cover image The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act

The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act

Clay Risen. Bloomsbury, $28 (320p) ISBN 978-1-60819-824-5

On the 50th anniversary of the passing of the landmark Civil Rights Act, New York Times staff editor Risen (A Nation on Fire) takes an approach comparable to other similarly timed books on the subject: President Kennedy proposed the drafting of the bill; Lyndon Johnson, as Kennedy’s successor, dogged Congress to pass it; and Martin Luther King, Jr. kept civil rights movement participants focused on it. Risen’s interest is less in these big names than in the “pluralism of the process”—the actions of a variety of politicians and other policy makers who ultimately shaped and shepherded the legislation through Congress. He opens with an overview of the postwar civil rights movement, contextualizing Kennedy’s nationally televised June 11, 1963, exhortation to Congress to craft a sweeping equal rights bill. From there, it took just over a year of negotiations and compromises, both inside and outside of Congress, for the bill to become law. Risen does his best to infuse drama into a story that is already a matter of the historical record. Fortunately, Risen is adept at weaving in juicy snippets of conversation and his fluid prose mutes some of the wonkiness in the political-process narrative. Illus. (Apr.)