The Bill of the Century

"Legally Reading," the joint book group launched last year by St. Louis Public Library and the Law Library Association of St. Louis, met in February to discuss Clay Risen's 2014 book, The Bill of the Century, the Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. Next up for "Legally Reading" is Geoffrey Canada's Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun: A Personal History of Violence, which we will meet to discuss on May 14 at Central Library (for more information, call 314 241-2288 or 314 622-4470).

The Bill of the Century traces the civil rights struggle and the serpentine path, deep intrigue, and many personalities that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Flipping between the exhaustive bibliography and the Library's catalog provided more than enough material to assemble a book display (many of the books can also be seen in this list), as well as the satisfaction to know that Risen could have done much of the research for his book with materials held by Central Library. While many of the books Risen consulted were, like The Bill of the Century, written decades later with the perspective and hindsight that the passage of time can provide, others were written much closer in time to the events described and it is these cool (in this librarian's opinion) contemporaneous resources that we will focus on in this blog post, along with some highlights from the book group's recent discussion.

Along with books that we selected for the book display because they were actually in the book's bibliography, including A Bill Becomes a Law: The Civil Rights Act of 1960 by Daniel Berman, The Education of a Public Man: My Life and Politics by Hubert Humphrey, and To Kill a Messenger: Television News and the Real World by William Small, we also ran across other interesting materials in Central's stacks (frankly, we always find interesting things in the stacks) that we also included in the book display. One such item is a booklet entitled "The Negro Speaks," published in September 1963 by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "In the belief that the purpose and significance of this movement can be explained by Negroes with an understanding that is all but impossible for white people, the Post-Dispatch asked a group of distinguished Negro Americans to write a special series of articles. They were asked to discuss the Negro's aspirations and ideals, to tell what he wants and needs, and what both he and the nation must do to achieve his goals and at the same time strengthen society."

At the same call number (323.1196073) we also came across three duplicate copies entitled The Martin Luther King, Jr., FBI File. Surprising slim, it turns out these were not THE files, but an index to the sixteen reels of microfilm that include the 17,000 pages of FBI files on Dr. King. St. Louis Public Library does have the sixteen reels of film as well; they are stored offsite but can be requested and viewed on the machines in the Genealogy Department on the third floor of Central Library. If you have not used a microfilm/fiche reader recently - or ever - we guarantee you will be pleasantly surprised by the advances in technology since the last millennium, including the ability to capture screenshots and email them or download them as a PDF to a flashdrive. Below are some snips taken from the first of the 16 reels of film, including a report about a death threat against Dr. King and the ironic statement that "King has not been investigated by the FBI." Reel one also includes several handwritten letters to J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, including one from a grandparent in June 1961 concerned about their 16 year old granddaughter's plans to go on a church trip to Miami Beach at which the grandparent believed Martin Luther King would be speaking: "I would like to know if it is advisable to let her go - can you give me some information. They are leaving New York by train."  Hoover replied: "Although I would like very much to be of service, I am unable, as a matter of policy, to advise you in connection with the matter you outlined." In response to another letter inquiring whether Dr. King was affiliated with the Communist party, Hoover again demurred, stating "the FBI is an investigative agency of the Federal Government and, as such, does not make evaluations nor draw conclusions as to the character or integrity of any organization, publication or individual." Hoover helpfully included "some literature dealing with the general subject of communism which may be of interest." The letter lists five enclosed documents (not part of the FBI file), including "One Nation's Response to Communism," a 14-page pamphlet authored by Director Hoover himself. 

The book group's discussion of The Bill of the Century, held in the public law library on the 13th floor of the Civil Courts building, was lively and wide-ranging. The participants generally enjoyed the book, and were interested to learn of the incredibly complex route that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Some contrasted the legislative process of 50+ years ago with the current situation in Washington, D.C. and speculated on a number of possible causes of the seeming gridlock and extreme polarization, ranging from the repeal of the FCC's fairness doctrine to the relative sobriety of today's Congress. The book describes numerous instances where legislative negotiations were "lubricated:" "Over the next several weeks, a regular routine emerged: five afternoons during the first half of May, the negotiators -- Dirksen, Katzenback, Dirksen's drafting experts, and a host of senior staff representing Humphrey, Kuchel, and others -- would meet in the bourbon-stocked back room of Dirksen's office (a popular senatorial retreat that Dirksen called the Twilight Lounge)." (p. 213) Some readers expressed surprise at reading terms like "liberal Republicans" and learning of the competition and lack of unity among the various civil rights organizations: "there was no single, unified civil rights movement, but many: there were the establishment organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League; the Southern, religiously inflected groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); the brasher groups of students and other young people, like the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); and the urban, radical outfits like the Black Muslims. And those were just at the national level...." (p. 18) The popular retelling of the history of the civil rights struggle tends to be much more simplistic. The Bill of the Century (along with the various materials it used as source material) paints a different, richer picture, both of the African-American fight for equal treatment under the law (still going on today) and the marked ways that the legislative process differs from the "I'm Just a Bill" Schoolhouse Rock version so many of us are familiar with (available from St. Louis Public Library on CD or DVD).   

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