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LBJ and Civil Rights


Tim Gratz
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You all know that I am a staunch conservative. History has proven Ronald Reagan was right: he was instrumental in ending the Cold War without a shot being fired against the Russians. And I think history will prove President Bush was right as well (look at the Iraqui elections and the new peace initiatives in the Middle East; personal liberty and political and religious freedom are the hope of the future and a democratic, tolerant regime in Iraq cannot but help improve the chances of peace in the Mideast).

All that being said, I can criticize my party (the party of Abraham Lincoln, after all) for not having been right on the civil rights issue in recent history. (But I predict Condoleeza Rice will be the first black president, as well as the first female president.)

In that regard, I want to note Lyndon Johnson's remarkable record on civil rights.

The following are excerpts from the February 6, 2005 New York Times review (by Professor Samuel Freedman of Columbia University) of a new book by Nick Kotz titled "Judgment Days: How They Overcame."

Less than a week before his inauguration to a full term as an elected president, Lyndon Baines Johnson placed a telephone call from the Oval Office to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The ostensible agenda was to wish King a happy 36th birthday, and even at that superficial level the gesture marked the distance Johnson had traveled from his predecessor. Held at a cautious, wary distance during John F. Kennedy's thousand days, King was not even invited to the slain president's funeral, watching the caisson instead from a Washington curb.

By this time in January 1965, Johnson had already driven through Congress the most important civil rights legislation since emancipation. Now, he told King, their work was only beginning. When Congress reconvened, he intended to introduce a voting rights bill, one that would bring justice to the segregated South, creating a vast new pool of loyal Democratic voters even as it would surely alienate multitudes of whites. ''The president and the civil rights leader -- the politician and the preacher -- were bouncing ideas off each other like two old allies in a campaign strategy huddle, excited about achieving their dreams for a more just society,'' Nick Kotz writes in his narrative history of the two men's alliance. ''As always,'' he continues, ''Johnson did most of the talking. As always, King was polite and deferential to the new president. But there was a shared sense of new possibilities, new opportunities for cooperation to bring about historic change.'' This carefully etched scene serves complementary purposes. It captures Johnson and King at the apex of their collaboration, a snapshot of an optimistic peak that only magnifies the friction and tragedy to come. And it typifies the meticulous research, restrained prose and deep appreciation of motivation and character that make ''Judgment Day'' a stirring, indeed heartbreaking, book.

. . .

Though constructed as a ''two-hander,'' to use a term of art from the theater, ''Judgment Day'' achieves its greatest impact in its revisionist portrait of Lyndon Johnson. He emerges in Kotz's account as a man of moral courage and political acumen, at his zenith the equal of Roosevelt during the Depression and Churchill during World War II. In public speeches and private conversations, Kotz's Johnson speaks with unfeigned passion and disregard for partisan consequences; he pursues civil rights laws that he knows perfectly well will deliver the South to the Republican Party. Even as he indulged in racist epithets, even as he disapproved of King's style of direct action, even as he fielded J. Edgar Hoover's surveillance reports and bigoted speculation about King's political and sexual activities, Johnson persisted in speaking intolerable truth to his fellow white Southerners, at the same time preaching that the truth would set them free.

. . .

''It is difficult to fight for freedom,'' Johnson declared in a radio address after signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. ''But I also know how difficult it can be to bend long years of habit and custom to grant it. There is no room for injustice anywhere in the American mansion. But there is always room for understanding those who see the old ways crumbling. And to them today I say simply this: It must come. It is right that it should come. And when it has, you will find that a burden has been lifted from your shoulders, too. It is not just a question of guilt, although there is that. It is that men cannot live with a lie and not be stained by it.''

To such examples of the public Johnson, Kotz adds equally forceful scenes of the private Johnson. After the first civil rights march in Selma, Ala., ended in a brutal assault by police and state troopers, the president summoned Gov. George Wallace to the White House. Recognizing that federalizing Alabama troops would generate even fiercer backlash and potentially greater violence, he needed to persuade Wallace to ask for the assistance. Reminding Wallace that long before the governor had ridden segregation to power, he had been a populist, Johnson said: ''You came into office a liberal -- you spent all your life trying to do things for the poor. Now why are you working on this? Why are you off on this Negro thing? . . . What do you want left after you, when you die? Do you want a great big marble monument that reads 'George Wallace -- He Built?' Or do you want a little piece of pine board lying across that harsh caliche soil that reads, 'George Wallace -- He Hated.' ''

Link to the assassination issue? Well, if JFK was killed by Southern racists (which I doubt anyway) they sure did not get from LBJ what they expected!

Edited by Tim Gratz
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You all know that I am a staunch conservative.  History has proven Ronald Reagan was right: he was instrumental in ending the Cold War without a shot being fired against the Russians.  And I think history will prove President Bush was right as well (look at the Iraqui elections and the new peace initiatives in the Middle East; personal liberty and political and religious freedom are the hope of the future and a democratic, tolerant regime in Iraq cannot but help improve the chances of peace in the Mideast).

All that being said, I can criticize my party (the party of Abraham Lincoln, after all) for not having been right on the civil rights issue in recent history.  (But I predict Condoleeza Rice will be the first black president, as well as the first female president.)

In that regard, I want to note Lyndon Johnson's remarkable record on civil rights.

A study of LBJ’s up until he became president will reveal that he spent his political career either blocking or undermining civil rights legislation. That is why civil rights leaders were so angry when JFK selected him as his running-mate. LBJ’s racism was well-known. He upset his Northern friends such as Phil and Katharine Graham with his constant use of the “N” word. They found it particularly distasteful as he used it in front of his black staff.

Coming from Texas this was not surprising. As people like Robert Caro has pointed out, it was very difficult to get on in politics in Texas without being a racist (and a supporter of the oil industry). Ralph Yarborough managed it but it was unusual. He for example, was the only politician in Congress in the confederate states who consistently voted for civil rights legislation.

LBJ’s first speech in Congress was an attack on the proposed anti-lynching legislation (the Costigan-Wagner bill). This was under the orders of Richard Russell. This was a test as Russell was worried at this time that LBJ was a Roosevelt liberal.

Most importantly, LBJ’s main financial backers in Texas were dogmatic racists. This created problems for LBJ. He was told by his liberal friends that he would never get the Democratic Party nomination until he presented himself as someone who was acceptable to party activists in the North.

LBJ’s backers realized that this was causing him problems and that if they wanted their man in the White House he would have to take a more low profile on issues like race and trade union rights (the labour movement was also very hostile to LBJ and his financial backers). This did not mean he changed his minds on these issues. He just stopped making speeches about these subjects.

LBJ was a shrewd politician. He knew how the Deep South was seen by the outside world. He was aware that people from other countries saw America as deeply hypocritical. It went on about bringing democracy to the rest of the world yet denied these same rights to its own citizens. Eisenhower realised during his presidency that this was undermining his image as a statesman. Kennedy also got the message during his period as president.

The shift in attitudes towards civil rights was not really a moral issue. People like Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson did not change their views on this subject because they had spent time reading the Bible. They changed their views for economic and political reasons. It has always been this way. The Europeans did not bring an end to the Slave Trade because it was immoral (although some campaigners such as the Quakers definitely thought it was). It came to an end because of economic factors. Capitalists gradually accepted Adam Smith’s point (expressed in Wealth of Nations) that slavery was inefficient. That a free worker is more productive than a slave. That a capitalist would make higher profits from investing in a free market system.

This is also true of the reasons why the Apartheid system came to an end in South Africa. Capitalism and its political representatives were willing to turn a blind eye to what was going on in South Africa as long as it remained profitable. This helps to explain why people like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were so opposed to imposing economic sanctions on South Africa. It was communism that was immoral, not racism. However, sanctions were imposed, South African capitalists found it more and more difficult to make profits from exploiting its black workers.

Enlightened capitalists pointed out to them that giving up white majority rule would change all that. They would have given the example of those European countries that had democratic systems but were still able to obtain high profits from the labour of its citizens.

Until he became president LBJ was not in a position to act independently. He did not stop being a racist. However, he knew that the Deep South would have to change for political and economic reasons. LBJ and his friends had done what they could to by corruptly obtaining government contracts for companies based in the South. However, they were finding it difficult to attract investment. After all they were dealing with multinational companies who had to be careful not to be too closely associated with a system that appeared to be completely immoral by the rest of the world.

It was only a matter of time before Civil Rights legislation was passed in America. LBJ gets the credit for it. Just as Abraham Lincoln gets the credit for bringing slavery to an end in the United States. If Kennedy had lived he would have done it in his second term. If LBJ had not done it, Nixon would have had to. That’s the way history is. After all, did it really make any real difference to black people in America? True, they now have the right to vote people like George Bush into office. They can be sent into battle in Iraq knowing that they have had some sort of influence over the country’s foreign policy. But are black workers any less exploited than they were before the passing of the Civil Rights Act? Has their proportion of national wealth increased since the passing of the act? It was obviously a step in the right direction. But equality is still a long way off.

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John wrote:

True, they now have the right to vote people like George Bush into office. They can be sent into battle in Iraq knowing that they have had some sort of influence over the country’s foreign policy. But are black workers any less exploited than they were before the passing of the Civil Rights Act? Has their proportion of national wealth increased since the passing of the act? It was obviously a step in the right direction. But equality is still a long way off.

Comments:

True, they now have the right to vote people like George Bush into office.

And, hopefully, in 2008, Condoleeza Rice. But the number of black officeholders in Congress and state legislatures has greatly increased since 1965.

But are black workers any less exploited than they were before the passing of the Civil Rights Act?

The answer is surely yes.

Has their proportion of national wealth increased since the passing of the act?

I will try to verify the number but again it surely has.

It should also be remembered that one of the reasons LBJ was able to pass the historic civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965 was because of the death of President Kennedy.

Edited by Tim Gratz
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Oh brother, Reagan takes credit for tearing down the wall, again. Like the rest of the world had nothing to do with it. Reagan like LBJ was in right place at right time in history.

Listening to tapes, for example, between LBJ and Georgia Senator Russell one can see they made the civil rights thing go for political reasons, not moral conscience. King wouldn't "go away." LBJ begs his friends then signs the legislation while a dejected Bobby looks on. Watch that piece of film on this event. Very telling IMO.

Kennedys at the behest of the people, King and the black leaders who would not be told to "wait", pioneered this legislation. JFK watched his own man injured on the Freedom Ride by hateful cops and citizens. On a WH tv he saw with his staff that the unrest that would continue if his administration failed to act.

LBJ swooped up the credit

Sagely, King said after death of JFK: "I won't live to see my 40th birthday" and he died at 39. LBJ signed in the midst of the lowest point of 20th century history in this country. All he had to do at that point was hand out the pens.

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Chris, respectfully, LBJ DESERVES a lot of the credit.

Somewhat like the issue that it took a right-winger like Nixon to open up communications with China, perhaps it took a Southern president to obtain passage of the civil rights legislation.

But, as I noted before, it was also due to the martyrdom of JFK that the civil rights legislation was passed. But the book I referenced demonstrates that LBJ had a much closer working relationship with Martin Luther King, Jr. than did JFK. That is a simple undisputeable fact.

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Chris wrote:

"Oh brother, Reagan takes credit for tearing down the wall, again. Like the rest of the world had nothing to do with it. Reagan like LBJ was in right place at right time in history."

Chris, the primary credit for winning the Cold War belongs, IMO, to Ronald Reagan. The following book is approriate to that point: "RONALD REAGAN AND HIS QUEST TO ABOLISH NUCLEAR WEAPONS ", Paul Lettow, Random House (2005).

The book was reviewed in the February 13, 2005 New York Times Review of Books:

Republican presidents should be grateful for the scorn of liberal elites. After they leave office, their reputations have nowhere to go but up. This tendency first became apparent when historians transformed Dwight Eisenhower from a doddering golfer into a political wizard. Then it picked up steam as Richard Nixon went from war criminal to the last great liberal Republican president. Now it's threatening to reach epic proportions as Ronald Reagan, famously dismissed by the Washington insider Clark Clifford as ''an amiable dunce,'' comes in for a reappraisal.

Enter Paul Lettow. In ''Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons,'' Lettow offers revisionist history with a vengeance. Lettow is a young scholar who has drawn extensively on newly declassified documents and interviews with numerous Reagan administration officials. He seeks to show that far from being Silly Putty in the hands of his advisers, Reagan was a thoughtful leader who manipulated them. Throughout, Lettow maintains that Reagan championed the Strategic Defense Initiative, or ballistic missile defense program, not to ensure American military superiority but -- to the consternation of administration hawks -- in the utopian conviction that it would eventually make nuclear weapons obsolete.

The result is a provocative, informative and largely persuasive account. Like many members of his generation, Reagan was always horrified by nuclear weapons and the possibility of a nuclear war. According to Lettow, after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, Reagan, already a stalwart Hollywood liberal, became ''an early and ardent proponent of the abolition of atomic weapons and the internationalization of atomic energy''; his efforts on behalf of disarmament included reciting an anti-nuclear poem called ''Set Your Clock at U-235'' at a dinner for the Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley in 1945. Though Reagan shed most of his liberal views by the early 1950's, Lettow emphasizes that he would return, again and again, to the spirit of the Truman administration's ill-fated Baruch Plan, which had sought to create an international agency that would regulate nuclear energy in cooperation with the Soviet Union. To Reagan, nuclear weapons were not primarily a question of strategy, but of the most basic morality and decency.

How does this square with his calls for ramped-up military spending? Lettow's answer: Beginning in the 1960's, Reagan delivered numerous speeches arguing that by pursuing a vigorous competition with the Kremlin, the United States could drive the Soviet Union into bankruptcy, or at least prompt it to abandon a futile race with a superior power. At the same time, he became transfixed with the notion of a missile defense, particularly after he became governor of California and visited the physicist Edward Teller, an early exponent of a missile defense system, at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 1967.

As president, Reagan moved quickly to promote missile defense. Wary of bureaucratic opposition to this sweeping revision of American military doctrine, he kept almost all of his advisers in the dark, including Secretary of State George Shultz. And when he proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative in a televised speech in March 1983, they scrambled to reinterpret what he meant. Reagan, Lettow stresses, was always in charge: he ''ensured that he would be able to announce the initiative at the time and on the terms of his choosing by having the announcement prepared by a very small group under his supervision and with his own extensive involvement.''

In contrast to hawks like Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, Reagan was convinced that a military buildup should not be an end in itself. Lettow chronicles the heartburn Reagan's coterie experienced at his eagerness to reach arms-control agreements with the new, energetic Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. When Gen. Edward Rowny, a senior arms-control expert at the State Department, exhorted Reagan not to ''go soft,'' he responded: ''I have a dream. I have a dream of a world without nuclear weapons. I want our children and grandchildren particularly to be free of these weapons.'' Reagan's refusal to make any concessions on missile defense scuttled a potential agreement with Gorbachev at Reykjavik in 1987; otherwise, he might have signed away not only the American intercontinental ballistic missile force, but the entire American nuclear force -- an impetuous move that would have exposed the United States to nuclear blackmail from a variety of countries, including China.

As skillfully and exhaustively as Lettow chronicles internal administration disputes, he does not provide a context for Reagan's actions. He overlooks the fact that, like most leaders, Reagan was more often than not responding to events rather than dictating them. The nuclear freeze movement of the early 1980's, which catalyzed opposition to Reagan's military buildup and helped push him toward arms-control efforts, is barely mentioned. Nancy Reagan's efforts to push her husband to adopt a more emollient approach are passed over in silence. Nor does Lettow ponder the consequences of Reagan's embrace of missile defense, which, despite decades of research and the expenditure of billions of dollars, has proved just about a total bust. At most, as Lettow asserts but does not prove, Reagan's arms buildup forced the Soviet Union to cry uncle.

The truth is probably less tidy. Personalities most likely had as much to do with the expiration of the cold war as grand economic and strategic considerations. Reagan and Gorbachev, one might say, were quixotic and impulsive leaders who bypassed the hawks in their respective countries. Had Reagan been less of a utopian, he would never have reached out to Gorbachev, thereby helping to bring down the Soviet empire peacefully.

Still, Lettow's achievement is to show that both Reagan's detractors and votaries misread him. Just as it has been said that Marx was not a Marxist, so, it can be argued, Reagan was not a Reaganite. How long will it be before a young, ambitious historian announces a similar discovery about George W. Bush?

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Chris, the primary credit for winning the Cold War belongs, IMO, to Ronald Reagan.

In 1987 Mikhail Gorbachev met with Reagan and signed the Immediate Nuclear Forces (INF) abolition treaty. He also made it clear he would no longer interfere in the domestic policies of other countries in Eastern Europe and in 1989 announced the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan.

Aware that Gorbachev would not send in Soviet tanks there were demonstrations against communist governments throughout Eastern Europe. Over the next few months the communists were ousted from power in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, and East Germany.

All these events took place while Reagan was president and has therefore got the credit for the fall of communism in Eastern Europe (he was far less successful in destroying it in China and Cuba).

However, it seems to me that it was Gorbachev rather than Reagan who brought an end to the Cold War. This is why the fall of communism only took place in Eastern Europe rather than in other parts of the world.

So we don't move off the topic of LBJ and Civil Rights I have started a new thread on Ronald Reagan and the Cold War here:

http://educationforum.ipbhost.com/index.php?showtopic=3218

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