In the summer of 1964, President Lyndon Johnson needed votes in the U.S. Senate to pass the Civil Rights Act.
Specifically, he needed Republican votes.
The segregationist Southern Democrats were not supporting the legislation, of course. Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough was ultimately the only southern Democrat to support it.
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Engaging the “Johnson treatment” of pleading, cajoling, and demanding, Johnson and leading Senate Democrats worked the Republican delegation relentlessly for their support.
The key Republican was the Senate minority leader, the gravely voiced Everett Dirksen of Illinois.
Dirksen had voted for the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960 and he supported the 1964 Act, but he needed to “bring along” additional Republican votes.
And he did.
The final vote in the Senate was 73-27 in favor of the legislation. Twenty-seven of the majority votes were cast by Republicans.
Indeed, a larger percentage of Republican senators (82 percent) supported the Civil Rights Act than did Democratic senators (69 percent.)
It was one of the nation’s most significant legislative accomplishments, outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, and national origin. It prohibited racial segregation in public accommodations and schools and discrimination in employment.
Dirksen commented, “Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come. The time has come for equality of opportunity in sharing of government, in education, and in employment. It must not be stayed or denied.”
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President Johnson had earlier said to the Congress that “no memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor” the recently assassinated President John F. Kennedy than passage of the Civil Rights Act.
He got his wish. And the nation is better for it.
I recall this history of nearly 60 years ago for the simple reason that one can’t imagine Republicans in today’s Senate acting like their predecessors.
Mitch McConnell is no Everett Dirksen. The bulk of today’s Senate Republicans do not have the commitment to equality their 1964 forerunners had.
So, what happened?
It was the disappearance of a breed of Republicans once identified as “Rockefeller Republicans.” Named after New York Governor and later Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, they were a group of liberal Republicans who supported a range of progressive issues.
Members of this group in the 1960s and 1970s included Senators Edward William Brooke III of Massachusetts, Mark Hatfield of Oregon, Jacob Javits of New York, Charles H. Percy of Illinois, Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, John Chafee of Rhode Island, Lowell P. Weicker Jr. of Connecticut and James B. Pearson of Kansas.
These were individuals who would have no home in today’s Republican Party.
Former President Dwight Eisenhower fit the mold of a Rockefeller Republican. Recently deceased four-star general and Secretary of State Colin Powell described himself as a Rockefeller Republican.
These were Republican politicians who embraced bipartisanship and a network of social safety issues. They advocated for continuing New Deal programs and were pro-labor unions. They supported the Environmental Protection Agency.
They were business and political leaders like George Romney of Michigan, who was considerably more liberal than his son, today’s Utah Senator Mitt Romney.
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They thought the United Nations was a good idea and they endorsed the nomination of Thurgood Marshall, the first Black justice in Supreme Court history.
They were opposed to the candidacy of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater for president in 1964.
At the Republican National Convention in 1964, Nelson Rockefeller addressed the delegates saying, “There is no place in this Republican Party for such hawkers of hate, such purveyors of prejudice, such fabricators of fear.” He was booed by right-wingers supporting Goldwater.
Just consider how far removed from liberal positions are today’s Republicans.
I am not saying that a Rockefeller Republican can’t be found at all today. Some exist at local and state levels, although their political clout is overwhelmed by the white nationalist drumbeat of today’s Republicans leaders.
Today’s Republican Party is dominated by evangelical groups, anti-immigrant sentiment, and the pro-gun lobby. The very idea of Rockefeller Republicanism is an anathema to today’s Republican Party.
One must examine the role of right-wing media, notably Fox News, in shaping Republican policies today. Fox News is opposition news. Its very existence is rooted in a rejection of all liberal and moderate policies.
The worst the Rockefeller Republicans faced in the 1960s were the largely rejected absurdities of the John Birch Society.
Today’s Republican Party is no longer a responsible national party. It has morphed into something else. What that is will be the topic of a future essay.
Roger C. Barnes is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of the Incarnate Word.