Editor's Note: As the nation approaches the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Post and Courier is exploring the impact of the historic law with an occasional series.
BY ADAM PARKER
It was hard not to compare 1964 with today at the luncheon with journalist Todd Purdum.
Publication of his new book, "An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964," was the reason for his visit to the College of Charleston, and a few academics and community leaders joined him for informal discussion over salad a few hours before the Friends of the Library's Winthrop Roundtable dinner Friday night.
Comparisons were made between the social and political circumstances of the 1960s and the present. Purdum, who covered politics for The New York Times and now is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and senior writer at Politico, said the Civil Rights Act wasn't an easy political victory, but it was one that received bipartisan support.
"That's a pretty big contrast to today," he said, when Washington is separated into two main opposing camps that don't cooperate.
Delving into various archives to do his research afforded Purdum a chance to experience the 1960s vicariously.
"It's more fun to live in Washington in 1963-64 than to live in Washington in 2013-14, in real life," he said. (Purdum lives in Washington.)
The book came about because an editor at Vanity Fair encouraged Purdum to write it given the 50th anniversary now upon us, and the upcoming anniversaries marking the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and other civil rights events.
"It's easy to forget that people died to get these laws passed," he said.
In some ways, the Civil Rights Act had an immediate effect, making it difficult or undesirable to sustain segregation; but it also prompted some to close and privatize swimming pools, clubs and other facilities in order to avoid the new law, Purdum said. Some lawmakers voted for the bill just to try to put a stop to the demonstrations.
For many whites, the Civil Rights Act was a culmination, the end of a battle, time to move on; for many blacks, it was a seminal achievement that provided impetus to keep up the fight. Purdum noted the similarity in attitudes toward the election of President Obama.
He said the Civil Rights Act is perhaps the single most important U.S. law of the 20th century but that it "totally ignored economic justice issues, leaving untouched de facto segregation in the North."
Today, the earning power and median income gap between white and black is the same or worse than it was in 1964, Purdum noted.
What's more, the original hope that the act could neutralize race as a factor in social, economic and political discourse proved wrong, for it led to race-specific remedies such as Affirmative Action, school busing reform and other government-imposed actions, many of which remain hot-button issues today.
"The tone of the debate has not been elevated very much," Purdum said.
James Campbell, a civil rights activist and retired educator, noted the ways in which current issues are politicized, often in a racial context. Marlene O'Bryant-Seabrook, former professor of education at The Citadel, recalled the promise of Reconstruction and the successful efforts to undo it. Lucille Whipper, a former state legislator, spoke critically of efforts to gerrymander voting districts, especially in the South, a strategy that has exacerbated political divisions.
Purdum surmised that the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964 because "we still had a shared notion of what a civic culture could be. What we have now is a civic culture that's completely broken down."
And inexorable change (economic, demographic, social) is fueling reactionary sentiment across the country, he said. This accounts for some of the radicalism on the right.
"The Tea Party is fueled by the fear that the country is changing and never will be the same again - and they're right, it is changing."
"Except for one thing," interjected attorney Armand Derfner. "Money." That has more influence than ever.