04/09/2014 02:55 pm ET Updated Jun 09, 2014

The Untold Story of Civil-Rights Progress in the U.S.: An Interview With Author Clay Risen

Clay Risen's The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act, published this month 50 years after the legislation was passed, pulls off a feat that is in its way radical: It enables us, reading in this age of Washington gridlock that has moved well beyond the sclerotic, to put the current stagnation in Congress in context.

In many ways, the bizarre state of affairs in which our nation's capital now finds itself mired is not so new. Risen explores a key juncture in our history when archaic procedures like votes for cloture and filibusters were also threatening to block action and change the course of history. Yet a confluence of events led to a major step forward for the nation. Those events were far-flung and diverse, set in motion not by a few key figures, but by thousands, acting sometimes in a coordinated way, sometimes not; it is this sense of group action, taking a chance on trying to make a difference, that is so valuable and exciting -- a corrective to the history most of us were taught along the way, which was that the story of the Civil Rights Act passing and belatedly protecting the status of African Americans, and indeed all citizens, was all about a few key individuals, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John F. Kennedy.

Risen's extensive research fills in the picture in a way that points forward: If we're ever going to overcome gridlock in Washington, it won't be by waiting for a national leader to solve the problem for us, it will be by getting involved ourselves in some way.

Risen writes in his Introduction:

The idea that either King or Johnson was the dominant figure behind the Civil Rights Act distorts not only the history of the act but the process of American legislative policymaking in general. The purpose of this book is to correct that distortion.

On the one hand, it's startling to read of a time when Congress stirred itself to take on such a major piece of legislation and not come away with despair at the gridlock now enveloping Washington. On the other hand, reading your book, one is often struck with parallels with the contemporary ways of Congress. Were you struck by some of these parallels, or did your research mostly reinforce a sense of how much things have changed?

There are certainly ways that the 1960s are similar enough to today to draw lessons. It seems like politicians are too quick to accept caricatures of the other party and not reach across the aisle to build relationships -- not just on specific legislation, but well before, so that when touchy issues arise, there's an underlying comity to any discussions. I'm not saying that sort of cooperation never happens -- of course it does. But it's striking how little there is today.

Now, that said, of course there are reasons that go beyond the failure of what you might call the bipartisan imagination. There have been huge structural changes in American politics between 1964 and 2004: the realignment of the parties into ideologically consistent camps; the disappearance of the Southern Democrats as a quasi-third party; the breakdown of the boss system and the emergence of a robust primary system; and the near-elimination of earmarks as a political tool. At one point during the Civil Rights Act filibuster, President Johnson secured the vote of Arizona Senator Carl Hayden, a Democrat, by promising federal support for a massive water project in his state -- a move that required Johnson to get the consent of California Senator Tom Kuchel, a Republican. There's no way that move would have worked today, regardless of who the president was.

Were there any serendipitous discoveries in your research on The Bill of the Century? Things that more or less fell into your lap and turned out to be important?

Early in my work I reached out to some of the principals in the story for interviews, including a former Justice Department official named David Filvaroff. Through him I found a historian's Holy Grail of material. He had been part of the team that wrote and revised the bill during its yearlong course through Congress, and afterward he decided to write a book about his experience. He spent a year or so interviewing every person he could find who was involved in the bill -- Senate staffers, lobbyists, everyone -- and vacuuming up thousands of Justice Department documents, things that no one else had. And then, he set the project aside, and stuck the files in his attic. Eventually he became the dean of the law school at the University of Buffalo, and when he retired a few years ago, he donated the papers to the library. When I went to interview him, the papers had just been opened -- and provided an astounding amount of depth and detail to my book. It's the sort of find that historians dream of.

It was clear you enjoyed yourself writing the book -- and it has a quality of being almost a page-turner, with its combination of thorough research and lively writing, the kind of popular history that can take a familiar subject and imbue it with freshness and vigor. Who are some of the authors that have inspired you to pursue this kind of book?

I'm not an academic historian by any means, but I do take a lot of inspiration from the publicly engaged historians of the mid-20th century, above all C. Vann Woodward (perhaps because we're both sons of the Upper South). On the other side, I'd have to list the usual suspects among non-academic writers who made deep historical research a core part of their work -- folks like Barbara Tuchman, George Kennan, and David Halberstam.

Were you yourself surprised to discover, through your research, the extent to which others rather than Johnson and MLK Jr. deserve credit for the passage of this landmark legislation?

In some ways, yes. But I would have been disappointed if I had set out to write a comprehensive history of the Civil Rights Act and found nothing more than the conventional wisdom in the archives.

Given the subject matter, and the window into how other White House residents have handled the issues of the day, it seems a given that Barack Obama will read the book sooner or later. Did you send some copies to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

I believe a couple are on the way. But I understand if he has a few other priorities before getting to it.

Did your wife, at home with small children, ever ask you if really you had to go the extra yard on that particular area of research, take that trip, spend that extra day in a library?

Joanna was amazing. I couldn't have done the project without her, and she never said a word to hold me back. Fortunately, a lot of my archival trips were to places where we had family and friends -- Boston, Austin, Washington -- so it was easy to turn them into family trips. The University of Texas isn't Disney World, though, so I'll probably have to make up for that next year.

This is not your only new book. Late last year you also published American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye: A Guide to the Nation's Favorite Spirit. How hard was it to stay focused on such two wildly different subject areas for so long?

Somehow, the two projects reinforced each other, like working out different muscle groups at the gym. Writing short entries about bourbon and rye gave me a break from writing about civil rights and American politics. And spending so much time writing in a historical vein helped me think about the history of American whiskey, which is so important to its appreciation and occupies a good chunk of the first part of the book.

Last I checked, the book on whiskey was outselling The Bill of the Century. In fact, it was ranked 128 overall at Amazon, compared to a rank of around 6,000 for your new book.

That's all news to me. I try not to follow my rankings; that way madness lies. But it doesn't surprise me that a guide to American whiskey, which has only grown more popular since I started the project, is doing better than a book of political history. That said, Amazon just named The Bill of the Century as one of its best books for April, so that will help. And as the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act, on July 2, approaches, I imagine more people will pick it up.

Which book was more of a challenge to bring home for you?

Each presented its own challenge. As fun as it sounds to taste 200-plus whiskeys, I still had to drink 200-plus glasses of whiskey, not all of it particularly good, and then I had to make sense of each one in a review. The Bill of the Century involved a massive dive into more than a dozen archives around the country, and reading, altogether, hundreds of books and several hundred thousands of primary documents -- and then making sense of them in a narrative, which had to be constructed around some semblance of an argument about what it all meant.