Clay Risen Explores the Twists and Turns of Groundbreaking Civil- Rights Legislation in 'Bill of the Century'

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Risen explores the twists and turns of civil-rights legislation

Fifty years ago, The Civil Rights Act languished in the U.S. Senate, victim of a seemingly endless filibuster led by Southern Democrats. Although the Senate had officially opened "debate" on the bill at the end of March, discussion was limited to hours-long speeches delivered to an increasingly empty chamber. Such procedural strategies and setbacks dogged the act that Clay Risen calls "the most important piece of legislation passed by Congress in the twentieth century." Risen, who grew up in Nashville and is now an editor on the op-ed page of The New York Times, garnered widespread praise for "A Nation on Fire," his 2009 account of the riots that followed the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He returns to the historic struggle for civil rights in "The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act," which delivers a penetrating account of the ultimately heroic effort to pass the landmark 1964 legislation.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ensured fairness in the public sphere to all races at a time when the South remained heavily segregated, but its reach extended beyond race to include all creeds and both sexes as well. "The Bill of the Century" presents a fascinating, meticulously researched account of the political maneuvering required to achieve such sweeping legislation, from years of timid discussion under President John F. Kennedy through six months of bare-knuckled Congressional brawling under President Lyndon Johnson -- a fight that culminated in Johnson's signature on July 2. While the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act has engendered a great deal of public discussion (Risen's book is one of three new titles to address the topic), most historians have discussed the legislation as products of Johnson, who had championed a federal civil-rights act as senator and as vice president, and of King, who focused national attention on the need for reform. Risen's approach is unique in identifying many smaller players who nonetheless made the act possible and in weaving their stories into a single narrative.

"King and Johnson were great men," Risen writes, "and they played critical roles in the bill's passage. But neither deserves all the credit, or even the bulk of it. …