I’ve just started reading Dennis Prager’s new book, Still the Best Hope. While waiting for the book to arrive, I’d been reading some of the reviews written by his fans on Amazon. One claim in particular struck me as incredible — the review quotes Prager as saying  “every vote against the 1960 Civil Rights Act came from Democrats.” Now that I have the book in hand, I can confirm that the quote is accurate, even though Prager is not.

The complete quote, from page 223 of the book, is

Every vote against the 1960 Civil Rights Act came from Democrats, and in the House, even the future Left-wing Democratic candidate for president, then-congressman George McGovern — of South Dakota (not a southern state) — merely voted “present.”

(I think it’s so thoughtful that Prager, perhaps sensing that his home-schooled Teaparty target demographic might not have an atlas handy, helpfully points out that South Dakota is — despite its name — NOT a southern state.)

The book doesn’t cite a source for these voting claims. The first, that every vote against the act came from Democrats, is simply false. The second, that McGovern merely voted “present,” is (at best) a misleading half-truth.

First, a quick review of the history of the 1960 Civil Rights Act.

The legislation was proposed by (Republican!) President Dwight D. Eisenhower. It was introduced in the House of Representatives as H.R. 8601. After it was passed by the House on March 24, 1960, it was amended and passed by the Senate on April 8, 1960. The House approved the Senate’s amendments on April 21, 1960, and the Act was signed into law by President Eisenhower on May 21, 1960. It’s straight out of the How a Bill Becomes Law animation from Civics class, only with less singing.

Unfortunately for Dennis Prager’s revisionism, each of these votes is a matter of public record. Despite his claim that “every vote against” came from Democrats, the facts tell a different story.

For its initial passage in the House:

James Utt, a Republican from California’s 28th District, voted “nay”.
William Cramer, a Republican from Florida’s 1st District, voted “nay”.
Hamer Budge, a Republican from Idaho’s 2nd District, voted “nay”.
Noah Mason, a Republican from Illinois’ 15th District, voted “nay”.
Benton Jensen, a Republican from Iowa’s 7th District, voted “nay”.
Wint Smith, a Republican from Kansas’ 6th District, voted “nay”.
George Meader, August Johansen, Clare Hoffman, and John Bennett (four Michigan Republicans) voted “nay”.
Charles Jonas, a Republican from North Carolina”s 10th District, voted “nay”.
John Taber, a Republican from New York’s 36th District, voted “nay”.
Bruce Alger, a Republican from Texas’ 5th District, voted “nay”.
Joel Broyhill, a Republicans from Virginia’s 10th District, voted “nay”.

My goodness, that’s a lot of non-Democrats voting “nay.” One actual Democrat, George McGovern votes “aye” rather than “present.”

For its passage with amendments in the Senate:

All eighteen “nay” votes did indeed come from Democrats. The nine states they represented were Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. These  states don’t seem to have anything in common, other than perhaps the fact that none of them are South Dakota…

Meanwhile, back at the House:

Michigan Congressmen Bennett and Hoffman switch their votes from “nay” to “aye” while their colleagues Meader and Johansen disappear. New York’s John Taber is joined by naysaying Republican Clarence Kilburn (33rd District), and Virginia’s Broyhill by naysaying Republican Richard Poff (6th District). While McGovern does switch his vote from “yea” to “present,” with the exception of Michigan the same Republicans who voted “nay” the first time are voting “nay” now. Clearly, Prager’s claim that the only “nay” votes came from Democrats is an out-and-out lie.

So why did McGovern choose not to support this link in the chain of Civil Rights legislation? Prager implies that it’s because he wasn’t a real proponent of civil rights, but is that likely to be the true explanation? After all, he voted in favor of the original House bill, and did not actually oppose the amended bill. Is it possible that there is some other reason a “future Left-wing Democratic candidate for president” would vote “present” on a bill which passed with 288 “ayes,” 95 “nays,” and 25 “present” votes?

A clue appears when one examines some of those other “present” votes. One Democrat who voted “present” on both the original and the amended bill is Adam Powell from New York’s 16th District. For those who don’t know, the 16th District is now located in the Bronx, and in 2008 it gave Barack Obama his highest margin of victory, with 95% of the votes cast in that district going to the soon-to-be President-elect. In 1960, however, the 16th District was Harlem, and Adam Powell was better known as Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the first African American from New York to be elected to the United States Congress. Are we to suppose that he voted “present” not merely once but twice because he did not support civil rights legislation? The notion seems unlikely, but then what could be the explanation?

A second clue comes from the discussion which took place on the floor of the Senate, as recorded in the Congressional Record for April 8, 1960 (the same day the Senate passed its version of the Civil Rights Act of 1960). Senator Patrick McNamara of Michigan (a supporter of the Civil Rights Act) had this to say:

[O]nce again we are at the stage in the civil rights debate where we must cast our votes either for or against a measure.[…]

The hardest decision, as usual, faces those of us who wanted a genuine civil rights bill, one that would really attack the problems that need solving. Unhappily, we do not have such a bill before us today. We have a watered-down bill that has been so further diluted that it will wash right out of the Chamber and hardly will be noticed in the mainstream of American life.[…]

The real losers are the hundreds of thousands of Negroes in some areas of our country who looked to the Congress of the United States as their last hope for the protection of their rights. […] we raised their hopes with weeks of stirring debate directed at their problems, hopes which now have been dashed again with this bill.”

Is it possible that  a black Congressman from Harlem, and a future left-wing Presidential candidate from South Dakota, would choose to vote “present” rather than “aye” on a bill because it should have been stronger, rather than (as Prager implies) because they were not really proponents of civil rights for black citizens? I think it’s not only possible, it’s certain. The passage of the bill was already assured, and in McGovern’s case, he’d already voted “aye” for the bill before it was “further diluted” in the Senate.

Why does Prager not even raise this possibility? After all, on the very next page, when discussing Republican opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he points out that “most” of them opposed it “solely on constitutional and liberty-related grounds.” I believe it’s because Prager is willing to employ lies of omission to make his case. I have more respect for the truth than that, and that respect compels me to add a caveat here.

I think it’s likely that Prager meant to write “Every Senate vote against the 1960 Civil Rights Act came from Democrats.” Perhaps his unattributed source meant to write that, and Prager simply passed it along uncritically, as Prager’s book reviewer on Amazon passed it along as received wisdom. It’s even possible that Prager (or his source) did write the correct statement, but somewhere along the line from raw manuscript to published book it became corrupted. Maybe he even noted that all the Senators who opposed the bill came from Southern states, and that was why he felt the need to add that South Dakota was not a Southern state.

Even supposing that all of these benefits-of-the-doubt are justified, Prager’s attempt to portray the fight for black civil rights as a non-leftist value would still be riddled with dishonesty. He begins by conflating “the left” and “the Democratic party,” and not even the Democratic party of today, but the Democratic party of 50 or 100 years ago. One of the Senate Democrats who voted against the Civil Rights Bill of 1960 was that well-known advocate of leftist values Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who subsequently became a Republican. Prager alludes to this by dismissing the (anticipated) criticism that these Democrats were really conservatives as “completely self serving.” As self-serving as presenting a group containing Strom Thurmond and Russell Long as advocates of “Left-wing values,” Mr. Prager?

The fact is, these “Dixiecrats” voted as they did because they represented Southern constituencies, not because they represented “Left-wing values.” Anyone who was more committed to being honest than being persuasive would have said so.

Dennis Prager is apparently not so committed to the truth.

I will have more to say about this book in the coming days and weeks.

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