By Stanley Kutler
Barack Obama’s victory on Nov. 4 may have rung down the curtain on the Civil War, a war that did not end at Appomattox as the history books have it, but instead has raged and festered within American political and cultural life ever since. Victory has many fathers and mothers. Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, John Lewis, Viola Liuzzo, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner are just a few of the memorable people who labored to reverse the long tide of American racism. They are prominently and rightly remembered in the history books.
The 36th president of the United States seems strangely absent in the current celebrations. Perhaps Lyndon B. Johnson is not fondly remembered. When Bill Clinton ritualistically invoked his patron saints among his Democratic predecessors, he rarely mentioned LBJ.
Johnson today is best remembered for plunging the nation deeper into the quagmire of Vietnam. He pursued a war that deeply divided us at home and left an angry scar across the nation. But LBJ alone is not responsible for that war. Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy made the initial commitment. Johnson’s successor, Richard M. Nixon, willfully maintained the war for four more years, resulting in 25,000 more American deaths and untold hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese—despite his knowing for four years that we could not “win.”
Vietnam was a painful lesson for the limits of American power, but one brazenly brushed aside by George W. Bush and his neocon co-conspirators in 2003 as they went hunting for nonexistent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Sadly, the misinformed nation largely acquiesced, as it, too, had forgotten its history.
In domestic affairs, LBJ found his place. A longtime virtuoso for the give and take of the legislative process, he scored notable policy successes, many of which remain with us despite the promises of Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich to eradicate all memories of those achievements. But Johnson deserves our best memories for his contributions to reversing racism. Those triumphs provided the tools that certainly made Obama’s victory possible.
Johnson prodded, cajoled and pushed the Democratic majority in Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year. Yes, pushed, for that illusory Democratic majority included the likes of such staunch segregationists as Strom Thurmond, D-S.C., Richard Russell, D-Ga., and John Stennis, D-Miss., among other old-line Southern Democrats.
LBJ needed a coalition and left a rich legacy for “reaching across the aisle” and working in a bipartisan manner. The Republicans, far different from their successors of today, considerably enabled the great civil rights victories. Their leader, Sen. Everett Dirksen, R-Ill., like LBJ, was a connoisseur of congressional processes and politics. An icon of the Republicans’ conservative Midwest base, Dirksen was no stranger to the traditional practices of his party, especially its unwritten contract with its like-minded fellow-conservative Southern Democrats. Dirksen generally disdained principles but proudly included “flexibility” among his few. Like Johnson, he recognized the moment—“an idea whose time had come,” using Victor Hugo’s words that became a theme of the civil rights movement.
The black protests that began with college students sitting at a segregated North Carolina lunch counter ultimately had to find their expression in concrete achievements. After Birmingham, Ala., police unleashed their fire hoses and dogs on protesters, President Kennedy addressed the nation on what he called the moral question. Johnson knew it was more than that.
Kennedy’s request for legislation got mired in Southern obstructionism, but his successor quickly responded and made the cause his own in ways Kennedy never could. Johnson provided the necessary passion, skill and energy that eluded Kennedy. After suffering an eight-month-long filibuster, LBJ finally secured the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but a crucial voting rights section had been gutted, and blacks remained at the mercy of local customs and state officials who creatively found ways to deny them the right to vote.
In March 1965, the president addressed Congress, asking it to resume work on civil rights, but now to focus specifically on voting rights. His speech deserves to be better known. Unlike Kennedy’s “moral” plea, Johnson knew firsthand how exploitation explained the racial divide in America. Poverty, lack of education, lack of opportunity, lack of dignity—all resulted from the exploitation of one group by another. Johnson knew it from his own experience, as he said. In his speech, he promised several times, “We shall overcome.” With a style and cadence that became so familiar to us in 2008, Johnson added: “There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.”
After the voting rights bill passed, presidential aide Bill Moyers found LBJ rather downcast. “Why?” Moyers asked. “Because, Bill,” the president replied, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”1 It is true that Strom Thurmond, Newt Gingrich and the Southern Democrats who became Republicans indeed profited from the 1965 legislation.
Johnson was right, but only for a short run. Forty-odd years is not terribly long, given the eventual payoff in 2008. The Voting Rights Act broke down prevailing Southern laws and customs barring black voting, and soon black votes and officeholders rose dramatically in the South. But not until Obama’s run in 2008 did the black vote reach such incredibly high figures, both for registration and turnout.
Two weeks after his inauguration, President Obama will begin the celebration of the Abraham Lincoln bicentennial. By his example, he marked this year’s LBJ centennial in a very special way.
1 Robert Dallek, “Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President,” P. 170.
Stanley Kutler is the author of “The Wars of Watergate” and other writings.
Archive / White House Press Office / Cecil Stoughton
President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act as Martin Luther King Jr. and others look on. (enlarge)