Book Review: When Freedom Would Triumph -The Civil Rights Struggle in Congress

When Freedom Would Triumph: The Civil Rights Struggle in Congress, 1954-1968

Most books that discuss the Civil Rights era focus on the movement itself on the ground in the southeastern states. Robert Mann’s “When Freedom Would Triumph.” looks at the battle in Congress and the political world. It is an updated and abridged and highly readable version of Mann’s longer “Walls of Jericho,” which was published in the mid 1990s. I bought the hardcover version of the Walls of Jericho at a bookstore in Ocala while a UF student in 1996, and have read the abridged version on the Kindle.

Harry S. Truman had pushed a Civil Rights program in 1947 and 1948 that put him at odds with much of his own party. Southern states objected to Truman’s policies and many defected in 1948 to create the “States Rights Democratic Party” which ran Strom Thurmond for President in 1948. Thurmond didn’t run against Truman in the states he won. He ran INSTEAD of Truman, as the National Democratic ticket was removed from the ballot in Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and Louisiana and replaced by the “Dixiecrat” ticket.

For the south, the most reliably Democratic region the country, betrayal meant that they would fight to the death to give up control of their party to northern and midwestern liberals. Much of this battle was fought in Congress, where the one-party nature of the South meant that the region’s Democrats had survived the Republican landslide of 1946 and thus when the Democrats won back a majority in the Congress in 1948, most of the major chairmanships were held by Southerners (as would be the case into the 1970s).

Against this backdrop the narrative begins in earnest as newly appointed Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren had broken the court’s previous 5-4 deadlock in favor of Segregation using the political skill he learned as the Governor of California and the 1948 Republican Vice-Presidential nominee. Once on the court, Warren forced four other justices  previously against reversing Segregation laws in-line behind him for a unanimous Supreme Court decision outlawing Segregation in Public Schools. Warren’s remaking of the court which would move the country’s law significantly to the left was rejected wholeheartedly in the South. Warren was a liberal Republican and not the more moderate President Eisenhower’s type of politician. However Ike owed Warren who delivered California to him at the 1952 Republican Convention and thus owed Warren a seat on the Supreme Court in one of the most important political deals in post-war America. This deal essentially opened the door for massive social changes in America as Warren’s liberalism was unchecked once he was running the court. Warren’s appointment was the most important single moment in the development of the United States into a progressive more egalitarian social society, though Eisenhower himself soon regretted the appointment calling it “the biggest damn fool mistake I ever made.”

On the issue of race, in 1954 no such thing existed as a Southern white racial liberal (with the exception of arch-liberals with a national following like Claude Pepper, Ralph Yarborough and Estes Kefauver. Pepper’s perceived racial liberalism and his sympathy for the Soviet Union was part of the reason he lost in 1950). Those white politicians who were local or regional figures were all segregationists, though their degree of hostility to integration, the court and African-Americans varied from the refined racial arguments of some in the planter class to the rabble-rousing, pro-Ku Klux Klan demagoguery of many Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia politicians.

The book traces the linear careers of Richard Russell, the statesmanlike yet strong segregationist Georgia Senator, Lyndon Johnson the Senate Majority Leader who in time would be President and Hubert Humphrey the liberal Minnesota Senator who was a close all of Johnson’s and a staunch Civil Rights backer.

Mann carefully details the effective dilatory tactics of the Southern Senators led by Russell and the political battles within the Democratic Party throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s on the issue of Civil Rights. The final debate on the 1964 Civil Rights act in Congress is vividly recalled including the key role in which Christian and Jewish religious organizations played in securing the support of enough Republicans to break the Southern filibuster (prior to this no Southern filibuster had EVER been broken on a Civil Rights or anti-lynching bill) and pass the most important law of the 20th Century.  The book is brilliant and a must read for anyone interested in this era, or African-American history.

The book also is valuable in demonstrating how many conservative Republicans rejected their instincts to deal a terrible defeat to President Johnson and crossed over to break the filibuster (which at the time needed 67 not 60 votes like today) for the good of the country. It is a lesson today’s politicians would be wise to repeat.

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