Today's date is a reminder that the progress this nation has made on race did not come without a struggle -- and that it has been momentous in nature, whether in war or peace. It was on this day in 1865 that Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. Yet a full 74 years later, African American contralto Marian Anderson was denied permission to perform at Constitution Hall in the nation's capital.
The world renowned singer had been scheduled to perform there, but the Daughters of the American Revolution, an antediluvian organization that managed the venue, revoked its earlier decision. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt -- who often pushed her husband to take a stronger stand on civil rights -- resigned her DAR membership in protest. She then helped facilitate an alternative: Anderson's free, open-air concert at the Lincoln Memorial.
There, 75,000 people came to her Anderson sing on April 9, 1939. The concert was electrifying, but not to all Washingtonians. And though the nation's capital was still in many ways a Southern city in those days, racism was hardly confined to the South. To African Americans, it sometimes seemed as though Grant had surrendered to Lee at Appomattox instead of the other way around. Marian Anderson wasn't invited to sing at the New York Metropolitan Opera House, for instance, until 1955. But then the pace of change started accelerating. In 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower named Anderson an honorary U.S. delegate to the United Nations, and in 1963 President Kennedy awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In the summer of 1963, Kennedy had proposed a sweeping civil rights bill aimed at erasing racial discrimination in private as well as public accommodations in the Old South. Since Southern Democrats still controlled key congressional committees, thanks to the seniority system, the odds of passage seemed long. House Rules Committee Chairman Howard Smith, a committed segregationist from Virginia, vowed to never let the legislation see the House floor.
In the upper chamber, the opposition was led by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Harry Byrd, another Virginia segregationist, and Georgia Democrat Richard Russell, who vowed to filibuster it -- and then followed through on that promise.
To make a long story short, what happened next is that John F. Kennedy, like Abraham Lincoln before him, was martyred by an assassin. This cowardly act made a Southern Democrat the president of the United States. Moreover, that particular Southern Democrat was Sen. Russell's protégé.
But within days, Lyndon Johnson played against type. He not only embraced Kennedy's civil rights bill, Johnson made it his mission to get it passed. He told aides they would do it as a tribute to the slain president, and then LBJ mustered all his bluster, bullying, and wiliness to get it done. Russell himself realized what he was up against. In Robert A. Caro's masterful rendition of this chapter of American history, he quotes Russell as telling a friend, "You know, we could have beaten John Kennedy on civil rights, but not Lyndon Johnson."
That's our first quote of the week. Maybe Russell was correct, maybe he wasn't. I tend to agree with Todd Purdum, who wrote a book about this legislation with a title that conveys my own view: "An Idea Whose Time Has Come."
In any event, here was Lyndon Johnson, only four days after Kennedy's murder, plotting his strategy with top aides in a meeting that didn't even take place in the West Wing because the stunned Kennedy family and aides hadn't moved out of the White House yet. Johnson and his staff worked out of the Old Executive Office Building, now named after Eisenhower. The meeting went past midnight, into the wee hours of Nov. 27, 1963. When one aide questioned whether Johnson really wanted to expend the enormous time and political capital it would take to push this boulder up the hill -- up Capitol Hill, if you will -- the new president replied: "Well, what the hell's the presidency for?"
And those are our quotes of the week.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.