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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Clergy and the 1964 Civil Rights Act

The new volume of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson has a fascinating passage about the role of clergy in the victory of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  It quotes Joseph Rauh, longtime general counsel of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights:
The clergymen helped shift the tide of battle off the familiar—and hostile— terrain in which civil rights had, time after time, become mired in the Senate. “This was kind of like getting an army with new fresh guns, fresh rations. . . . It made all the difference in the world,” Rauh says. These reinforcements concentrated their efforts in states, mostly midwestern, mostly Republican, mostly conservative, in which there had never been much interest in, let alone sentiment for, civil rights. In these states, labor unions and the NAACP and other African-American organizations had relatively few members. That wasn’t true of churches. And the clergymen stayed in Washington to see the fight through. “This was the first time that I ever recalled seeing Catholic nuns away from the convents for more than a few days,” says James Hamilton of the National Council of Churches. “There was agreement among religious groups that this was a priority issue and other things had to be laid aside." And the issue was, thanks to Johnson, finally understood. Senators from these states found themselves no longer able to maintain that they weren’t against civil rights but only against changing inviolable Senate procedure by cutting off debate through cloture. “Just wait until [these senators) start hearing from the church people,” Humphrey had predicted, and the prediction was borne out. Walking off the Senate floor after supporting the civil rights forces on a vote that defeated a Russell parliamentary maneuver, Mundt said, “I hope that satisfies those two goddamned bishops who called me last night.”
Robert A.Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 566.