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At 50, The Civil Rights Act Creates 'Opportunities For All Americans'


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We'd like to begin today's program by recognizing a critical moment in the history of civil rights. We're talking about the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act to outlaw discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. During the signing the ceremony the president called it way for America to honor its promise of liberty.


LYNDON JOHNSON: This Civil Rights Act is a challenge to all of us to go to work in our communities and our states, in our homes and in our hearts, to eliminate the last vestiges of injustice in our beloved country.

MARTIN: Today we wanted to reflect on the legacy of the act with two historians who've been deeply immersed in the history of the movement and also lived through the changes sparked by the law. Charles Cobb is the author, most recently, of "This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made The Civil Rights Movement Possible." Also joining us is Taylor Branch his latest book is "The King Years: Historic Moments In The Civil Rights Movement." Thank you both so much for speaking with us. Welcome back to you both.

CHARLES COBB: Thank you, Michel.

TAYLOR BRANCH: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So, Charles Cobb, let me start with you. You were involved in the civil rights movement. You served as a field secretary for the student nonviolent coordinating committee in Mississippi. Do you - does the day the act was signed register with you? Do you remember it?

COBB: Oh yeah. I remember it rather vividly. We were not particularly surprised at this point that the Civil Rights Act had been signed into law, after all it had been churning through the Congress. Although we were pleased with the opening up of public facilities that the act mandated. We were disappointed that it didn't tackle the question of protection for people involved in the movement - federal protection for local communities under attack.

MARTIN: Taylor Branch, what was the single most important factor in getting the Civil Rights Act passed at that time?

BRANCH: The Republican Party. I think it's hard for people in today's politics to look back and realize that over 80 percent of Republicans in both the House and the Senate voted for this bill on final passage - including on July second in an era when the party of Lincoln meant that the party of Lincoln lead on race. And yet you had a Democratic president at a time when most Democrats and all southern Democrats had their party identity grounded in segregation. So it's a pretty big change of, of foreign to a lot of people who didn't live through this era that the race issue was strong enough to turn our partisan national structure of politics upside down from a time when all segregationists were Democrats to now.

MARTIN: Charles Cobb, though, talk a little bit more about that if you will, you know, from you were saying that one of the things were disappointed by was that there was no protection for the, the people working in the movement - there was no federal protection for it. Talk a little bit about why you felt that was so necessary. What were some of the conditions that you were seeing that you felt that was so necessary?

COBB: Murder for one. Violence in the sense of church bombings, the Birmingham Church bombings come to mind, or bombings and attacks against homes, individuals associated with the movement, as well as staff-people. You have to understand the whole southern police system, you know, was - and I say almost without exception. The whole entire southern police system - Sheriffs, police chiefs, state police - were committed to segregation and often allied with the perpetrators of violence in the Ku Klux Klan in Amite County - I'm sorry, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for instance the Ku Klux Klan headquarters was across the street from City Hall. There was - we saw no prospect of gaining protection from local authority. Therefore we were very concerned about getting federal protection and the position of the federal government at that time was that they could not provide such protection. That involves a politics that's probably too lengthy and too complicated to talk about here.

MARTIN: Taylor Branch, you were talking about the fact that there was a political consensus around this act that a lot of people today would find surprising. What about public opinion? Where was public opinion about it?

BRANCH: Public opinion was, was innocent and somewhat shocked. I mean, most people favored the Civil Rights Act of '64. At the same time a lot of white people thought the civil rights movement was going too far, too fast. That it had dominated the conversation for too long. People wanted to get past race. But it was a very, very unusual period in the sense that because the civil rights movement for 10 years since the Brown decision had tenaciously lifted racial injustice into public view - there was a brief period in our history where everybody was talking about race. I mean, the Bridge Columnist Oswald Jacoby announced publicly that he had never even noticed the race of people that he was playing Bridge with. Food columnists were writing about it. In the filibuster in the Congress, Senator Robert Byrd in the longest speech in the history of the United States Senate - before the Senate invoked closure trying to resist it and preserve segregation went through every parable of Jesus. And showed how every parable from the Bible was compatible with segregation even, you know, love your neighbor. He said, the Bible says you should love your neighbor but it doesn't say you can't choose who your neighbor is and build a fence between you and your neighbors (laughing). So this was a rare moment in American history when, when the civil rights movement and people like Charlie Cobb and the people down in Mississippi had forced America to confront the fact that race had always been at the heart of whether or not we were living up to the promise of equal citizenship, what we the people means. It was true that day - I mean, 50 years ago this morning the chairman of the House rules committee said, we are about to vote on this monstrous instrument of oppression upon all of the American people. That was the way it was described at the time. In other words, the choice was for the people who defended segregation - they said, that to end it would enslave white people. Basically that you - because they would be forced, they said, in the Senate. A hairdresser might be forced to cut the hair of a woman of an opposite race - of a different race. And this was about as - the worst thing people could imagine. It's, it's hard to look back on this period now and realize how exposed people were at the time when they were trying to discuss race when, when, when it came to the surface in American politics.

MARTIN: If you're just joining our conversation we're talking about the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Our guests are historians Taylor Branch and Charles Cobb. Charles Cobb?

COBB: Yeah. I think it's worth mentioning that there was a changed tone at the federal level that really affected a changed attitude among the general population. One was Birmingham in 1963 - particularly the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church and the police dogs used against protesters. And the other was the June 1964 murder of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi - James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. It kind of - sadly, I have to say because it involved death - forced the federal government change Kennedy's speech after the police riot, which is how I think of it, in Birmingham - had a great deal of impact, I think, and represented a shift in tone, certainly the Kennedy administration which was cool and aloof toward the southern freedom movement and then certainly the 1964 murders in Mississippi. And I think that had a great deal to do with the enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

MARTIN: So let's bring it forward then. You know, Charles Cobb, what's - you talked about the ambivalence that you and other activists felt on the signing that day. You were happy about obviously the expected improvements in quality of life and also disappointed that things were missing. Let's just cast it forward and just give me a final thought, if you would, about what you think the legacy of the Act is or was or has been? Or what you would - what you would want us to think about when we think about the Civil Rights Act.

COBB: Well, I think the legacy. The important legacy of the Act aside from, you know, just outlawing discrimination in public is often overlooked. And that is - this act expanded the rights of all people in United States. It banned discrimination against women. It banned discrimination on the basis of religion. What you see, if you really look at this Act, is the connection of civil rights struggle in the South to a better life and more opportunities for all Americans.

MARTIN: Taylor Branch, final thought from you as well?

BRANCH: My final thought is that what this shows us 50 years later is that we're unaware of the fact that, that racial latent and subliminal racial division under grid - underlies partisan gridlock today because a lot of people don't really want to see just what Charlie was talking about about how when we dealt with discrimination by race it opened doors to new freedoms. That are to -valued by women, to go to schools, to be in jobs and professions, by the disabled, by seniors, by gay and lesbian people, countless - it opened the door to equal citizenship. And unless we're willing to talk about race, we can't acknowledge that hopeful future and that hopeful capacity to deal with our problems now. So we were stuck in gridlock in part because we don't want to discuss the fact that race opened these doors.

MARTIN: Historian Taylor Branch is the author, most recently, of "The King Years: Historic Moments In The Civil Rights Movement." He was kind enough to join us from Member Station WYPR in Baltimore, Maryland. Charles Cobb is the author, most recently, of "This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made The Civil Rights Movement Possible." And if you're interested in my conversation with him about that book just go to, click on the programs tab and go to TELL ME MORE. He joined us from member station WJCT which is Jacksonville, Florida. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

COBB: Thank you, Michel.

BRANCH: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.