McGeorge professor recalls trip to the south 50 years ago to enforce the Civil Rights Act

Brian Landsberg was just 26 years old when he checked into a Holiday Inn in Tuscaloosa, Ala., 50 years ago. His job: enforcing the nation’s newly signed Civil Rights Act, a piece of legislation strongly resented in the South, where the civil rights struggle had been marked by murders and violence.

At the time, Landsberg said, he was “too stupid to be nervous.” He was one year out of law school at UC Berkeley, working for the U.S. Department of Justice.

President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark act on July 2, 1964. Considered by many the most significant legislation ever enacted in this country, it outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It targeted segregation by race in schools, at the workplace and in facilities serving the general public and unequal application of voter registration requirements.

Everyone in town knew who Landsberg and his partner were and what they were doing there. The law was unpopular in the South, even with those who readily complied, and there had been significant violence around the push for civil rights. The federal government was unsure how enforcement would be viewed.

“We had very stringent rules about calling in to our boss every day,” Landsberg said.

After they were settled and called Washington, Landsberg and his partner decided to get some food. “As we were going downstairs, the bellman, who was black, came up to us and said ‘You know they’re listening to your phone calls at the desk,’ ” Landsberg said. Luckily for him and his partner, that’s all that was happening.

Landsberg, now 76, sat down with The Sacramento Bee in his cluttered office at The University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law, where he is a distinguished professor. His memories of those early days are fresh, thanks to recent commemorations of the Civil Rights Division across the country he has attended. Landsberg is often asked to speak on his work, particularly in Selma, Ala., in the ’60s and ’70s. Last month, he gave a speech at a Department of Justice program on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act at American University’s Washington College of Law.

Landsberg stayed 22 years in the South litigating civil rights cases before coming to McGeorge in 1986. He has written two books evaluating the time he spent in Alabama, “Free at Last to Vote: The Alabama Origins of the 1965 Voting Rights Act” (2007) and “Enforcing Civil Rights: Race Discrimination and the Department of Justice (Studies in Government and Public Policy)” (1997).

President John Kennedy initially sought the civil rights law in 1963 amid a cycle of protests and violence that included federal troops being sent to the University of Alabama to enable the enrollment of black students there. In a June 11 address to the nation, Kennedy cited “a rising tide of discontent that threatens the public safety.” The next morning, NAACP field secretary Medger Evers was assassinated in the driveway of his Jackson, Miss., home. Kennedy was assassinated that November.

“There was great turmoil in the country, and there was an injustice being perpetrated,” said Landsberg.

“It was necessary to find a mechanism for coping with what was going on, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 showed that government can be a force for bringing about positive change,” Landsberg said. “Not that any mechanism is going to bring about perfection, but it accomplished quite a bit.”

On Nov. 27, 1963, in Johnson’s first speech to a joint session of Congress as president, he said, “No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.”

But Congress held little sympathy or sentimentality, and the battle for passage of the bill would be extraordinary. The recent Tony-winning play “All The Way” depicts the Texas-born politician’s struggles with both Congress and civil rights leaders – including Martin Luther King Jr. – to craft an enforceable bill that would live up to its intention. Opposition to the bill included the longest filibuster in Senate history.

After the law was signed, the Department of Justice sent young attorneys, including Landsberg, to act as watchdogs in Southern states that presented the most difficult challenge to enforcement.

“The attorney general (Robert Kennedy) and the president were all very worried about compliance with this law because the freedom rides and the sit-ins had had a lot of violence associated with them,” Landsberg said, of the beatings by state and local law enforcement as well as Klu Klux Klansmen that had become common starting in 1961 with the organized civil disobedience known as the freedom rides.

“The civil rights workers were the ones at risk,” he said.

In June 1964, the murders of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Earl Chaney generated international outrage. In March 1965, Viola Liuzzo, a 39-year-old volunteer for black voter registration, was shot in the head as she drove to Selma, Ala.

Landsberg said he rarely felt threatened. “We were law enforcers, and people knew the FBI would protect us.”

Today, Landsberg feels school desegregation was “a major, incredible accomplishment” of the Civil Rights Act.

“There are still disparities in education, but when you look at where we came from. When I was litigating school desegregation cases, which started in 1965, we started insisting that desegregation included desegregating the faculties. The school superintendents would say to us, ‘Well the black faculty are not competent; we can’t assign them to white schools.’ What is that saying?”

Landsberg can see other fruits of the civil rights effort. He notes that the law also successfully outlawed discrimination based on national origin and religion, including Latinos, Asians, Jews and Muslims.

In the preface to his book “Enforcing Civil Rights” Landsberg wrote, “Laws (were) designed to glue together diverse individuals into a nation of equal opportunity, and the civil rights laws embody recognition by the political majority that the path of inequality leads to disaster.”

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