This year, 2014, marks the 50th anniversary of the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill. Todd Purdum’s book “An Idea Whose Time has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964” examines the efforts made by the White House and congress to pass, and to stop, the bill. Journalist Purdum’s work is strong support for the argument that the best training for writing history is to write the news.
Knowing some of the history can add to the narrative. A Republican Congressman, working with Kennedy on the early stages of the Civil Rights Bill, tells a friend that he plans to ask Kennedy for help acquiring a NASA electronics research facility for Purdue. He says “My inclination is to talk to the president personally, but he left Washington this morning for a trip to Texas”. While not every line in the book gives the punch to the stomach that one does it is overflowing with evidence that “The past is a foreign country”. Fiscal conservatives opposing a tax cut because it is too expensive? Democrats and Republicans working together for the good of the nation? Politicians voting their conscious? It tempts the reader into nostalgia for the “good old days” until Purdum points out that as the Senate debated the bill the FBI dispatched hundreds of agents to search for three missing Freedom Summer volunteers, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman.
Many of the names were familiar to me because the players were active well into the 1970s, a few into the 80s. Even though their actions were unfamiliar, their names were not. I was seven when the events took place. Purdum includes background on the major players which was helpful in understanding the beliefs and experiences that they brought with them to the debate. He also spent time explaining how they fared after the bill passed. These details were both helpful and informative to me and I suspect that any reader younger than me will feel the same.
Purdum’s book covers important events in our nation’s history and manages to make the story as readable as a novel. If you believe politics never changes you must read this book and see just how much change the last half century has brought.