National Press Club

Secrecy key to Civil Rights passage, reporter tells NPC Book Rap

July 10, 2014 | By Heather Forsgren Weaver | HeatherForsgrenWeaver@gmail.com

Todd Purdum, author of An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, speaks at a National Press Club Book Rap on July 8.

Todd Purdum, author of An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, speaks at a National Press Club Book Rap on July 8.

Photo/Image: Heather Forsgren Weaver

One of the keys to passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was secrecy, Todd Purdum, author of "An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964," told a National Press Club Book Rap on July 8.

“It sounds paradoxical here in the Press Club, and for a reporter to say that one of the other things that made the bill possible was secrecy,” Purdum, an NPC member since 2006, said. “The handful of people who were there who are still alive tell me that one of the absolutely crucial elements of this was that no one was posturing for the C-Span camera.”

The secrecy was possible because although “the country was every bit as divided” as it is today, Washington still worked, Purdum said.

Members of Congress socialized because they lived here, Purdum said. “It is a lot harder to call someone a dirty name when you had dinner in their house the night before,” he said.

Another reason the bill passed was that it was pushed by “truly a grassroots campaign,” Purdum said. When an interfaith coalition was formed “stretching into every synagogue, church and parish,” it became impossible to fight against the bill, introduced by President John F. Kennedy on June 11, 1963, and signed by President Lyndon Baines Johnson on July 2, 1964.

“It became ultimately very hard to fight the Golden Rule,” Purdum said. “The southern senators who were opposing the bill were completely opposed to desegregation and adamantly in favor of Jim Crowe, led by Richard Russell of Georgia. He said, ‘we could fight the lawyers but we couldn’t fight the preachers.’”

Many believe the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would never have passed if President Kennedy had not been killed in November 1963 but Purdum rejects that notion. While he said Johnson was “canny and savvy” to use the grief over Kennedy’s death to push the bill, Kennedy had worked hard for it –- even rescuing it from overreach in October 1963. Had Kennedy lived, the bill would probably have passed but maybe not as strong and maybe not until after the presidential election of 1964, Purdum said.

Former NPC President Larry Lipman, a member of the Book & Author Committee, introduced Purdum.