restricted access 3. Experimenting with Civil Rights: The Politics of Ives-Quinn in New York State, 1941–1945
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3 Experimenting with Civil Rights: The Politics of Ives-Quinn in New York State, 1941–1945 The legislative chamber was filled with many more people than usual. Hundreds of observers sat in the audience, and scores of others stood stiffly in the back of the room, two to three rows deep. A civil rights bill outlawing job discrimination had been introduced a few weeks before, igniting one of the fiercest political controversies in recent memory. Critics of the measure had worked patiently for weeks to stage a public hearing, and earlier in the day they had taken advantage of the chance to testify, raising a litany of complaints. Now the time had come for their leader to make a definitive statement. He spoke carefully and expanded on the criticisms that his colleagues had made earlier. It was a strong performance , culminating in the most potent and resonant charge of the day. The law, he prophesied, would essentially impose “quotas” in hiring and promotion. Its passage would spell doom for the free market and meritocracy : “It means the end of honest competition, and the death knell of selection and advancement on the basis of talent.”1 It is easy to guess that such a scene must have unfolded on Capitol Hill, perhaps in the mid-1960s, when civil rights finally took center stage in national politics. It would seem even easier to guess the identity of the critics. Surely it was southern Democrats, uttering whatever artful rhetoric they thought would help agrarian elites preserve their flagging control over the political and economic life of the South. In fact, historians familiar with the period will correctly recall that Sen. Sam Ervin, a North Carolina Democrat, raised the charge of quotas in the 1963 congressional debate over Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, eventually compelling Hubert Humphrey, Minnesota’s Democratic senator, to deny explicitly that the law would require racial quotas or racial balancing. Neither guess, however, would be correct. The hearing had taken place years earlier , not in Washington, D.C., but in Albany, New York, where lawmakers had been maneuvering around a fair employment practice (FEP) bill for the better part of three weeks. There were obviously no southern Democrats in the packed New York State Assembly Chamber that day. Instead, the opposition was lead by Republican state senator Frederic Bontecou, ringleader of a rank-and-file revolt of GOP legislators, who rose to read E XP ER IM EN TI NG WI TH CI VI L R IG HT S 89 aloud a lengthy letter written by Robert Moses—park commissioner, descendant of German Jewish émigrés, and the fabled power broker of New York. At stake was the passage of the Ives-Quinn bill, which mandated equal treatment in public and private employment. In his letter Moses furnished opponents of Ives-Quinn with potent new language in which to frame their criticisms. Others before him had argued that the bill would lead to “proportionate” representation, but Moses was the first to overtly invoke the specter of “quotas.” It was February 20, 1945.2 With only a handful of exceptions, historians have largely overlooked the battle over Ives-Quinn, mainly because it passed by a bipartisan majority . What little is known comes from Richard N. Smith, Paul D. Moreno , and Martha Biondi, and their work hints at a hard-fought battle involving business groups, conservative columnist Westbrook Pegler, Republican lawmakers from upstate New York, and park commissioner Moses, who expressed fears of quotas. The persistent obscurity of IvesQuinn also stems partly from the lingering assumption that the postwar struggle over civil rights was simply a matter of shepherding reluctant southerners into a “liberal consensus” about civil rights that prevailed elsewhere in the country. What the wartime confrontation over FEP in New York State reveals, however, is that there was nothing easy or straightforward about extending civil rights to all Americans, even in the liberal, urban North.3 The wartime legislature in New York approved Ives-Quinn only after a massive grass-roots mobilization and a public endorsement by liberal Republican governor Thomas E. Dewey. The outcome represented a major triumph for Empire State liberals, who succeeded in fashioning a broad and effective bloc that included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), American Jewish Congress (AJC), Catholic Interracial Council (CIC), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and numerous unions affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Thurgood Marshall, Rabbi Stephen...


Subject Headings

  • Affirmative action programs -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Discrimination in employment -- Government policy -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • African Americans -- Employment -- History -- 20th century.
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