Katy Burns: Let us all praise Lyndon Baines Johnson! Really.
A number of years ago I had a drink with an old friend. We’d first met as very young reporters and hit it off immediately, sharing a fascination with politics as well as a great curiosity about people and life in general.
Our conversation turned to the subject of Lyndon Baines Johnson, by then well out of office, and I was going on about the then-discredited former president and “his” war, the Vietnam quagmire he’d marooned us in.
And Bob ever so gently stopped me. Despite the war, he reminded me, LBJ was a hero to a great number of black people, including him. As one of the few black reporters working in mainstream journalism in those days, he felt that Johnson’s legislative achievements – in particular the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – would open doors that had so long been shuttered to African-Americans in Jim Crow, segregated America. The former president deserved respect.
And I felt instantly ashamed. Bob was right. LBJ was a man of towering achievements.
And now, 50 years after the first of those achievements, the passage of the Civil Rights Act, his party and country are finally giving him his due respect.
Over the past week, four of our living presidents paid visits to the Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, to commemorate the passage of those civil rights and voting rights acts, both engineered by Johnson. It was appropriate that they were there. As Bill Clinton pointed out, he, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, the three Democrats, owed their presidencies to the passage of those acts that broke down so many barriers, especially those preventing black Americans from voting.
Before that time, de jure and de facto segregation in the Deep South restricted nearly every aspect of black people’s lives. They had lives apart, from birth through segregated schools to segregated burial grounds. Their choices of jobs and other opportunities as well as where they lived were dictated by white laws. Those born well after that time often don’t realize that segregation went way past separate drinking fountains and seats at the back of the bus.
Speaking on the Diane Rehm Show last week, Vanity Fair writer Todd Purdum, who’s written extensively about the era, said we “under-remember” how all-encompassing the restrictions of African-Americans’ lives were and how endangered those lives could be before passage (and enforcement) of the two historic acts.
Another Rehm guest, historian Isabel Wilkerson noted some of the indignities and restrictions. In South Carolina, for example, black people had to have government permission to work outside of agriculture and domestic service.
“Every single thing that you could imagine was segregated, staircases and parking spaces and telephone booths and bank teller lines and ambulances. It was actually against the law to play checkers together in Birmingham. That’s how extreme life was,” she said. “And then beyond that, (black) people could not vote.”
African-Americans not only could not vote. They could be – and were – murdered for trying even to register or to register others.
And that’s just the way life was. Until it wasn’t. Until extraordinarily brave people began to challenge the status quo, first on their own and then with others, both black and white, drawn to the cause. For the first time, too, the country’s mainstream press – printed and electronic – took notice.
As violence increased it was perhaps the latter, the television cameras focused on what was happening, that most directly communicated to the world the awful way of life that had been allowed to fester in parts of our nation.
We saw young freedom riders dragged from buses and thrown into jail and neatly dressed young students beaten for sitting in at segregated lunch counters. The violence escalated.
The shame of segregation sickened the nation as we watched trained attack dogs sicced on demonstrators, women and children blasted with high-pressure streams from fire hoses, and the savage beating of John Lewis as he marched with others across Selma, Alabama’s Pettus Bridge to demonstrate for voting rights.
It was in that atmosphere that the young new president, John F. Kennedy, proposed – after considerable goading by civil rights leaders – a revolutionary civil rights act. It was a hard move. The real strength of the Democratic Party then was in the Deep South, where long-entrenched Southern Democrats wielded the power in Congress – and controlled the votes Kennedy would need for reelection. But he ultimately realized he had no choice but to act.
Legislating against segregation was considered by many a hopeless task. And then, of course, Kennedy was assassinated.
The burden fell to Johnson, a man of the true South. And a man who had been derided by the sophisticated Kennedy and his circle (even as they needed the votes drawn by the Texan) as a rude, crude rube. That scorn was well known and deeply hurtful to Johnson, according to Johnson biographer Robert Caro.
Johnson knew that civil rights leaders were highly skeptical that he would do the right thing. And Johnson also well knew how passage of the civil rights bill would cripple his cherished Democratic Party.
But he nonetheless put his legendary knowledge of the Senate and his extraordinary legislative arm-twisting abilities to use. And he was invaluably assisted by moderate Republicans – yes, there were still some back then – who believed strongly in the principles of civil rights and who overcame the bitter defections of Southern Democrats.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, effectively ending Jim Crow laws, even as – the story goes – Johnson said immediately after, “We have lost the South for a generation.” And he was right. Yesterday’s Southern Democrats are today’s Southern Republicans. Try to imagine a politician today handing his base to another party to uphold a principle.
A year later, he pushed through the extraordinarily important Voting Rights Act. The one, sadly, recently greatly weakened by conservative Republican judges. Which is a tale for another day.
It’s worth noting, though, that the civil rights advocates back then were enormously aided by courageous white Southern federal judges, many of them Republicans, who regularly struck down unjust laws. And who as regularly found themselves under attack in their own communities, with crosses burning on their front lawns.
In addition to those two landmark bills, the indefatigable Johnson had other astounding victories with his “Great Society” legislation in his relatively short time in the presidency.
Medicare and Medicaid were enacted. The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for Humanities were both established. Head Start and food stamps were begun. Federal aid to education was expanded. And the Public Broadcasting Corporation was established.
Johnson signed the Immigration Act of 1965, substantially increasing immigration opportunities for non-Europeans.
And he appointed the Supreme Court’s first black justice, Thurgood Marshall.
Lyndon Baines Johnson’s presidency revolutionized America, significantly shaping the society as we now know it. It dramatically improved the lives of millions of Americans who lived in his day and who have been born since those days.
And as my friend Bob would note with approval, it’s long past time he got credit for it.
(Monitor columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)