting consumers and passing consumer rights legislation, passing the Clean Air Act, cleaning up rivers, regulating pollution, reforming immigration so that it’s a family-based system rather than a racist system, providing automatic cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security recipients, tackling great big issues like poverty and hunger in the richest country in the world, halting the Vietnam War when the president wouldn’t, and then, investigating and finding the truth, in the most bipartisan fashion, about a powerful president’s deceit, and bringing him down, forcing Richard Nixon to resign.
When LBJ, the Kennedys, Civil Rights Leaders, Congress, Democrats, and Republicans Joined Together and Acted Heroically
“On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Voting Rights Act, a centerpiece of the civil rights movement that is still the subject of debate.” Details.
It is so easy to forget that there was a time when Lyndon Johnson, for all his flaws; the Kennedys, for all their flaws; Congress, for all its institutional inertia and perceived corruption, and Republican leaders, for all their flaws, put short-term self-interest aside and acted in the nation’s interests, under pressure from courageous leaders of the civil rights movement (despite their personal humanity, infighting, and flaws).
“An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come” is a quote from the French novelist Victor Hugo that congressional leaders repeated in 1964 as they voted to stop the years-long filibuster and (finally) pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The legislation wasn’t just a victory for African Americans, but also for women, and all Americans, freeing them from the burdens of history. A Virginia congressman, thinking he could stop the bill by appealing to male chauvinists, inserted gender equality into the section on equal opportunity, but the bill passed anyway.
Martin Luther King was human, not a plaster saint. Some African American college students thought he was too strict and too preachy, calling him “de Lawd” behind his back. Within the civil rights movement, there were of course rivalries and strong differences of opinion.
It is easy to forget that the Republican Party until the passage of this legislation had a far more progressive position on civil rights than the Democratic Party and that the Kennedys and Johnson worried deeply about keeping their Southern coalition that included segregationist “yeller dawg Democrats” in the fold. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act, segregationists abandoned the Democratic Party, supporting Barry Goldwater for president in 1964 and George C. Wallace for president in 1968.
Two books chronicle the dramatic story of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The first chapters can be read for free on Amazon.com. I recommend both, but Purdum’s is a breezier read.
A third book, “A Nation Of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story,” by Tom Gjelten of National Public Radio, explains how the 1965 Immigration Act transformed America into a true nation of immigrants. Gjelten summed up the book in a 2019 interview with NPR’s Fresh Air. The audio and transcript are here.
Dozens of books have been written about the War on Poverty, and its short-term and long-term consequences.
I’ve written a “brief” 50-year history of Congress from the 1960s through about 2010. I daresay most people would probably have trouble writing 50 words on that important history that is mostly ignored in popular culture and even in high school social studies classes.
I’ve also written a piece on the role and function of Congress, how the Senate structure forces respect for small states, minority viewpoints, and incentivizes compromise and consensus. Also, what the First Congress in 1789 can teach us.
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