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We the People, Volume 3: The Civil Rights Revolution

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The Civil Rights Revolution carries Bruce Ackerman's sweeping reinterpretation of constitutional history into the era beginning with Brown v. Board of Education. From Rosa Parks's courageous defiance, to Martin Luther King's resounding cadences in "I Have a Dream," to Lyndon Johnson's leadership of Congress, to the Supreme Court's decisions redefining the meaning of equality, the movement to end racial discrimination decisively changed our understanding of the Constitution.

Ackerman anchors his discussion in the landmark statutes of the 1960s: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Challenging conventional legal analysis and arguing instead that constitutional politics won the day, he describes the complex interactions among branches of government--and also between government and the ordinary people who participated in the struggle. He showcases leaders such as Everett Dirksen, Hubert Humphrey, and Richard Nixon who insisted on real change, not just formal equality, for blacks and other minorities.

The civil rights revolution transformed the Constitution, but not through judicial activism or Article V amendments. The breakthrough was the passage of laws that ended the institutionalized humiliations of Jim Crow and ensured equal rights at work, in schools, and in the voting booth. This legislation gained congressional approval only because of the mobilized support of the American people--and their principles deserve a central place in the nation's history. Ackerman's arguments are especially important at a time when the Roberts Court is actively undermining major achievements of America's Second Reconstruction.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this dense, academic volume, Ackerman, Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale, continues his We the People series, which thoroughly examines American constitutional history, law, and social context, by progressing into the latter half of the 20th century. For logistical purposes, he focuses on “the struggle for black equality,” acknowledging that he gives short mention to women, the poor, and other minorities. As he states, “I have concentrated on the things I do best, and on the main point: that a bipartisan political coalition did indeed manage to build a new foundation for race relations in the name of the American people.” It’s a broad, meticulous approach to the topic that looks at the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Second Reconstruction, and Brown v. Board of Education; and it celebrates how far Americans have come while working with what Ackerman suggests is an outmoded and flawed political system. He likewise condemns that Americans have become mired in the past, with pointed criticism of the current Roberts Court. Steeped in law and history, this is a complex, scholarly, and authoritative look at the volatile and pivotal era that Ackerman claims is now in its autumn years. (Mar.)
Laura Kalman
Bruce Ackerman has already transformed our understanding of the Constitution and constitutional interpretation. With this essential volume, he enables us to view the civil rights revolution in an entirely new way.
Steven G. Calabresi
A splendid and brilliant book by the best and most sophisticated constitutional theorist in the United States today and possibly ever in American history. Professor Ackerman shows powerfully and irrefutably that there was a civil rights constitutional moment in the 1960s and that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 should be given the same weight by courts as an Article V constitutional amendment. This book is must reading for anyone interested in constitutional law or in civil rights.
Stephen Skowronek
The American people have reconstructed their constitutional system from time to time, but these ‘constitutional moments’ never roll out exactly the same way. The Civil Rights Revolution, the third volume of the Ackerman synthesis, sorts through the differences among these transformations, bringing to light the common principles and processes that impart foundational status to their institutional and normative commitments. Today, with the legacy of the civil rights revolution in doubt, Ackerman’s benchmarks are invaluable, both for assessing the constitutional commitments established in those years and for evaluating the legitimacy of efforts to upend them.
Sanford Levinson
Bruce Ackerman has written a magnificent, closely textured political history of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its aftermath. One is surely not surprised that Lyndon B. Johnson and Martin Luther King are often on center stage, but many might be surprised—and then illuminated—to discover the important role played by Richard M. Nixon as well in Ackerman's often-riveting narrative.
The Atlantic - Michael O’Donnell
The Civil Rights Act turns 50 this year, and a wave of fine books accompanies the semicentennial. Ackerman’s is the most ambitious; it is the third volume in an ongoing series on American constitutional history called We the People. A professor of law and political science at Yale, Ackerman likens the act to a constitutional amendment in its significance to the country’s legal development.
Library Journal
Ackerman (law, Yale Univ.) has written an exhaustive examination of the civil rights movement based on his assertion that a complex mix of Supreme Court decisions, political action in Congress, and constitutional questions led to the landmark changes of the 1960s. He argues that the prevailing notion that Supreme Court decisions of the era led to lasting change only tells some of the story. The book is divided into two parts: the first section discusses the Founding Fathers' view of the Constitution and how it played into the civil rights movement. The second examines the impact of mass protests, popular reaction, and legislation. Ackerman weaves political theory with historical detail, explaining how the civil rights movement evolved from revolution to mass movement and then to statutory law. VERDICT This fascinating book takes a new look at a much-covered topic. It is definitely geared toward students of law, history, and politics. Laypersons with a serious interest in the subject will want to read; law and academic libraries should consider it a worthy addition.—Becky Kennedy, Atlanta-Fulton P.L.
Kirkus Reviews
The third volume of the author's authoritative constitutional trilogy puts forth a brave argument on the importance of popular sovereignty as the galvanizing force in civil rights. Nothing can stop an idea whose time has come, Ackerman (Law and Political Science/Yale Univ.) argues in this third scholarly installment of the We the People series. The author is a proponent of the so-called living Constitution and propounds eloquently that the American voters continually made their case for a collective We the People legitimization of power during what he calls the Second Reconstruction and the civil rights era. The struggle among all three branches of government has always decided this legitimacy, whether it was the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant in championing the Reconstruction Amendments, Franklin Roosevelt's court-packing to drive through his New Deal programs, or the Supreme Court's decision in the Jim Crow–shattering Brown v. Board of Education. In the case of the civil rights era, it took Lyndon Johnson's series of landmark statutes, passed through a liberal Congress, to institutionalize equality and amend the Constitution more powerfully than even the 24th Amendment (banning the poll tax) could. These statutes included the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Fair Housing Act of 1968. Yet it was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the bloody Selma march of 1965 that tipped Johnson's hand to bestow to American blacks "the full blessings of American life." The end of the dreaded poll tax and the unwavering support of President Richard Nixon for these same landmark statutes underscored the nation's egalitarian commitment. In the second and third parts of the book, Ackerman delves into the constitutional detail of these landmark statutes. Though occasionally overwhelming in the sheer volume of material, this is an erudite and passionately argued work.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674050297
  • Publisher: Harvard
  • Publication date: 3/3/2014
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 258,745
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Bruce Ackerman is Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale University.
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Customer Reviews

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