Eliott C. McLaughlin
(CNN) — On the day the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy called Lyndon B. Johnson, urging the President to postpone his endorsement.
A stalwart of the civil rights movement, Kennedy worried signing the bill would make for a “rather difficult” July 4 weekend with “firecrackers going off anyway, with Negroes running all over the South, figuring that they took the day off that they’re going to go into every hotel and motel and every restaurant.”
Might the President wait until Monday? Kennedy queried.
“There’s no point in waiting,” Johnson responded. Not only would it “irritate a lot of people unnecessarily,” but also the Republicans — 27 of whom were integral to ending a filibuster and bringing the bill to the Senate floor for a vote — were planning to leave Washington after the signing.
“I think they’d say I was trying to take a little glory away from them on a bipartisan basis,” Johnson told Kennedy.
Johnson wanted to ensure the opposition got its due. It was politically convenient, of course, but it was also indicative of an environment that’s hard to imagine today: a Washington where lawmakers could disagree without a parade of polarizing polemics designed to serve a 24-hour news cycle rather than any constituency.
As the nation celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, many will hail Johnson as the unlikely hero, the consummate wheeler and dealer without whose cajoling the bill might never have passed.
And without the act, who knows what would be the fate of black enfranchisement? Not just voting, but a host of rights that are easily taken for granted today: sitting at a lunch counter, going to school, enjoying a movie or landing a job. The act addressed them all, while laying the groundwork for more rights and tougher enforcement in years to come.
Three ex-presidents and President Barack Obama will give speeches this week at Johnson’s presidential library, which aims to direct the legacy of its namesake more toward civil rights than to the Vietnam War that was Johnson’s undoing. The tagline for the LBJ Library’s Civil Rights Summit is “We Shall Overcome,” which Johnson co-opted from the civil rights movement during a 1965 speech.
Yet there are those who say the Civil Rights Act was the work of many players, of whom Johnson was only one, and that the bill was signed as political necessity in a nation weary of the marches, billy clubs, dogs, fire hoses, bombings — the hate — that came with segregation.
Man or myth?
There were observers at the time who felt the Civil Rights Act would be Johnson’s enduring legacy, while others foretold it would be his downfall. Both groups were wrong.
“Johnson may be remembered as the Vietnam War president, but in his mind his greatest legacy was his efforts to improve the lives of African-Americans,” Clay Risen, The New York Times’ opinion page co-editor and author of “The Bill of the Century,” once wrote for the Smithsonian.
“He had much to show for it: the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the War on Poverty, Head Start and more,” Risen wrote. “But as the 1960s wore on, he also saw himself in a race — against black militancy, against rising ghetto frustrations, against an increasingly conservative white electorate.”
Johnson spent a great deal of political capital to get the Civil Rights Act passed, those who knew him say. A dozen years in the House, another dozen in the Senate and almost three years as President John F. Kennedy’s vice president had afforded him ample capital to throw around.
“Johnson was probably the last president that had a controllable legislature,” said former Ambassador Andrew Young, one of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s top lieutenants in 1964. “He had lived and breathed and been through a thousand battles with these guys. There was almost nobody in the House or the Senate that he had not done a favor for.”
Not only did Johnson have the means, but he had the volition and demeanor to get it done, Young said.
“He was a big, lovable Texan, and he was very down to earth, very plain,” said the ex-ambassador and former congressman. “He understood that civil rights was a moral issue and that poverty was a moral issue in America, that it was just not right.”
Richard Goodwin, a speechwriter and adviser to Johnson who eventually broke with LBJ over the Vietnam War, said Johnson also used his considerable memory and physical stature to his advantage.
Not only was he 6-foot-4 and prone to penetrating personal space, even snatching wayward congressmen up by their lapels — what has been dubbed the “Johnson Treatment” — but Goodwin said he also kept “a card file in his head” on fellow lawmakers. He knew their backgrounds, their interests, their aspirations.
“He really knew people and knew their weaknesses and knew what they might want and what they didn’t want to happen, and he would use that all as bargaining chips,” Goodwin said.
His effectiveness using these tactics in passing the Civil Rights Act is debatable, however.
While Risen wrote in a New Republic article in February that Johnson’s portrayal as the master manipulator is “mostly myth,” Goodwin’s wife, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, says only Johnson had the connections to break the weekslong deadlock that held the bill up in the Senate.
In addition to maintaining a rapport with civil rights leaders, Johnson would call up congressmen at all hours, even waking them up, Kearns Goodwin said. If he couldn’t reach a congressman, Johnson would call the congressman’s wife, she said.
“No one else had that energy, that ability, that knowledge, all those relationships to call upon,” she said.
Risen disagrees. He argued in his New Republic article that Johnson was “at best a supporting player” in the bill’s passage and that the yeoman’s work was done by an array of congressmen, staffers, Justice Department officials and civil rights leaders, “who built immense moral momentum behind the bill.”
“Johnson had many legislative achievements during his presidency, but on the Civil Rights Act, he was largely ignored by his Senate allies and rebuffed by the recipients of his bear-hugging affection,” Risen wrote.
A brief history
Not known as a civil rights advocate while serving as a U.S. senator from Texas, Johnson took up President Kennedy’s cause after his predecessor’s assassination.
Kennedy’s bill combined elements of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which guaranteed equal treatment for blacks in “public accommodations” before the Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional, and the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which guaranteed voting rights but had to be revisited several times because it was tricky to enforce.
It would become part of Johnson’s “Great Society” legislation, and it drew bipartisan support and opposition. For 60 working days in 1964, including seven Saturdays, it consumed the Senate. A filibuster led by Johnson’s fellow Democrat, Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, began March 30.
Late on June 9, Sen. Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, began a speech that carried on until the next morning. It came to a close because Democratic Whip Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s future vice president, had corralled the votes needed to end Byrd’s 14-hour address.
Key to ending the filibuster were votes wrangled by Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, who paraphrased poet Victor Hugo while touting the bill on the Senate floor.
“Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come,” he said. “The time has come for equality of opportunity in sharing in government, in education, and in employment. It will not be stayed or denied. It is here.”
Seventy-one senators voted to end the filibuster, including California’s Clair Engle, who was terminally ill. Unable to speak because of a brain tumor, he pointed to his “eye” to signify which way he was voting.
The bill passed the Senate 73-27 and the House 289-126, on the backs of Northern Democrats and Republicans.
Their Southern counterparts roundly rejected it, and the Democrats among them showed their disdain for its passage in the coming months.
Russell led a boycott of the party’s National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, that year. Other Southern Democrats showed up as rabble-rousers.
Charles Pickering, a future federal judge who publicly denounced the Ku Klux Klan and worked with the FBI to bring its violent reign to an end, jumped the Democratic ship after the convention because the party seated civil rights activists with the all-white Mississippi delegation.
An unlikely hero?
In his speech announcing passage of the Civil Rights Act, Johnson alternated between stern and avuncular, subtly smiling as he reminded the nation of the principles on which it was founded, then chiding like a schoolmaster when he recalled the ways those principles were forgotten.
“We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty. Yet millions are deprived of those blessings — not because of their own failures, but because of the color of their skin,” he said.
As if soothing a worried patient, he told America the act would not restrict anyone’s freedom or provide special treatment to any citizen.
“It does say that there are those who are equal before God shall now also be equal in the polling booths, in the classrooms, in the factories,” he said.
A word cloud of the speech provided by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, which specializes in presidential history, shows the most commonly used words in the speech: American, freedom, law, man, our, rights and will.
Much as he knew what to say to convince a senator to cast his vote a certain way, Johnson knew which words might ease the concerns of an on-edge American public.
That isn’t to say he was insincere. Those who knew Johnson are certain his motives were heartfelt.
“It had to be sincere,” said Young, “because it would have been too easy for him to get out of it.”
There are tapes and tales of Johnson using the N-word, but Young wrote it off as the vernacular of the times. It spurred little concern among civil rights activists. Johnson was always respectful and “had a great deal of admiration” for King, Young said.
“You see, he had been poor, and that was the difference between Kennedy and Johnson,” Young said. “Kennedy was academically committed to civil rights. Johnson had lived it and felt guilty enough and had enough pain about his own hardship and poverty as a Texas schoolteacher.”
According to his biography, a destitute Johnson had to borrow $75 in 1927 to attend Southwest Texas State Teachers College in San Marcos. He worked as a janitor and dropped out for a year to be a principal and teacher at the Wellhausen School, which catered to Mexican-American children in Cotulla, Texas.
“I guess he always felt like the underdog himself, and when he saw that happening to other people, he reacted against it,” Goodwin, the former adviser, said. “I didn’t have any doubt when it came to civil rights and his sincerity. He had made up his mind that he was going to liberate the blacks, and he did it.”
Zephyr Wright, the Johnson family cook whom LBJ sometimes invoked when arguing that blacks should be allowed to enjoy public services, also felt he was sincere. In a 1974 interview, she recalled how Johnson was always excited when he passed a civil rights bill, and he’d be disappointed if Wright hadn’t read about it.
The Johnsons also insisted on taking Wright with them on trips across the South, dangerous business in those days, and they’d challenge establishments’ “whites only” policies.
Once on a trip through Memphis, Tennessee, Johnson’s wife, Lady Bird, asked at a hotel desk if there were any vacancies, Wright said.
“Yes, we have a place for you,” the woman at the desk replied.
“Well, I have these two other people,” the first lady responded.
“No. We work ’em, but we don’t sleep ’em,” came the reply.
“That’s a nasty way to be,” Lady Bird Johnson said, and the three left to find another hotel.
“Mrs. Johnson always tried to find someplace nice to eat and someplace nice to sleep,” Wright said.
No matter your opinion on race relations today, they have evolved considerably since 1964. An establishment denying someone a place to eat or sleep based on skin color could quickly find itself trending on Twitter, or the subject of many a news website’s main page.
Despite this improved climate, many political players doubt today’s Congress and White House could pass the Civil Rights Act. While Johnson urged the nation to “close the springs of racial poison,” present-day American politics often seem to run on poison.
“We’re supposed to discuss and debate and do things like that. You’ll find none of that,” said Rep. John Dingell, D-Michigan. “Look at C-SPAN, and look to see who they’re talking to. They’re up there looking at the cameras. They’re not talking to each other.”
Dingell, who has been in Congress since 1955 and backed the Civil Rights Act, said legislators make prepared statements with no regard for what was said previously or what amendment is pending.
Where the political climate of 1964 allowed Johnson and Russell to sit down for a cordial meal, even when Russell was leading the filibuster against the Civil Rights Act, today’s politics are too ugly to foster such relationships, said Kearns Goodwin, the biographer.
“It is incomprehensible to think of the Republicans and Democrats sitting down and having breakfast together,” she said. “First of all, they leave Washington to come home and raise money for those idiotically escalating campaign funds that they need.
“Secondly, television rewards people on the extremes, so they like to have the counterpoint when someone is interviewed so that the compromising person that is in the middle is not as interesting.”
Johnson, Kearns Goodwin said, was able to persuade Dirksen, the minority leader, to support the Civil Rights Act not only because he could provide political favors, “but he knew him because he spent weekends with him; they played poker together.”
“There wasn’t this meanness toward each other,” she said.
Or as Young put it, “People disagreed vehemently, but they were not disagreeable. They still remained friends and looked for a common ground.”
Dingell said today’s political climate defies the ideas the country was based on.
“Go read the Constitution, how they expected there to be vigorous and intelligent debate. There’s not vigorous and intelligent debate, just all this screaming and talking heads on televisions, and the result is exactly what the Founding Fathers didn’t want,” he said.
The congressman said he hopes the 50th anniversary celebration provides the nation an opportunity to look at how we govern ourselves today.
But The New York Times’ Risen warns that pinning such a historic achievement on the machinations of one man, rather than the many who facilitated the bill’s passage, could result in a lesson lost.
“Reducing a law’s history to the actions of a single person obscures the complexities and compromises that define it and its lessons for future lawmakers,” Risen wrote for the New Republic.
“This year we will hear a lot about the Civil Rights Act as one of Johnson’s signature accomplishments. If we leave it at that, we will miss much of what the bill’s story has to tell us — about how to achieve bipartisan cooperation, about the role of social activism in policymaking, and about the limits of the executive branch when it comes to crafting landmark legislation.”