Shepherd University held its annual Tom E. Moses Lecture on The U.S. Constitution this past Wednesday, Sept. 17.
Guest lecturer Clay Risen, editor for The New York Times op-ed section, and author of “The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for The Civil Rights Act”, spoke about the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and how it is inseparably intertwined with our modern understanding of the U.S. Constitution.
Risen detailed the causes leading up to the Civil Rights Act, the drafting and defense of the bill, its eventual adoption, and its Supreme Court victory. He explained how it was the first bill to overcome a filibuster, and how many considered it unconstitutional at the time.
“It was, in many ways, the culmination of the New Deal policies,” Risen said, “It was the furthest extension of federal power.”
Much work went into the drafting and defense of the bill, Risen said. An entire binder was written and distributed, explaining the common arguments against the bill, and how to counter them.
“It was called the Green Book,” Risen said, “It was distributed to lobbyists, individuals, organizations, congressmen, and lawyers…It was basically a playbook.”
Lyndon Johnson’s defeat of the southern filibuster was the first in history, and helped uphold the bill against a Supreme Court challenge, said Risen. “Because so much constitutional debate made it into the Congressional Record,” he explained, “The Supreme Court was able to largely defer to Congress’ judgment…that the bill was constitutional.”
Risen said that until the 1930s, the Federal Government had relatively little power. The passage of the Civil Rights Act, capping years of federal extension, fundamentally reshaped our understanding of The Constitution.
“Despite recent erosions,” he said “we still consider the Civil Rights Act an integral part of our understanding of the Constitution, and generally suport it.”
Our belief in a fair and just society, he said, is evident in the application of The Constitution to justify the Civil Rights Act rather than strike it down.
Clay Risen’s lecture is available on the Robert Byrd Center for Legislative Studies’ Youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=scQe2UAWaXE