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From the Editor

By Carol Berkin

The abolition of slavery, the granting of woman suffrage, and the end to legal racial segregation came about because reformers were willing to challenge social norms and public policies in the streets, the courts, and the halls of government. The timeline of American history marks their victories: the Thirteenth Amendment, the Twentieth Amendment, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In this issue of History Now, historians explore the many fronts on which dedicated civil rights activists and their allies pressed for racial equality fifty years ago.

In "Dispatches from the Front: The Civil Rights Act and the Pursuit of Greater Freedom in a Small Southern City" Professor Charles W. McKinney carries us back to the early 1960s, to the small town of Wilson, North Carolina, where black high school students—inspired by Martin Luther King, the mass demonstration in Washington, D.C., and the growing possibility of federal civil rights legislation—challenged racial segregation in local public spaces like department stores and churches. In the summer of 1964, while national political leaders debated the wisdom of civil rights legislation, the crisis deepened in this small community; an attempt to have an African American church in nearby Elm City painted by a group of racially mixed volunteers led to a dangerous, and ultimately bizarre, confrontation between activists and Ku Klux Klan members. McKinney’s account of this confrontation is riveting in part because it is carefully placed in the larger context of the national debate over equality.

Clay Risen’s "The Passage of the Civil Rights Act" reminds us that the Civil Rights Act was by no means the inevitable outcome of the civil rights movement. Risen details the decision by President Kennedy to propose the bill, the commitment of President Johnson to see it enacted, and the challenges the legislation faced as it made its way through Congress. Like other contributors to this issue, he takes pains to show the linkages between the protest movement, the violence it sparked, and the decisions made by the nation’s political leadership. Risen provides us with a close look at the role riots at the University of Mississippi, Freedom Rides, assassinations, and mass demonstrations played as supporters of the bill and its ardent opponents waged their own battles within Congress. In the end, support for the bill grew rather than diminished as it progressed through the House and the Senate. In the end, the majority of the opponents of the Civil Rights Act accepted the new social realities it set in motion.

In his essay, "Civil Rights Leadership and the 1964 Civil Rights Act," Professor Clarence Taylor pays homage to familiar icons of the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Ella Baker, and Bayard Rustin. But Taylor also urges readers to remember that the long battle within Congress might not have been won without the aid of Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, nor would the protest movement have been as powerful without less familiar leaders like Clarence Mitchell of the NAACP and Joseph Raul, the head counsel of the United Auto Workers. Taylor even takes care to credit segregationist Congressman Howard Smith who, in an effort to derail the bill, amended it to include the radical barring of sex discrimination in hiring practices. Taylor reminds us that the legacy of the civil rights movement was broader than the end to Jim Crow; this mobilization of ordinary citizens played an influential role in the emergence of other movements for equality, from the Chicano movement to the Asian American movement to the gay and lesbian liberation movement.

Finally, Charles L. Zelden suggests ways in which we can effectively teach the civil rights act. In "Teaching the Civil Rights Act of 1964," he urges us not to focus on the act alone but instead to place it in its historical context.  That context carries us back to the failure of reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow segregation and its legitimation by the Supreme Court in decisions like the one made in Plessy v. Ferguson. The impact of segregation and the silencing of black voices in political decision making in the South can be illustrated through documentaries, novels, and poetry. To understand the cracks in this system of segregation requires students to examine Brown v. Board of Education and the role of the NAACP in pressing for social justice.

In a classroom examination of the act itself, Zelden recommends a close reading of Title VII, with its promise of an end to job discrimination not only for African Americans but also for American women of every race, and of Titles I and VII, which promised full political citizenship to black Americans.

The special feature of this issue is a timeline of events leading up to the passage of the Civil Rights Act, vivified by photographs of the activists, organizers, and others whose efforts to end racial discrimination changed history. And, as always, the issue includes lesson plans for the teaching of the civil rights movement, its origins, its leaders, and its impact on American society.

Our Spring issue will focus on American-Chinese relations over the centuries. Look for essays that cover diplomacy, trade, and cultural influences.

Carol Berkin