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A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.
By Richard F. Keevey
This year –2014 — is historic. It is the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, which was signed into law July 2, 1964. Using bulling, badgering and moral conviction, President Lyndon Johnson succeeded where others only feigned attempts to address an issue that confronted our nation for years — the passage of the first civil-rights legislation since Reconstruction.
The year 1864 — 150 years ago — is equally historic, but tragic. A vice president was elected who five months later would succeed the Great Emancipator, and who set back freedom for the emancipated slaves for a century.
This irony does not escape a reader of history — two men named Johnson succeeding two assassinated presidents. Each assassinated president associated with civil rights –one fought a Civil War, the other struggled with solutions. Two vice presidents – one sabotaged the efforts of Reconstruction – and one accomplished what many said was the impossible.
Reconstruction promised equality and healing after the Civil War. According to Doug Egerton’s, The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era, white southerners were prepared to accept “whatever terms… the North saw fit to impose.” But, Andrew Johnson reneged on the goals of Lincoln and allowed some angry southerners to reduce blacks to a state of life that was slavery by another name. Few question that Johnson was racist, inflexible and lacked leadership qualities of his predecessor. It proved fatal to freedom.
Despite efforts by churchmen, ex-slaves, war veterans, educators and even ex-Confederate generals such as James Longstreet, Robert E. Lee’s senior corps commander, who embraced racial reform after the war, presidential leadership was non-existent. Instead, violence was supported and the ultimate emergence of vigilante groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.
Another curious fact – Andrew Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 only to be overridden by Congress.
More irony. No doubt, the tribulations of the emancipated slave can in large measure be traced to what arguably was Lincoln’s worst decision — dropping from the 1864 election ticket his capable vice president, Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, for Andrew Johnson of Tennessee to balance his ticket for fear of defeat. Almost 100 years later another presidential candidate balanced his ticket with another southerner named Johnson.
But, this Johnson was tempered by his upbringing and what he observed firsthand of how people of color were treated. Among the many stories recanted by John Caro in The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Book 1: The Path to Power, is Johnson’s first job as a teacher in a segregated Mexican school in Texas and his observation that these children would ultimately never advance because of their color and their poverty.
In his book, An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Todd Purdum discusses the challenges facing Lyndon Johnson when he assumed office – a stalled tax bill, an education bill without support, the stalled civil rights bill and the need to reassure Americans and American allies that the government was in good hands.
But, Caro in The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol. IV observes that despite advice that precious time should not be wasted on the lost cause of civil rights, quotes Johnson saying, “Well, what the hell is the presidency for ?” Later, showing the courageous leadership, called on Congress to act immediately on civil rights as “we have talked too long on the issue and we need to write the next chapter.”
We all know the subsequent stories of Johnson ‘overwhelming’ the segregationist and powerful Chairman of the Rules Committee who was holding the bill hostage. Johnson contacted a full range of businessmen, labor officials and civil right leaders ‘to find’ votes and told Dr. Martin Luther King ‘to work harder’ on his contacts. There was ‘horse-trading’ civil rights votes for projects in certain districts, cajoling old ‘southern’ friends, adjusting budget appropriations ‘as needed’ and famously getting senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois to deliver key Republican votes to overcome a filibuster of 75 days.
A quote by Senator Richard Russell, the South’s leader in the Senate from Georgia and an old friend of Johnson’s, sums up Johnson’s convictions: “’You know we could have beaten Kennedy on civil rights, but not Lyndon Johnson.” Another sobering quote from Russell is also worth remembering as the hard charging Johnson told his good friend to get out of his way or he would run him over — “You may do that, Lyndon, but it is going to cost you the south for a long time…” Indeed, clairvoyant on both accounts.
Another quote worth noting is Clay Risen’s observation in his The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act, that Johnson’s Civil Rights Act was the “single most important piece of legislation passed in 20th century America … and revolutionized American society…”
President Johnson has some real baggage (Vietnam) that will never allow him to be considered one of our great presidents, but without his leadership, civil rights might well have been delayed for decades. Leadership, savvy understanding of the political process, determination, calling in chips from reluctant friends and never forgetting the plight of the poor and disenfranchised from his youth all make Lyndon Johnson a president to be admired.
Author: Richard F. Keevey is a Senior Fellow at the Bloustein School of Planning & Policy at Rutgers University and visiting professor at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University. He was the OMB Director for two New Jersey governors and was appointed by the president as the deputy undersecretary of defense and then as chief financial officer for the department of housing and urban development.