Julian Zelizer’s recent book “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society,” masterfully explains how far reaching Civil Rights and Great Society legislation was made possible by a social movement, a determined President, large Congressional majorities, and moderate politicians in the minority party willing to negotiate. The book also indirectly illustrates why even after the financial crisis and the Great Recession, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 was incomplete in its reform of the financial sector. A number of key ingredients present in the passage of the Civil Rights and Great Society laws were missing this time around.
The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 reveals how grassroots pressure combined with a steadfast President to pass a landmark law. The odds were great. In the previous decade, the powerful Southern segregationist James Eastland was Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and had succeeded in blocking 119 civil rights measures from leaving his committee. But Senator Eastland lost ground in 1963 and 1964 as the civil rights law was being debated due to the strength of the civil rights movement and its allies. Sit-ins in segregated establishments and civil rights protests succeeded in turning the tide of public opinion. The pollster Louis Harris reported in April of 1964 that great majorities of Americans supported the civil rights bill.
Religious organizations were also vital in their moral suasion. Religious leaders held meetings with Senators, including prominent conservatives, who were persuaded to vote for cloture ending the filibuster of the civil rights law. Congressional staffers got used to letters arriving on Tuesday and Wednesday after congregants were urged to write during Sunday services. This activity prompted Senator Humphery to state, “The most important force at work today on behalf of civil rights is the churches – Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish.”
Even with the grassroots pressure and increasing public support, the Southern filibuster of the bill turned into the longest Senate filibuster in history lasting 60 days. President Johnson realized that he needed the support of moderate Republicans and asked Minority Leader Everett Dirksen to negotiate a bill with his administration. Senator Dirksen’s negotiation and support for the bill carried enough Republicans to end the filibuster and pass the bill. He called civil rights a “moral” issue that “must” be resolved. Can you imagine the current Republican majority leader of the Senate or House possessing this much vision and statesmanship?
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregation in public accommodations, established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, prohibited distribution of federal money to programs practicing segregation, and banned gender discrimination in employment.
After Johnson signed the bill into law on July 2nd, Bill Moyers, his aide, found the President forlorn in the White House. Johnson told Moyers, “I think we have just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.” Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) was a political and legislative genius who took big risks for what he thought was right, and took these risks despite the possibility of defeat in the future. This type of political leader is sorely missing today.
In the immediate aftermath of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, LBJ did not experience political costs. Instead, he defeated Barry Goldwater in a landslide and new Congressional Democratic majorities were the largest since 1936. LBJ used these majorities to pass 200 bills in perhaps the most productive legislative record of any president including FDR. Landmark bills included the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Medicare, Medicaid, and the first federal funding of education.
Eventually, LBJ’s gambling and risk taking took its toll. LBJ was committed to the Fair Housing Act (FHA) which was a much tougher sell than the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act. By prohibiting discrimination in the sale or rental of housing, many Americans, including Midwest and Northern lawmakers who sided with LBJ on earlier civil rights bills, viewed the FHA as an intrusion on their castle, that is, their home. Americans could support earlier civil rights bills as moral imperatives and as needed to stop the bitter oppression and violence experienced by African-Americans and the civil rights movement. But the FHA seemed different and a government mandate interfering with private property. Senator Dirksen came out against the FHA. Only after the assassination of Martin Luther King were lawmakers and the nation swayed to support the bill.
LBJ’s support for the FHA, his tragic mistakes in escalating the Vietnam War, and the unrest in the nation’s cities contributed to the defeat of the Democrats in 1968. But the Great Society has endured today with civil rights laws, Medicare, Medicaid, and a federal role in education, housing and community development largely intact despite attacks.
Today, monumental legislation faces greater odds. It was miraculous that the Affordable Care Act (ACA), popularly known as Obamacare, passed despite a less hospitable Congress and a lack of a visible evil (discrimination) and a social movement that graphically displayed that evil in the nightly news on Americans’ television sets. In addition, financial reform legislation was not as far reaching as the civil rights and Great Society reforms even though the lawless and irresponsible behavior of the financial industry caused the worst recession since the Great Depression.
In 2010, Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act that instituted important reforms. The law created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that is dedicated to protecting consumers from abusive lending and other financial products. It established new safeguards against predatory lending. It also required more transparency and data on loan terms and conditions in order to monitor lending trends and detect abusive practices earlier.
But Dodd-Frank missed one critical reform. In 1977, Congress passed the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) which requires banks to serve all communities consistent with safety and soundness. Federal agencies conduct CRA exams and give banks ratings based on how many loans, investments, and services they offer to low- and moderate-income borrowers and communities. This law has boosted banks’ lending and investments in modest income communities by hundreds of billions of dollars. If Dodd-Frank had applied this law to all segments of the financial industry including mortgage companies, insurance companies, and Wall Street investment banks, lending and investments would have been multiplied many times over in lower income and minority communities. Lawmakers had proposals before them to expand CRA during Congressional consideration of Dodd-Frank.
Sadly, however, the Great Society ingredients were not there. The President did not invest as much political capital in financial reform as LBJ did in civil rights and Great Society laws. Support in Congress for CRA reform was tepid at best and had many prominent lawmakers hostile to CRA. Lastly, the social movement was not as strong as the Civil Rights movement. I proudly worked at the National Community Reinvestment Coalition for almost 20 years, ghost wrote CRA reform bills, and worked with 600 community organizations to support CRA reform and make community voices heard in Congress. But it is not a knock on our collective efforts to state honestly that we were not as successful as the Civil Rights movement. It is just hard, hard work. Perhaps we also lacked the visible evil of violent discrimination.
One can conclude that the possibilities for profound social change are rare. So many ingredients must gel at the right time. It is easy to give up and be cynical. But perhaps the response that LBJ, Martin Luther King, and other leaders would advocate is to never give up, defend current gains, push for incremental reforms, and support budding social movements when they occur. Just maybe, you might be involved in once in a lifetime moment of social change.
Josh Silver is the Development Manager at Manna, Inc. Prior to his time at Manna, Josh served as the vice president of research & policy at NCRC. Josh is an avid District sports fan and loves spending time with his daughter.