The Long Road to Dignity: The Wrong of Segregation and What the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Had to Change

AuthorPaul Finkelman
Louisiana Law Review
The Long Road to Dignity: The Wrong of Segregation
and What the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Had to Change
Paul Finkelman
The Vice President of the United States was meeting with his
former Senate colleague, the arch-segregationist John Stennis of
Mississippi. In 1963, no one in Congress embodied racism and
segregation more than Senator Stennis. And no state s ymbolized the
violent and murderous opposition to racial equality more than
Mississippi, which led the nation in creating civil rights martyrs
even before the murders in Philadelphia, Mississippi.1 One protest
song of the 1960s famously described Mississippi as “the land
you’ve torn out the heart of.”2
Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson knew Stennis would never
support the civil rights legislation proposed by President Kennedy,
but he wanted Stennis to understand his deep hostility to
segregation. So Johnson described how his personal cook—who
Johnson pointed out was “a college graduate”3—and her husband
would drive his official car, “the Cadillac limousine of the Vice
President of the United States,” from Washington to Texas.4
Because they were black, the Wrights could not find motels where
Copyright 2014, by PAUL FINKELMAN.
Justice Pike Hall, Jr., Visiting Professor of Law, Paul M. Hebert Law
Center, Louisiana State Universit y. Senior Fellow, P enn Program on De mocracy,
Citizenship, and Constitutionalism, University of Pennsylvania, 2014–15. For help
on this Article, I thank the library staff at the Paul M. Hebert Law Center,
especially Michelle Humphries, Lisa Good man, and Beth Williams; my LSU
colleagues Vice Chancellor Raymond T. Diamond and Chancellor Jack Weiss;
Marty Levy at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law, Texas Southern University;
Cary Wintz at Texas Southern University; Adam Fairclough at Leiden University
in the Netherlands; Judith K. Schafer at Tulane University; and Bob Emery at the
Albany Law School library. I also acknowledge the hard work and excellent
editing of Emily Gill, Daniell e Borel, K atherine H. Dampf, and the rest of the
staff of the Louisiana Law Review.
1. See Civil Rights Martyrs, S. POVERTY L. CENTER, http://www.spl center
.org/civil-rights-memorial/civil-rights-martyrs (last visited Mar. 11, 2014)
[] (archived Apr. 9, 2014).
2. See Phil Ochs, Here’s to the State of Mississippi, on THERE BUT FOR
FORTUNE (Elektra Records 1989), available at
to-the-state-of-mississippi-lyrics-phil-ochs.html []
(archived Apr. 9, 2014).
SENATE 889 (2002) [hereinafter CARO, MASTER OF THE SENATE].
4. Id.
they could stay or restaurants where they could dine.5 Johnson
personalized this for the senator from Mississippi, noting that when
“[t]hey drove through your state and when the y got hungry, they
stopped at grocery stores on the edge of town in colored areas and
bought Vienna sausages and beans and ate them with a plastic
spoon.”6 Stennis knew all about this sort of segregation in his home
state, and he mumbled that he was sure they could find some place
to eat.7 But Johnson, the sometimes crude master politician from
rural Texas, ended his jawboning with a story about driving across
Mississippi for which Stennis had no response: “[W]hen they had to
go to the bathroom, they would stop, pull off on a side road, and
Zephyr Wright, the cook of the Vice President of the United States,
would squat in the road to pee. And you know, John, that’s just bad.
That’s wrong.”8
For Lyndon Johnson, segregation had become personal. It was
not just a violation of people’s rights. It was “bad.” It was “wrong.”
When Johnson became president, the struggle for passage of the
Civil Rights Act of 1964 became personal, and the experience of his
cook became part of Johnson’s persona and his stock of stories to
illustrate his politics and passions.9
In the end, passage of the 1964 Act was a personal triumph for
Johnson, who twisted arms, lobbied senators, and showed all his
political skills.10 Although he was a native white Texan, Johnson
5. Id.
6. Id.
7. Id.
8. Id. Johnson offered a more sanitized version of this story in his
autobiography, The Vantage Point. LYNDON B. JOHNSON, THE VANTAGE POINT
154 (1971). Johnson told various versions of this story to many people. The events
probably took place when Johnson was actually Senate majority leader, but
Johnson, ever the storyteller, changed the date for Stennis. When he was vice
president, some of his other black staffers, includ ing Eugene Williams and Helen
White Williams, drove Johnson’s car across the South, and thus the experience of
the Wrights was repeated over and over again, and Johnson knew about their
humiliations as well. Id. at 154–55.
9. The 1964 Civil Rights Act was
[a]n Act [t]o enforce the constitutional right to vote, to confer
jurisdiction upon the district courts of the United States to provide
injunctive relief against discrimination in public accommodations, to
authorize the Attorney General to institute suits to protect constitutional
rights in public facilities and public education, to extend the
Commission on Civil Rights, to prevent discrimination in federally
assisted programs, to establish a Commission on Equal Employment
Opportunity, and for other purposes.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, Pub. L. No. 88-352, 78 Stat. 241 (codified as
amended at 42 U.S.C. § 2000a (2006)).
10. The most recent book on the law, The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle
for the Civil Rights Act, argues that Johnson, and also Martin Luther King, Jr., are

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