David B. Filvaroff (1932-2014)

In late 2011, when I was hitting my research stride for this book, I came across the name of David B. Filvaroff. After clerking for Felix Frankfurter and Arthur Goldberg on the Supreme Court, David had been hired into the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division in mid-1963, not long before John F. Kennedy introduced the Civil Rights Act.

David died over the weekend, from complications after a fall. He was 82. You can read his obituary in the Buffalo News here.

As soon as he was hired, David was placed on a small team of elite, energetic lawyers whose job it was to perfect the legal reasoning behind the civil rights bill — the mechanics that would make it both practicable and constitutional. Once it was introduced, David and the team acted as a sort of bill-drafting SWAT team: to pick up votes in the House, and then the Senate, the DoJ negotiators — primarily Nick Katzenbach and Burke Marshall — would agree to this or that change in the language, and it was up to the team to make sure those changes didn’t accidentally weaken the bill, and then to redraft it to include them. A bill of this sort, you see, is like a Swiss watch: hundreds of small mechanisms and parts have to work together perfectly, so their crafting has to be flawless. David was the watchmaker. Continue reading

The Financial Times’s Summer Books 2014

This was an unexpected surprise: The Financial Times named “The Bill of the Century” one of its Summer Books of 2014. Tony Barber wrote:

Risen, a New York Times editor, provides a gripping account of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a monument of 20th-century liberal US legislation. What emerges from his studiously documented book is how much the bill’s success depended on backroom dealmaking in Congress as well as the support of President Lyndon Johnson and civil rights leader Martin Luther King.

So I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.

— Clay Risen

Upcoming Events

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, but I’ve been lining up speaking gigs. They’re listed under the events tab, but for your convenience:

July 23: Atlanta History Center, 8 p.m. Tickets $10

August 30The National Book Festival, Washington, D.C. Free

September 17The Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies, Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.V., 7 to 8:30 p.m. Free

October 19Westbury Memorial Public Library, Westbury, N.Y. Free

Today’s the Day!

No foolin’: It’s April 1, and “The Bill of the Century” is officially available for sale at your local bookstore and at Amazon. Click to the right for links to all those.

I’ve got three events coming up in the next week, and if you’re in the area of one of them, stop on by!

April 3: Brennan Center for Justice, Constance Milstein and Family Global Academic Center, 1307 L Street NW, Washington. There’s a reception at 6, followed by a panel discussion with Jeff Shesol, Ben Zelenko and me, at 6:30.

April 7: National Constitution Center, 525 Arch St, Philadelphia. 12 pm. In conversation with NCC President Jeffrey Rosen.

April 9: Greenlight Bookstore, 686 Fulton St., Brooklyn, 7:30 pm. In conversation with Nell Painter.

I’ve got more events coming up, and I’ll add them to the events tab above soon.

Now — go buy the book!

“All the Way,” Voting Rights and Stokely

Thanks to the kindness of a friend with an extra ticket, last night I saw “All the Way,” the play about LBJ’s first year in office starring Bryan Cranston. Not surprisingly, Cranston was great (though I will say he spoke a little too rapidly to capture the sharp-edged languor of Johnson’s accent).

Two things bothered me, though. I’ll concede that any dramatic rendering of history will have to take liberties. But one would hope those liberties wouldn’t be so egregious as to alter the audience’s understanding of the material. “All the Way” does just that, in at least two places. Continue reading

Kazin on the Civil Rights Act

Over at The New Republic, Michael Kazin has a nice piece reflecting, in part, on my forthcoming book. He writes,

The Bill of the Century is the title of Clay Risen’s smart and stirring new history of the struggle to pass it, and one can’t really argue with that.

Yet the law’s significance lies as much in the battles that were waged over whether and how to enforce it as in the ways it changed American society for the better.

I couldn’t agree more. One of the ironic qualities of the act is that, thanks in part to compromises won by Everett Dirksen, various titles depend on aggrieved citizens to begin a case — say, in the event of job discrimination, under Title VII, or discrimination in a public facility, under Title II. The Department of Justice may choose to intervene, and often has, but the impetus must come from people outside the government (under Title VII, the government would pay many plaintiffs’ legal fees). Continue reading

Review of “Down to the Crossroads”

My latest piece is a review of Aram Goudsouzian’s “Down to the Crossroads,” a new history of the 1966 Meredith March Against Fear. I wrote it for Chapter16.org, and it has been syndicated in the Memphis Commercial-Appeal. Here are the first couple of paragraphs:

“The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel,” wrote the historian David Cohn in 1935—a statement which explains why, three decades later, James Meredith began his “March Against Fear” from the sidewalk just outside the Memphis landmark. The walk was intended to take Meredith 200 miles along Highway 51, through the heart of the Mississippi Delta and ending at the state capital, Jackson.

Meredith had won worldwide fame in 1962 by integrating the University of Mississippi. Since then, though, he had led a bizarre career. He created and then abruptly shuttered the James Meredith Education Fund. He put out feelers for a congressional run. He moved to Nigeria for a fellowship at the University of Ibadan. He wrote an odd, overlooked memoir called A Mission from God. In 1965 he began law school at Columbia University. That July a headline in the New York Amsterdam News, the leading black newspaper in the city, asked, “Whatever Happened to James Meredith?”

Finally, in June 1966, he set off from the Peabody, wearing a pith helmet and carrying a Bible, to recapture the spotlight. Save for a few advisers and a scrum of reporters and photographers, Meredith walked alone, underlining his independence—at times estrangement—from the mainstream civil-rights movement. Meredith had long been at odds with leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., whom he accused of using women and children to man protest marches, with the men hiding behind them. And he rejected King’s commitment to nonviolence, arguing instead that black people should have the right to defend themselves.

Read the rest here.

— Clay Risen

Mitch McConnell’s Senate

In an op-ed today in Politico, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell drags up a name that has long been unfairly forgotten: Mike Mansfield, the man who succeeded Lyndon Johnson as majority leader when Johnson moved to the vice presidency.

Mansfield has an amazing biography. Born in Manhattan to dirt-poor Irish immigrants, he moved to Montana as a child, served in the Marines, worked in a copper mine, and taught college-level Asian and Latin American history, all before entering politics. He was famously laconic; reporters said they had to provide twice as many questions as usual for him. I once asked his former colleague Birch Bayh whether he was as quiet as people said; Bayh just stared for a few seconds and said, ever so slowly, “Yes.” Continue reading

April 1 Is the Big Day

My next book, The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act, will appear on April 1. I’m lining up events and publicity and all the usual stuff, but in the meantime I’ll be using this blog to follow the chronology of the bill’s passage through Congress, 50 years ago this year. It is an amazing story, and I hope it’s one that people will want to read about. Clay Risen