Washington Letter: Civil Rights

(This is the first in a series of Washington letters which will be written by several correspondents and will appear regularly in The New York Review.)

Washington—With the accession of President Johnson, the civil rights bill has taken on new importance here. Nothing will reveal more about the President than the way he deals with this legislation, and the final version that emerges from Congress will obviously have much to do with the coming presidential election. Furthermore the civil rights bill must now cope with a dilemma which has come into the open with an almost desperate new urgency: how much “disorder” and how much outright “violence” can this society stand? This is a problem which had already become extremely ominous last summer when, after the events in Birmingham, some sections of the Negro protest movement were finding ways to create “non-violent disorder.” But now the assassination and murder in Texas, and the behavior of the Dallas police, have made the question more difficult than ever to evade. And the civil rights bill provides the occasion on which it must be faced squarely.

One gets some sense of the underlying issues involved in this bill from two statements made recently, one by a Colorado Congressman, and the other by the Attorney General of the United States:

Congressman: “One of my constituents has been in Georgia solitary for 85 days for taking part in a peaceful demonstration. Get him out.”

The Attorney General: “You wouldn’t want a national police force, would you?”

Embedded in this exchange is an uneasy recognition that the Negro movement has been taking place “outside” traditional politics—and doing so more and more vigorously—precisely because Congress and the Executive have seemed incapable of dealing with the racial conflict. At the same time, the tactics of the Negro protest have slowly been gaining acceptance as legitimate political techniques, in much the same way that strikes became legitimate about fifty years ago and free pamphleteering did in the eighteenth century. Although it may not have been widely noticed, many local governments are now tending to avoid prosecution of sit-in demonstrators, and the courts are reversing their earlier convictions. In fact, it now seems likely that the Supreme Court will validate the constitutional position of the sit-inners during 1964. If this happens, it will be directly traceable to the paralysis of the Executive and Congress on the racial question during the last ten years.

Thus the question in Washington has now become whether either Branch can catch up with the Negro revolution. If not, the Negro protest may go beyond sit-in tactics into more far-reaching forms of civil disobedience—and it is not certain that such new tactics could be prevented from degenerating into chaos and violent racial warfare. Indeed there is a growing belief among some leaders of the integration movement that Congress not only cannot catch up but perhaps should not: that America needs new forms of politics, especially politics that excite and commit large numbers of people, far more…

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