In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat with a mixed record on race, signed the Civil Rights Act into law — something his Republican challenger in that year’s election, Sen. Barry Goldwater, had voted against, despite having a solid civil rights record up to that point.

Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen on the cover of Time magazine after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. (http://content.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19640619,00.html)

Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen on the cover of Time magazine after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. (Image source: Time)

Is this simple divide what shaped the modern perception of each political party’s record on civil rights?

Michael Zak, author of “Back to Basics for the Republican Party,” which chronicles the party’s civil rights heritage, believes Goldwater was a significant factor, by forgetting that the 1964 bill virtually mirrored Republican-backed legislation from 1875.

“Democrat pundits pretend that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was the creation of the Kennedy or Johnson administrations, but in fact it was an extension of the Republican Party’s 1957 and 1960 Civil Rights Acts,” Zak told TheBlaze. “Barry Goldwater, the GOP’s presidential nominee that year, did not appreciate the fact that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was thoroughly Republican policy.”

And with President Barack Obama, the first black president, set to speak at the LBJ Presidential Library Thursday, that’s the notion that’s still widely promoted. This week, White House press secretary Jay Carney likened Republican opposition to the Paycheck Fairness Act in Congress to opposing civil rights legislation.

“Republicans object to this strenuously, using the same arguments that conservatives used when they objected to every bit of progress made on civil rights for women and minorities over the past many decades, and they were wrong then and they’re wrong now,” Carney told reporters Tuesday.

Goldwater was one of just six Senate Republicans to vote against the bill in 1964, while 21 Senate Democrats opposed it. It passed by an overall vote of 73-27. In the House, 96 Democrats and 34 Republicans voted against the Civil Rights Act, passing with an overall 290-130 vote. While most Democrats in both chambers voted for it, the bulk of the opposition still was from Democrats.

Time magazine even largely credited Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) for pushing the sweeping legislation through, putting him on the cover after final passage.

Johnson told Dirksen: “The attorney general said that you were very helpful and did an excellent job and that I ought to tell you that I admire you … and I told him that I had already done that for some time … . You’re worthy of the Land of Lincoln. And a man from Illinois is going to pass the bill, and I’ll see that you get proper attention and credit.”

Horace Cooper, co-chairman of Project 21, a black conservative organization, told TheBlaze that at the time the 1964 bill was debated “it was clear [that] distinguished leaders of the Democratic Party were the opponents … we didn’t have 24-hour news then, but people who were paying attention knew who opposed it.”

“There is a myth, and it has been a particularly effective one, that the Democratic Party has created opportunities for minorities,” added Cooper, a former law professor at George Mason University and former counsel for House Republicans. “The record for 100 years from the 1860s through the 1960s has been that the Democrats have stymied the abilities of black Americans to have the same constitutional rights as all Americans.”

The basis of most Republican opposition to the 1964 law, even from GOP members of Congress who backed the 1957 and 1960 bills signed by President Dwight Eisenhower, was discomfort about forcing private business to comply with public accommodation laws. Cooper said few Republicans expressed any qualms about requiring public busses, and government buildings to integrate.

“Because Republicans had been the party of civil rights and liked more in it than they didn’t, they voted for it,” Cooper said. “Democrats were split. It was Democrats that used a herculean effort to block it through filibusters.”

Moreover, Cooper pointed out, some local governments in the South had laws prohibiting private business owners from serving black customers. Goldwater, Cooper said, wanted to end these laws first.

“Barry Goldwater wanted to address those laws and give people free choices,” he said. “Barry Goldwater was never of the mind that government had no role in stopping discrimination.”

The GOP’s civil rights case was not helped when rabid segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina left the Democratic Party for the Republicans after Johnson signed the law. But conservatives argue that doesn’t erase the historical divide.

The 1957 Civil Rights Act established the civil rights division in the Justice Department and allowed federal prosecutors to obtain court injunctions against local governments that tried to interfere with the right to vote and established a federal Civil Rights Commission for two years. But the legislation, the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction, was considered watered down in order to overcome a Democratic filibuster.

Eisenhower in his last year in office signed the 1960 Civil Right Act to strengthen enforcement of the 1957 law, extending the life of the Civil Rights Commission and produced penalties for anyone who obstructed voter registration. Like the previous bill, this legislation had also been watered down.

The earliest bill to be called the Civil Rights Act came in 1866, guaranteeing all Americans equal protection under the law.

It was the 1875 Civil Rights Act that allowed Americans to have access to public accommodations such as restaurants and public transportation. But the law wasn’t enforced and the Supreme Court struck it down in 1883.

“The 1964 Civil Rights Act was based on the GOP’s 1875 Civil Rights Act,” said Zak, the historian. “That landmark legislation had been written by Senator Charles Summer, a Republican from Massachusetts.”

Zak’s 2000 book, which he says was to clear up misperceptions about history, was followed by other books by conservative authors such as economist Bruce Bartlett’s “Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party’s Buried Past” in 2008 and well-known conservative commentator Ann Coulter’s 2013 book, “Mugged: Racial Demagoguery from the Seventies to Obama,” which both talked about the Democratic Party’s strong affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan and progressive President Woodrow Wilson’s advocacy for southern segregation policies.

But even non-conservative authors are now pointing out the party divide. Just last week, an excerpt from Todd Purdum’s new book, “An Idea Whose Time has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1864,” heralded little-known former Rep. Bill McCulloch (R-Ohio) as the Republican who saved civil rights.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, passed along similar partisan margins, with 61 Democratic “no” votes in the House and 24 Republicans voting against the bill, which passed 333-85. In the Senate, the measure passed with the support of 94 percent of the Republican caucus and 73 percent of the Democratic caucus.

“The degree of Republican support for the two bills actually exceeded the degree of Democratic support, and it’s also fair to say that Republicans took leading roles in both measures, even though they had far fewer seats, and thus less power, at the time,” PolitiFact said in a 2010 analysis of the GOP role in civil rights.

Cooper contends that Democrats have continued to exploit race, just in a more sophisticated at it.

“They exploited racial tensions in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s by turning it into, ‘This group, Republicans, [are] going to turn over your hard earnings to blacks.’ It took a black leader to explain we are not asking for special rights,” Cooper said. “Today they say the other party is trying to take away your right to vote, trying to take away your education, trying to take away your health care. They haven’t quit doing what they’ve always done. They are just more sophisticated at dividing people along racial lines.”

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