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LBJ and Civil Rights


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Earlier in a different thread John had suggested that perhaps a liberal had blackmailed Johnson into supporting civil rights. I believe the suggestion was even made that perhaps the person who initiated the blackmail had evidence linking LBJ to the assassination.

As you must all know, not only do I believe that LBJ was a crook, I believed that in 1964. Although Johnson clearly benefited from the assassination (not only did it make him president it may very well have prevented his forced resignation and perhaps even a criminal conviction) and had committed criminal transactions, I do not believe it likely that he planned the assassination, for reasons that I am sure have been adequately stated elsewhere.

I recently read a passage from a Kennedy biography that indicates that not only did LBJ's support for civil rights predate the assassination, he also pressed JFK to make his famous televised civil rights speech.

The book is titled "JOHN F. KENNEDY: THE PRESIDENTIAL PORTFOLIO; History As Told Through the Collection of the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum", written by Charles Kenney. Certainly a "popular" biography but nevertheless a good one (published in 2000 by PublicAffairs). Here is the passage:

In early June [1963] there came a critical moment. The president asked Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who had been the leader of the Senate for years, whether he had any advice about getting a civil rights bill through Congress. Johnson launched into an impassioned plea for Kennedy to make a major public statement on the issue, to make a dramatic stand. Kennedy listened, then asked Johnson to make the same plea to Sorenson. Johnson did so on June 10. He told Sorenson that "the Negroes are tired of this patient stuff and tired of this piecemeal stuff and what they want more than anything else is not an executive order or legislation, they want a moral commitment that he's behind them." Johnson was fiery about the issue.

"I want to pull out the cannon!" Johnson exclaimed to Sorenson. "The president is the cannon. You let him be on all the TV networks just speaking from his conscience... I know the risks are great and it might cost us the South, but those sorts of states might be lost anyway. . . He ought to almost make a bigot out of nearly anybody that's against us, a high lofty appeal."

The book goes on to state that originally JFK was reluctant to make the televised speech on civil rights that LBJ had suggested, but RFK encouraged him and JFK did make the speech on June 11, 1963.

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Guest Stephen Turner

Hello Tim.

Johnson of course famously declared "This will cost us the South for 50 years"

Do you feel he was being a bit, CONSERVATIVE ;)

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Johnson may have been a crook--I firmly believe it--but politically, he was a pragmatist above all else. Brown vs. Board of Education was, in 1963, already nine years old; yet racial discrimination and segregation still prevailed, not merely in the "deep South," but in cities in "border states" as well...cities like Louisville, Kentucky, where de facto segregation still exists though not necessaily due to discrimination any more. In Louisville, the home of three-time world heavyweight boxing champion Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, it really wasn't until after the riots over court-ordered busing in 1975 that a SERIOUS dialogue between the races began. Having grown up in the shadow of Louisville, I witnessed the struggles there, so I can speak of them confidently.

My point about LBJ is that, as the pragmatic politician, he could feel the winds of change blowing directly in his face. He instinctively knew that the door had been opened toward equality, but it had been opened only a crack. He knew that unless the door was opened further a mighty explosion might occur, from the building rage and resentment that black Americans had from being told time and again, "Not yet" or "Not too much, nor too fast". In fact, the riots seen in America in the mid-1960's--Watts, Detroit, and countless others--were hinted at by Johnson when he spoke of "this patient stuff...this piecemeal stuff.." While it might have cost the party in the short term, Johnson also had to be thinking about the administration's legacy, and how history would remember them.

With the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it became Johnson's legacy...and Lyndon Johnson, the old-school, dirty, crooked politician that he was, had a permanent, indelible halo for his presidential portrait, no matter what else came back to haunt him. No matter that Johnson was corrupt; his administration has a hallowed place in history for its contributions to equality and civil rights. And I believe that Johnson wanted the credit for prodding JFK in that direction, even if Kennedy was somewhat inclined that way himself. Not exactly atonment for Johnson's sins, mind you, but something positive for the scales of justice to weigh.

Edited by Mark Knight
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The trouble with LBJ was that on the big issues he couldn't persuade the country to get behind him. On Vietnam, the country went with it tentatively then turned against it. On civil rights, the South were against it from the start and 1968 was America's worst year for racial unrest. He also presided over a relentless escalation of the Cold War. That's the third strike, isn't it?

LBJ was a great backroom dealer and Congressional arm twister, navigating legislation through the Senate being his long suit. There the credit stops. He was no statesman. Where was his powerful oratory and his memorable speeches? I believe he modelled himself on FDR but didn't have the intuition to realise that the 30's and 40's were different from the 60's. JFK had more statesmanship in his big toe than LBJ ever had. Just my opinion of course.

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I thought Ron's post was an excellent analysis. I have read before that Johnson recognized that the South would have to accept equality of the races if it wanted to advance economically and his push to pass civil rights legislation was motivated by at least three factors: 1) a sincere desire to help the black race because he himself had grown up poor; 2) a desire to help the South; and 3) a desire to secure his place in history--equality for the races was part of his "Great Society".

I also agree with Ron that Johnson was indeed corrupt but the credit that is due him for the passage of the civil rights legislation is something fot which he deserves credit. Of course, Johnson's legacy in history will always be clouded by the failure of his policies re the Vietnam War.

Mark's statement that JFK had more statesmanship in his big toe than LBJ had (in his big toe?) is wrong, at least as far as the important issue of civil rights. JFK had to be prodded by RFK to follow LBJ's advise to give a televised civil rights speech and, as is well known, he refused to attend the march on Washington but only when it was a success did he invite the leaders to the WH. With respect to the issue of civil rights in the sixties, the term "profiles in courage" fits LBJ; not JFK. That being said, it must be noted that one reason, and an important one, that LBJ was able to secure passage of the civil rights legislation was the assassination of JFK and the reaction it engendered.

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I thought Ron's post was an excellent analysis...

I must have missed Ron's post.  Was it deleted?

...That being said, it must be noted that one reason, and an important one, that LBJ was able to secure passage of the civil rights legislation was the assassination of JFK and the reaction it engendered.

In the wake of the JFK assassination, LBJ got unprecedented congressional cooperation. Had there not been an assassination, JFK's tax-cut legislation, as well as Johnson's social programs, probably would have languished, victims of the filibustering skills of senators like Everett M. Dirksen [whom LBJ phoned to plead for his cooperation on the civil rights legislation].

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The trouble with LBJ was that on the big issues he couldn't persuade the country to get behind him. On Vietnam, the country went with it tentatively then turned against it. On civil rights, the South were against it from the start and 1968 was America's worst year for racial unrest. He also presided over a relentless escalation of the Cold War. That's the third strike, isn't it?

LBJ was a great backroom dealer and Congressional arm twister, navigating legislation through the Senate being his long suit. There the credit stops. He was no statesman. Where was his powerful oratory and his memorable speeches? I believe he modelled himself on FDR but didn't have the intuition to realise that the 30's and 40's were different from the 60's. JFK had more statesmanship in his big toe than LBJ ever had. Just my opinion of course.

In order to get his legislation passed, LBJ didn't need to sell the country; he merely needed to sell the Congress...which he did; that was his best skill.

I don't argue, either that LBJ was a statesman; you can put a pig in a tuxedo, and he's still a pig...and you can put LBJ into the presidency, and he's still...well, you get the idea. But I'm beginning to believe that LBJ thought that, after the Bobby Baker scandal and the other messes that were bubbling just below the surface that had his fingerprints all over them, he needed to have his name associated with something that was more right than it was political, so that the judgement of history, of his legacy, would include SOMETHING positive. It is an innate desire of all men to be remembered for something; and to a career politician like Johnson, civil rights would be the ticket to raise his star, to distance him from all the hack political moves that had heretofore defined his career. No, that DOESN'T make him a statesman, by ANY means; it just makes him a shyster with a LITTLE bit of a conscience.

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Mark,

You make a good point (one I forgot about), namely, after JFK's assassination a wave of public support and goodwill swept over LBJ making it easier for him to implement his policies. This is a phenomenon commonly observed when nations experience a deep crisis--they rally behind the leader. However, my point about LBJ not having the necessary leadership skills to carry the country with him is still, IMO, valid. Great leaders not only steer legislation through, they also convince the people that it is in their best interests. They do this by appealing to the nation with forceful arguments and sound logic. Sometimes this means going over the heads of those journalists and broadcasters who see their role as dissemination of the political process, and speaking directly to the public. The only two Presidents in recent times to display this ability were, IMO, JFK and Ronald Reagan.

Despite the undeserving windfall of public goodwill bestowed on LBJ after the assassination, he was still unable to convince America that civil rights legislation and intervention in Vietnam were in the nation's best interests. He should have done much better with the former and, on the issue of Vietnam, a great leader would have seen that intervention was not in the interests of the nation and would have scrapped plans for a lengthy engagement (as JFK was planning to do). Unlike JFK, LBJ had no vision regarding America's place in the world, merely a desire to further enrich his cronies via lucrative contracts and beneficial policies, thereby ensuring their eternal gratitude (and his political survival). Unlike JFK, he didn't earn his wartime decoration by risking his life for his country--no, he earned his blue star (through political connections) for taking part in a bombing raid, as an observer, on a supply depot in New Guinea--he even took his camera! He had no vision, no courage, no sense of history and no intellectual credentials. A cheapjack hick, elevated by historical accident way beyond his ability.

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Lyndon Johnson was a 1930's "good-ol'-boy" politician trapped in the 1960's. He didn't understand television, apparently, or at least not well enough to mold a positive image of himself..and these days just about ANYONE can do that! And I agree with you that he failed to fully sell the country on Vietnam and civil rights.

But, nevertheless, civil rights ended up being his legacy. Probably for all the wrong reasons, if my reading of Johnson is correct...and DESPITE his lack of statesmanship, vision, and true leadership. It happened, on his watch, and with his backing...so it was his accomplishment to rightfully claim.

We can debate what LBJ SHOULD have done from here to eternity--and I honestly don't think we're on opposite sides of THAT issue--but it still won't detract from what was accomplished in regards to civil rights during his administration, and with his assent.

And THAT, I believe, was the topic of this thread.

Edited by Mark Knight
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Lyndon Johnson was a 1930's "good-ol'-boy" politician trapped in the 1960's.  He didn't understand television, apparently, or at least not well enough to mold a positive image of himself..and these days just about ANYONE can do that!  And I agree with you that he failed to fully sell the country on Vietnam and civil rights.

But, nevertheless, civil rights ended up being his legacy.  Probably for all the wrong reasons, if my reading of Johnson is correct...and DESPITE his lack of statesmanship, vision, and true leadership.  It happened, on his watch, and with his backing...so it was his accomplishment to rightfully claim.

We can debate what LBJ SHOULD have done from here to eternity--and I honestly don't think we're on opposite sides of THAT issue--but it still won't detract from what was accomplished in regards to civil rights during his administration, and with his assent.

And THAT, I believe, was the topic of this thread.

Yes, I'll agree LBJ was responsible for civil rights legislation although I believe JFK would had done the same after '64.

The topic of the thread is "LBJ and civil rights--give the man his due". The second half of the title is open to interpretation and that's what I was doing--giving the man his due.

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