No president has really done very much for the American Negro, though the past two presidents have received much undeserved credit for helping us. This credit has accrued to Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy only because it was during their administrations that Negroes began doing more for themselves. Kennedy didn't voluntarily submit a civil rights bill, nor did Lyndon Johnson. In fact, both told us at one time that such legislation was impossible. President Johnson did respond realistically to the signs of the times and used his skills as a legislator to get bills through Congress that other men might not have gotten through. I must point out, in all honesty, however, that President Johnson has not been nearly so diligent in implementing the bills he has helped shepherd through Congress.
Of the ten titles of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, probably only the one concerning public accomodations -- the most bitterly contested section -- has been meaningfully enforced and implemented. Most of the other sections have been deliberately ignored.
I'm sure that most whites felt that with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, all race problems were automatically solved. Because most white people are so far removed from the life of the average Negro, there has been little to challenge this assumption. Yet Negroes continue to live with racism every day.
--Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope, 1969
As many obstructionists have said smugly, You can't eradicate racism (or male chauvinism or homophobia) by passing laws against it. That's true, though once laws have been passed the same obstructionists will say: Okay, game over, you've got equality, now go home and shut up. Social movements also may try to bring about change by extra-legal means: picketing, boycotts, argumentation, and just plain getting up in the face of bigots who put their bigotry out on the street for everyone to see. It's not surprising that Sullivan and other "classical liberals", who prefer people to be isolated individuals, would object to organizing, solidarity, social pressure, advocacy, and other approaches. Not everyone has to join a movement, of course. But it's important to remember that you can't bring about social change by legislation alone; my difference with Sullivan and his ilk is that I don't think other methods are illegitimate.