Monday, June 9, 2014

"An Idea Whose Time Has Come" by Todd S. Purdum (2014)

With the Civil Rights Act of 1964 currently under fire by Conservatives, this book comes at a crucial time in our country. With a skillful hand author Todd S. Purdum takes a good look back at just how hard it was to get the legislation passed in the first place; and thereby exposing the risks to be run should we let it be overturned.

Think of a life; in which your legal rights as we know them today; were suddenly altered. What if local laws trumped federal laws whenever you left the Interstates? The W.C. Fields line from “My Little Chickadee” comes to mind. As he is being led off to his own hanging, our wayward hero is heard to cry “I’m new in town, where can I purchase a Book of the Rules?” This may seem absurd on its face, but it’s not too far from the reality which would set in should the Civil Rights Act ever be repealed.

At the time that the Act was made into law, there were sections of our country; not just in the South; where people of color, read that as non-white or “different”, could not obtain a hotel room for the night, or even sit in a restaurant to eat. The hotel maids that touched the sheets of the white patrons were black. The cooks in the restaurants were black. It was an absurd embarrassment. At the time we were engaged in a Cold War with the Soviets, and having a hard time claiming the moral high ground against a backdrop of racial discrimination.

The author draws upon the best writings, and writers, of the Civil Rights chroniclers and then adds to their perspectives of life “in the forefront” by taking a hard look at the people who were actually involved behind the scenes in the legislative process. (The bibliography of this book could serve as a syllabus for a complete course on the history of the Civil Rights Movement.)

After the Freedom Riders; after Selma; there was still no legal basis for an end to Jim Crow in the South until it was codified into law. This book is the story of that end of the Civil Rights struggle. With a colorful cast of characters; every bit as varied, and sometimes flawed; as their counterparts in the front lines were, this book will have you recalling all of the political figures you remember from the news growing up in the 1960’s.

There are President’s Kennedy and Johnson; both struggling against the winds of change to secure the rights of all Americans to vote. There are the Senators; ranging from Humphrey to Dirksen and Thurmond; with one of the longest filibusters in our history as the Senate belatedly comes together to pass a bi-partisan Civil Rights bill. There are enough characters in here to fill a novel; with the difference being that these people actually lived and changed lives in the bargain.

The real difference between this book and the many others concerning the Civil Rights Era is that this book concentrates on what was happening in Washington, D.C. at the time of the protests. While the protests may have been the catalyst for change; without new laws to back up those changes, there is no telling what the fate of the movement would have been. And the story of the wrangling, and the deal making that went into getting the bill passed is every bit as exciting; and at times infuriating; as the actual struggle on the ground was.

Mr. Purdum has taken all of the available information of the Civil Rights Struggle and  written a newer, more concise history of the Civil Rights Act; one which will be appreciated by readers who were not alive at the time these events occurred.

There are very important lessons to be learned from this book; the most important of which is just how hard it was to get this law passed in the first place. And that lesson calls to mind a very important question; why would anyone want to do away with the Civil Rights Act? Bear in mind that the next time this battle is waged it will be more about economics than color.

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