The Bill of the Century
April 3, 2014
The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act
On the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, acclaimed author Clay Risen unfolds the historic battle to bring this revolutionary bill into law. The “idea whose time had come” would never have arrived without pressure from the streets and shrewd leadership in Congress. Yet contested as it was, we may look back on the Civil Rights Act as a shining example of how the American political system succeeded in grappling—however imperfectly–with one of the nation’s most divisive issues, moving our society a step forward.
The Brennan Center for Justice and the Brademas Center for the Study of Congress hosted a candid and engaging discussion about this critical turning point in American history.
Nicole Austin-Hillery, Brennan Center, Director and Counsel, Washington, D.C. Office; Moderator
Nicole Austin-Hillery is the first Director and Counsel of The Brennan Center’s Washington, D.C. office which she opened in March 2008. In her role, Ms. Austin-Hillery has overseen the growth and development of the Brennan Center’s advocacy and policy development work in Washington. Ms. Austin-Hillery is the organization’s chief liaison to Congress and the Administration. Her day to day work includes oversight of the Washington office operations and staff, serving as the chief advocate for the Brennan Center on a host of justice and democracy issues and coordinating coalition work with other civil rights, social justice and democracy organizations in Washington. Priority issue areas of Ms. Austin-Hillery’s portfolio include voting rights, racial and criminal justice advocacy and reform, indigent defense and felon enfranchisement. She also supports work in the Money and Politics issue area on a limited basis. Ms. Austin-Hillery provides both strategic and advocacy counsel ranging from legislative analysis to policy development. She serves as both a media spokesperson and frequent presenter on Brennan Center issues. Ms. Austin-Hillery has written opinion pieces for several publications including Roll Call, The Root, CNN.Com and BillMoyers.Com and has been a contributing writer to several advocacy publications. She has also submitted testimony for Congressional hearings and serves as a frequent speaker on a host of public interest issues.
Ms. Austin-Hillery has significant litigation experience having practiced with the law firm of Mehri & Skalet, PLLC as part of the firm's civil rights employment class action practice and as the George N. Lindsay Civil Rights Law Fellow at the national office of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington, D.C. where she focused on housing litigation and policy. She is a former Wasserstein Public Interest Fellow at Harvard Law School and currently serves on the Board of the Washington Bar Association, as an appointed member of the ABA Elections Law Committee and as co-chair of the ABA Criminal Justice Section’s Racial, Ethnic Justice & Diversity Committee. She is a former member of the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Committee and is a past-president of the Washington Council of Lawyers. Ms. Austin-Hillery is a graduate of the Howard University School of Law and Carnegie Mellon University.
Jeff Shesol, Founding Partner, West Wing Writers
Jeff Shesol is an author, historian, and an accidental speechwriter.
A founding partner of West Wing Writers, Shesol is the author of Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. The Supreme Court, which was selected as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 2010 and a Favorite Book of the Year by the New Yorker. The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin described Supreme Power as “stunning,” the kind of book that comes “once in a generation,” and the New York Times Book Review called it “riveting ... revealing ... an impressive and engaging book ... deeply researched and beautifully written.”
Shesol’s previous book, Mutual Contempt: Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy and the Feud that Defined a Decade, was also a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., called Mutual Contempt “the most gripping political book of recent years.” In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani described the book as “riveting .... Writing in sharp, fluent prose, Mr. Shesol does an authoritative job of giving us a vivid, almost novelistic sense of both of his protagonists, while at the same time situating their political stands within a historical context.”
In 1997, President Bill Clinton read Mutual Contempt and invited Shesol to become one of his speechwriters. During his three years at the White House, Shesol became the deputy chief speechwriter and a member of the senior staff. He played a leading role in drafting two State of the Union Addresses, the President’s 2000 Democratic National Convention speech, and the Farewell Address, among hundreds of other speeches. He covered a range of issues from economic policy to international development, technological innovation, and the arts. He also helped lead the President’s team of humor writers — a team that produced the acclaimed short film The Final Days.
A Rhodes Scholar, Jeff received his masters in history from Oxford University in 1993 and graduated from Brown University with highest honors in 1991. His comic strip, Thatch, was nationally syndicated from 1994-1998, when it appeared daily in more than 150 newspapers. He has taught presidential history at Princeton University, where he was the Anschutz Distinguished Fellow in American Studies, and at the University of California Washington Center. Shesol publishes widely under his own byline and provides frequent commentary on TV and radio. He lives in Washington, DC, with his wife, Rebecca — a civil rights attorney — and their two children.
Benjamin Zelenko, Senior Counsel, Lewis Baach LLP
Mr. Zelenko practices in the areas of copyright, defamation, corporate and labor law, and federal legislative and regulatory matters. He has represented clients in arbitration proceedings as well as federal and state court litigation. Most recently, he provided counseling, advice, and legislative representation to the London Insurance Market with respect to legislation designed to reform asbestos claims litigation. Mr. Zelenko is a respected counselor and advisor in government relations and has represented the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots and the Screen Actors Guild with respect to federal regulatory and legislative matters.
Mr. Zelenko represents authors in the negotiation of publishing contracts, litigation, and defamation counseling. He represents groups of authors and composers through his representation of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. He also represented professional athletes through his representation of the National Football League Players Association. Civil rights has been another area in which Mr. Zelenko has been an active participant. In that connection, he represented Japanese-Americans in the Supreme Court seeking reparations for constitutional deprivations during World War II.
Clay Risen, Author, The Bill of the Century; Editor, The New York Times
Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times op-ed section. Before that, he was an assistant editor at The New Republic and the founding managing editor of the noted quarterly Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. His recent freelance work has appeared in such journals as The Atlantic, Smithsonian, and The Washington Post. His first book, A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination was hailed as “compelling, original history” (Peniel Joseph) and “a crucial addition to civil rights history” (Publishers Weekly, starred review). He is also the author of American Whiskey, Bourbon and Rye: A Guide to the Nation’s Favorite Spirit.