LBJ and The Coming of Civil Rights:

one Tennesseean's thoughts

This article is ©1996 by Karen M. Davis.


In 1954 two very significant events occurred: Strom Thurmond was elected to the Senate from South Carolina, and the Supreme Court made its decision in Brown v. Board of Education. But these events did not happen in isolation, and in 1953 an equally important event took place: Lyndon Baines Johnson became the Senate Minority leader, and two years later, when control of the Senate returned to the Democrats, the Majority Leader.

It's my firm belief that as a country we're too quick to assume that all the racial ills we suffer stem directly from the south. Granted, many do, maybe most. But it should never be forgotten that many civil rights activists were from the south, and that much oppression took place in the north.

For every Strom Thurmond, that is, the south produces a Lyndon Johnson. And for all the screaming, kicking, and fighting that took place, it was Johnson, a born-and-bred Southerner, who brought civil rights to the courtrooms and schoolrooms and voting halls of America.

The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision reversed the pernicious 1896 "separate but equal" ruling, holding that the very notion was a denial of equal rights. The court directed that desegregated educational facilities be furnished "with all deliberate speed."

However, desegration was resisted, mainly in the south, but all over the country. Most American blacks lived then in northern cities, where segregated schooling, though not the law, was de facto the law due to segregated neighborhoods and school districts. The invocation of "deliberate speed" meant that, in practice, esegregation would take years to accomplish, whether fought county by county in federal courts strangely unwilling to challenge things on a larger scale, or stalled out in bussing disputes and "neighborhood preservation" circles.

Into that struggle stepped an unlikely combatant: a Texan named Lyndon Baines Johnson.

In 1954 Strom Thurmond masterminded the so-called "Sounthern Manifesto", more formally entitled "Declaration of Constitutional Principles". The Manifesto argued, essentially, that the Civil Rights actions ordered by the Supreme Court were unconstitutional and part of a communist-inspired subversion of America. Only three southern senators refused to sign the Manifesto: Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, long regarded as a maverick by Deep South senators; Albert Gore, Sr. also of Tennessee, who said the Manifesto was "a dangerous, deceptive propaganda move which encouraged Southerners to defy the government and disobey its laws"; and Lyndon Johnson.

Some see Johnson's refusal to sign as a political move to ensure his continued good standing in the Party; they cite his explanations to Texas and other media that, as Minority Leader, he had to be aloof from sectional squabbles and that he believed in upholding the law of the land, as proof that he was not a true civil rights advocate. But others, myself included, believe that LBJ burned to set right the wrongs his eyes were becoming opened to, and that this refusal to sign the Manifesto was the first step in a long and glorious journey.

His doubters point to the watering down of the Eisenhower administration's 1957 civil rights bill as more proof that LBJ was at best lukewarm on the subject. But it should be noted that, even in its weakened state, that bill was the first federal civil rights law since the Reconstruction period. It didn't do much, only called for the establishment of a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and authorized the U.S. attorney general to enforce voting rights. But even that little was too much for many, and Strom Thurmond set what was then the record filibuster (24 hours, 18 minutes) in speaking against it. Had it been much stronger, it might not have passed at all. And it only passed because Johnson forced the Senate into round-the-clock session to defeat the filibuster threat.

Many adages come to mind: The journey of a thousand miles which egins with a single step; walking before running; foundations before walls .... In short, rather than castigating LBJ for helping to weaken the 1957 bill, we should thank him for getting us started.In 1960 this legislation was strengthened, and in 1964 a more sweeping civil rights bill outlawed racial discrimination in public accommodations and by employers, unions, and voting registrars. It was LBJ that pushed that bill through the Congress, and it was perhaps true, as he later said, that only a southerner could have done it. When he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Bill into law, there was genuine emotion in his voice as he explained its meaning:

"We believe that all men are created equal, yet many are denied equal treatment. We believe that all men have certain unalienable rights, yet many Americans do not enjoy those rights. We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty, yet millions are being deprived of those blessings, not because of their own failures, but because of the color of the skin."
In Johnson's own presidency, civil rights legislation was an integral part of the Great Society, including Voting Rights, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the creation of HUD, urban redevelopment, and an open-housing civil rights bill.

And in 1967 came one of LBJ's most outstanding legacies: 'the right man at the right time in the right place, the right thing to do' to paraphrase only slightly LBJ's statement to the press upon his nomination of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Thurgood Marshall was an enduring force for civil rights on the Supreme Court, outlasting James Kilpatrick's gloomy prediction of " the next ten years at least" by fourteen years. Justice Marshall rated Johnson as "the greatest civil rights president we ever had."

In 1965 Lyndon Johnson gave a commencement address at Howard University. He said there what he had long believed:

"You do not take a person who for years has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race, then say, you're free to compete with all the others.... Much of the Negro community is buried under a blanket of history and circumstance. It is not a lasting solution to lift just one corner of the blanket."


Here's a postscript, somewhat depressing, from a September 2004 article entitled "Understanding the Christian Roots of My Political Depression" by John Shelby Spong, Episcopal Bishop:
David Halberstam, in his book on the Civil Rights movement entitled "The Children", quotes Lyndon Johnson talking with Bill Moyers right after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had passed by large margins in the Congress of the United States. This positive vote followed the arousing of the public's consciousness by the Abu Ghraib-like use of dogs and fire hoses on black citizens in Alabama. Klan groups, under the direct protection of Southern State Troopers and local police, had also attacked blacks with baseball bats and lead pipes in public places, which had been seen on national television. Moyers expected to find President Johnson jubilant over this legislative victory. Instead he found the President strangely silent. When Moyers enquired as to the reason, Johnson said rather prophetically, "Bill, I've just handed the South to the Republicans for fifty years, certainly for the rest of our life times."
Look here for a recent assessment by Harold Meyerson of the Washington Post, A Tale of Two Texans
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