When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act 50 years ago, its supporters were understandably jubilant. The fight over its contents — indeed, its very existence — had been protracted and arduous. At last the bill had become “the law of the land,” The Washington Post editorialized. There could be “no doubt about its authenticity.” No one could “disparage it as judicial legislation” — a reference to segregationists’ hostility toward the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling — for it was “duly adopted by the elected representatives of the American people.” Established rules and procedures had been followed. Finally, with the bill’s enactment the “whole majesty of the United States now stands behind it.”

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, argues Clay Risen in his impressive and compelling “The Bill of the Century,” was the “single most important piece of legislation passed in twentieth-century America.” Reaching “deep into the social fabric of the nation,” it overturned a system of racial domination that had long subordinated African Americans to the rule of Southern whites. Segregation in public accommodations such as theaters, restaurants, hotels and stores (though not private clubs) was outlawed, as was discrimination by labor unions and private businesses employing more than 50 workers. The federal government could now withhold funds from state and local programs engaged in racial discrimination, while the Justice Department gained new powers to sue school districts resisting court orders to desegregate. Although the act did not put an end to all racial oppression, Risen concludes, it nonetheless “revolutionized American society by placing the federal government undeniably and forcefully on the side of African Americans.”

If the bill’s enactment appears inevitable 50 years after the fact, its fate appeared anything but predetermined to its contemporaries. “At the outset of 1963,” Risen reminds us, “few expected anything more than token federal action on civil rights.” President John F. Kennedy had done relatively little to disturb Southern congressmen who were implacably hostile to challenges to their region’s racial order and whose considerable seniority gave them the power to block his larger legislative program. That year’s events — particularly the campaign against segregation in Birmingham, the police repression directed against it, the March on Washington, and the seemingly countless smaller-scale protests across the nation — made federal inaction increasingly untenable and pushed a civil rights bill squarely onto the national political agenda.

But what kind of bill? The one Kennedy proposed had simultaneously provoked Southern whites’ ire and disappointed liberals and civil rights activists who found it too weak. Kennedy’s assassination in November changed everything, as a new president seized the moment to embrace the civil rights cause wholeheartedly.

While the general contours of the bill’s origins and passage are known, how its supporters navigated it through rough congressional waters is not. In popular memory, and in more than a few books, the central players are President Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. Risen maintains, however, that neither was the “prime mover”: King played no role in the crafting of the law, and Johnson’s part has been blown out of proportion. What the president offered was moral leadership, playing “cheerleader and exhorter in chief,” working the phones and attempting to twist congressional arms. Yet “there is little evidence that he did much to sway many votes.” Indeed, his fear of legislative failure, for which he would be blamed, led him to withdraw from his initial “close identification with the bill” and allow the Justice Department and congressional leaders to do the heavy lifting.

Ultimately, Risen insists, Johnson was “at most a supporting actor” in a drama whose “real heroes” were the Democrats and Republicans who collaborated, despite distrust of one another, to ensure the bill’s survival and triumph. It is their story — of daily strategy meetings, late-night drinking sessions, parliamentary maneuvers, and legislative give and take that overcame the longest filibuster in U.S. history and warded off debilitating amendments — that constitutes the book’s heart. Even though we know how the story ends, Risen offers a suspenseful tale, effectively conveying the apprehension that the bill’s supporters experienced until the moment it passed.

For all of the energy expended on Capitol Hill, he further contends, the bill would not have passed without the “sheer numbers and relentless effort” of “thousands of labor, civil rights, and religious activists.” The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights monitored congressional debates closely and coordinated the efforts of the “busloads of foot soldiers” on a “holy crusade” who arrived daily to lobby, demonstrate or bear witness. For Risen, the unsung heroes were the religious activists who lobbied conservative Midwestern legislators and descended upon Washington to pray and protest. “No one else could match their manpower, organizational cohesion, or passion,” he asserts. Hubert Humphrey, the Minnesota Democrat who led the charge in the Senate, believed that “the secret of passing the bill is the prayer groups.” His segregationist opponent, Sen. Richard Russell, unhappily concurred, complaining that “Washington has not seen such a gigantic and well-organized lobby since the legislative days of the Volstead Act and the Prohibition amendment.” Given the credit Risen gives to religious and other activists, it is surprising that they appear only as walk-on players in the larger drama.

In alleviating though not eliminating racial inequality, Risen concludes, the Civil Rights Act “reoriented the country . . . onto a path toward true racial equality,” an end point that may “never be reached.” Making the act’s promise a reality required continual mobilization of countless individuals in the ensuing decades. As it turned out, Jim Crow’s walls did not collapse overnight, though they fell more quickly than many had anticipated. Additional legislation, particularly on voting rights, would be required to solve problems that the 1964 act left untouched; other issues, especially black economic opportunity, remained largely off the agenda. The post-act era understandably falls outside Risen’s time frame, but the later developments revealed not just the law’s grand reach but its limits, too, as Risen briefly acknowledges. The years that followed witnessed serious debates among supporters, many of whom came to question the extent of the changes produced by the legislation. Their voices and critiques receive little attention here.

“The Bill of the Century” is an appropriately celebratory account that is indispensable reading for understanding what civil rights activists and politicians were up against in their campaign to topple Jim Crow. The act may have been the 20th century’s most important legislative achievement, but it was only one step, albeit an important one, in a much longer process that still continues.

Eric Arnesen , professor of history at George Washington University, is completing a biography of civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph.


The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act

By Clay Risen

Bloomsbury. 308 pp. $28