Earlier civil rights legislation was cautiously and narrowly drawn, designed primarily to anticipate and avoid Negro protest. It had a double and contradictory objective: to limit change and yet to muffle protest. The earlier legislation was conceived and debated under essentially calm conditions. The bill now pending in Congress is the child of a storm, the product of the most turbulent motion the nation has ever known in peacetime. —Martin Luther King, March 1964
Speaking to a rally in Austin in 1947, an ambitious young Senator Lyndon B. Johnson harshly attacked proposed civil rights measures, calling President Truman’s “civil rights program” “a farce and a sham.” Terming it merely an effort to impose a “police state” and violation of the principle of state’s rights, the Texas politician told his audience, that it was “the province of the state to run its own elections.” Not coincidentally, he opposed the anti-lynching bill since the “federal government has no more business enacting a law against one kind of murder than another.” He also opposed the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) contending that it violated the rights of employers.
Less than two decades later, however, President Lyndon Baines Johnson presided over perhaps the most important series of legislative measures in the history of the United States. Most remarkably, these were key measures in the advancement of the African-Americans. What accounts for Johnson’s transformation from a Texas politician typically hostile to black interests to one who maneuvered to have key civil rights legislation passed? Clearly, during yet another administration, the sheer power of African American freedom movement compelled an American president to meet certain basic demands in an effort to restore the peace.
As a politician Lyndon Baines Johnson had responded throughout his career to the exigencies demanded by local, regional, and, later, national political circumstances. Like Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Harry S. Truman, Johnson has received a large portion of the credit for initiating measures that have advanced the status of African-Americans nationally. In each instance, the conscious political goals of African- American leadership was matched by some degree of flexibility on the part of the president. Despite this, the pressure placed on the chief executives in each instance collectively conspired to limit the options for them to facilitate the formulation and execution of policies favoring black equality. In the case of President Johnson, the wave of civil rights measures followed an unprecedented offensive involving tens of thousands of African-Americans, and other supporters of civil rights in every region of the nation.
“When I was young, poverty was so common we didn't know it had a name,”–Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Lyndon Baines Johnson was born to Sam Ealy Johnson and Rebekah Baines August 27, 1908 near Austin in the Texas Hill Country. Lacking indoor plumbing and sometimes barely eating, his family was hardly prosperous. Nevertheless, as a youth Johnson drew inspiration from the family lore attesting to a tradition of political leadership. Tales of his forefathers’ courage in defending the states of the South in the Civil War were retold with pride to Johnson as a child. Not surprisingly, more than one of Johnson's ancestors were slaveholders.
LBJ’s father, Sam Ealy Johnson, Jr. served two terms in the Texas House of Representatives as a young man. Described as an “agrarian liberal” who took the side of the small farmers and workers against the powerful railroad and utility companies, his father continued the family tradition of political leadership. The political role model provided by Sam Ealy Johnson, Jr. for his son chiefly derived from 1918, the year that he returned to the state legislature. Political discussions, deal-making, and other meetings held at his own home stimulated the ten-year old’s interest and gave him an intimate understanding early in life on how the practical politics in the world was conducted. His political instincts and intelligence were such that upon high school graduation, the small class’s consensus was that he would one day be Texas’ governor.
Johnson often cited his experience in Cotulla, Texas as one that opened its eyes to the nature of poverty, misery, and racial bias. He recalled that Cotulla’s Mexican Americans were exploited “ just worse than you’d treat a dog” working for subsistence wage rates. Johnson found them “mired in the slum . . . lashed by prejudice . . .[and] buried half alive in illiteracy.” For slightly more than a year Johnson taught at a Houston high school before leaving for a job as secretary to the newly elected Congressman Richard Kleberg. Kleberg, whose family’s famous King Ranch stretched then (and is still in existence) some 1.28 million acres twice the size of the state of Rhode Island and contained almost a million head of cattle allowed Johnson to practically assume his congressional duties. From that point on the twenty-three year old Johnson’s intensity, long hours, constituent services, and extensive network of personal ties distinguished his work. Allowed to begin building a power base, Johnson’s ties and connection opened entirely new possibilities for him.
By the summer of 1935 Johnson became the Director of the National Youth Administration (NYA) in Texas. Johnson’s performance in this position was key to his rapid rise to prominence. Particularly significant was the inclusion of blacks in the NYA programs, notably through the Freshman College Center Program which provided work for entering college students whose families received work relief. However, the Jim Crow influence was hardly absent from these programs and efforts. Few blacks were in positions higher than the menial level, segregation remained in force, and any aid Johnson was able to deliver to blacks was necessarily discreet.
Lyndon B. Johnson has generally been credited with the inclusion of African Americans in the Texas NYA programs. However, correspondence in September 1935 from John Corson of the national NYA office in Washington indicates the resistance Johnson put up to black participation. Corson wrote that black representation was needed to make the Texas NYA’s advisory committee “truly representative” of those in need in the state. Johnson responded with a warning that the effectiveness of the Texas NYA would be ruined by such a move and threatened to resign with the nine other members of the board. He went on to warn further that for such a “blunder without parallel in administrative circles of the state” he would likely be “run out of Texas.” Besides, he replied, the inclusion of African Americans would invariably harm those it was most intended to help. Johnson wrote:
. . . The racial question during the last 100 years in Texas. . . has resolved itself into a definite system of mores and customs which cannot be upset overnight. So long as these are observed there is harmony and peace between the races in Texas. But it is exceedingly difficult to step over lines so long established and to upset customs so deep-rooted, by any act which is so shockingly against precedent as the attempt to mix negroes and whites on a common board.
He stressed that there was already a “negro advisory board” and that he was aiding black high schools and colleges and providing emergency jobs, job training, apprenticeships, and other “covert” help. Corson relented and dropped his insistence upon a black board member.
Johnson used the connections gained from his NYA work after he decided to campaign for a seat in the House in 1937 after Texas Congressman James P. Buchanan died. During the campaign Johnson met with blacks secretly and promised to work for black voting rights and other reforms clandestinely if elected. Vowing to “stand up for the Negroes and the Mexicans” rights to federally-funded low income housing, Johnson was instrumental in Austin’s being awarded three housing projects from the U. S. Housing Authority. One public housing court was established for whites, one for Mexican Americans, and one for African-Americans.
During the late 1930s Johnson argued that the time was not ripe for the passage of legislation relieving the burden of racial discrimination on African Americans. For the young politician, blacks were a political liability whose votes he sought so long as he could ensure that he would not lose white votes as a result. Thus, Johnson could not afford to be publicly identified with blacks or black interests. Although professing sympathy for anti-discrimination measures, he pleaded that political realities must be heeded by any local politician wishing to remain in office. Yet, he sought to win black votes by patronage and behind-the-scenes promises. He is said to have work to include blacks in the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 and to halt the federal funding to states that unequally distributed school lunch grants. While Johnson won reelection to Congress in 1941, enjoying overwhelming black and Mexican American support, many of these decisive votes were bought.
Congressman Johnson tended to align himself with his fellow Southerners while in the House of Representatives. He opposed measures to end the scourge of lynching, to abolish poll taxes, and to end employment discrimination in the federal government. During this period, LBJ fell back on “state’s rights” as a justification for these political positions. Setting his eye on a Senate seat Johnson ran against Texas governor Coke Stevenson in the primary. Johnson took no chances and adopted stridently segregationist positions. For him the civil rights measures were "a farce and a sham an effort to set up a police state in the guise of liberty.”
Following his election to the U. S. Senate in 1948, Johnson became close to Richard Russell of Georgia, a powerful Senator who could help propel Johnson upward in power within the body. Russell, an ardent segregationist, led an isolated day-to-day existence. Johnson, noting this void, plotted in fill it and thereby enhance his own power and prestige. Johnson’s initial speech to the Senate was well-received by his fellow southerners. Speaking in support of a southern filibuster aimed at heading off civil rights legislation, Johnson declared that “cloture is the deadliest weapon” against the southern minority. He denounced “mass-produced minorities” in a 90-minute speech that came to be regarded as an eloquent defense of the southern position). This speech won him praise and an immediate elevation prestige among the more veteran southern senators.
For over two decades Robert Parker worked for Johnson gaining valuable insight into his character, particularly in relationship to the question of race. Parker met Johnson through his brother who was the headwaiter of a Wichita Falls social club. Johnson, who was a rising Texas political star, was introduced to the servile young black in 1943. Later that year, following a stint in the armed forces, Parker used his connection with a senator Johnston to obtain a job at the Washington D.C. Cleveland Park post office. With Johnson as his “sponsor, “the arrangement permitted the future president to call upon his free services from time to time. To fulfil his “duties,” Parker endured verbal abuse far beyond most African Americans could bear. Parker recalled how he once served as chauffeur for Johnson, dropping him off at an Annapolis stadium. Picking him up late because of heavy traffic, Johnson berated him, “Goddam nigger! Can’t you get here on time?” When Parker tried to explain, he was, in classic fashion, cut off with the retort, “I don’t want to hear that horseshit!”
Parker wrote that the then-Senator Johnson would impress his southern colleagues by shouting “nigger” at him. Parker particularly cringed when arch-racist Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi would see the Texas senator. Johnson, according to Parker, would abuse him in such situations in order to demonstrate his racist credentials to his fellow southern senators.
As Johnson increasingly began to be concerned with a national, not a regional or local, constituency he recognized that a die-hard commitment to Jim Crow was politically limiting. He slowly began distancing himself from his southern colleagues. While he consistently voted with southern senators, he declined an invitation to become a member of the southern caucus. By the early fifties Johnson was advised to give the impression that Catholic, African-Americans, and Jews support him enthusiastically in Texas to counter the impression that as a southerner he was out of sync with their views. Even the image as a southerner was to be softened in favor of his “western” identity which would enhance his presidential prospects.
Following the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision, Johnson saw the death knell of Jim Crow. In March 1956, Senators Albert Gore and Estes Kefauver, both of Tennessee, were joined by Senator Johnson as the only southern senators who declined to sign the Southern Manifesto vowing to resist the Supreme Court-ordered desegregation. Johnson began to use this fact to stress his political distance from his fellow southern senators when it was opportune to do so. With the consensus of the post-war American establishment solidly in favor of the removal of the most obnoxious symbols and barriers to racial equality, LBJ could see the long-term historical trends and sought to align his political positions with them. Increasingly he concluded that an end to Jim Crow was the prerequisite for southern economic and political development and full economic entry into the mainstream of American life. media. The Senator said he was “not a civil rights advocate” asserting, as did President Eisenhower, that the local level, not the federal level, was where the real solutions to the “problem” lie.
Former aides to Johnson paint a portrait of a man beset by a personality described as “brave and brutal, compassionate and cruel, incredibly intelligent and infuriatingly insensitive, with a shrewd and uncanny instinct for the jugular of his allies and adversaries. Joseph Califano, former Johnson aide and Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) during the Carter administration, wrote that LBJ seemed to genuinely empathize with the trials and tribulations of the impoverished and disadvantaged. Califano recounted traveling along a road with LBJ near Johnson City, Texas, not far from the president’s ranch. While the president spoke of his hopes and plans to alleviate poverty in America they passed a man described as “stumbling along the road, unshaven, dirty, and red-eyed” apparently a “drunk.” The president looked directly at Califano and told him ‘Don’t ever forget,” holding his thumb and forefinger close together, “that the difference between him and me and you is that much.”
Yet, this conclusion must be tempered when considered through the prism of race. During the decades Robert Parker worked for Johnson, the Texan never called him by his name only “nigger,” “chief,” or “boy.” Once Parker asked him why he never called him by his name. Johnson reacted angrily to his question and “slammed the paper onto the seat as if he were slapping my face. He leaned close to my ear. ‘Let me tell you one thing, nigger.’ he shouted, ‘As long as you are black, and you’re gonna be black till the day you die, no one’s gonna call you by your goddamn name. So no matter what you are called, nigger, you just let it roll off your back like water, and you’ll make it. Just pretend you’re a goddamn piece of furniture.’"
Not surprisingly, then, given the well-known background of Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, African Americans were not overly optimistic with regard to the prospects of a president favorable to their interests when he initially took office. African Americans active in politics tended to favor Senator Hubert Humphrey as Kennedy’s running mate, and were disappointed by Johnson’s nomination. After becoming Vice President, however, Johnson completed his transformation from a southern proponent of segregation to a national figure supporting black civil rights. In the spring of 1963, Vice President Johnson argued within the Kennedy administration that “civil rights for the Negro is a moral issue, not a political one” despite his history of behavior that contradicted this.
Vice President Johnson spoke on the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address eloquently declaring:
Until justice is blind to color, until education is unaware of race, until opportunity is unconcerned with the color of men’s skins, emancipation will be a proclamation not fulfilled in fact, to that extent we shall have fallen short of assuring freedom to the free.
On August 4, 1964 three civil rights workers, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, two whites and an African American, were found murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Their disappearance and the subsequent publicity had forced the federal government to send 200 naval personnel and 150 FBI agents to join the search. President Johnson still carefully avoided involvement in yet another “local” southern affair. SNCC’s John Lewis deplored the “shame that national concern is aroused only after two white boys are missing” asserting that if the federal government failed to protect civil rights activists “their blood will be on [the government’s] hands.” Later, when civil rights workers met with a representative of the Johnson administration, former CIA Director Allen Dulles, the gulf in perspective between the two parties could not have been greater. Dulles told them, “we want this mess cleaned up” saying that the civil rights demonstrators were causing tensions and “we’ve just not going to have it” threatening to bring troops in. Unintimidated and unimpressed, the African American militants told him, “You talkin’ to the wrong people.”
Despite the lack of federal intervention to protect black voters and voting rights, activists in the south during 1964 pinned their hopes on unseating the lily-white Mississippi Democratic delegation at the party’s national convention in Atlantic City. In April 1964, these youthful civil rights workers helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in Jackson, Mississippi in order to displace the segregated state Democratic party. The activists reasoned that their principles were more in accord with the national party’s and that the all-white composition of the traditional delegation was an affront to the civil rights principles of the party. President Johnson, however, feared the loss of southern support and assured Governor Paul B. Johnson of Mississippi of his opposition to the MFDP. He put the MFDP activists under FBI surveillance, and refused to discuss his support for the segregationist delegation. Ironically, MFDP leader Fannie Lou Hamer had encountered the FBI earlier after she had tried to register to vote and was arrested, evicted from her home of 18 years, and fired upon. The FBI told her that investigating the attacks against her was beyond their constitutional authority. The intelligence gathered from the surveillance of the MFDP activists was used to counter their convention moves.
President Johnson rejected a suggestion of a compromise to seat both delegations made by MFDP advisor and attorney Joseph Rauh. Fannie Lou Hamer, the SNCC and MFDP activist, delivered a major speech to the convention recounting her brutal beating in jail. She challenged the convention declaring, “[I]f the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America.” The ensuing support forced to President Johnson to put forth a compromise
When I listen to Mrs. Hamer, a black woman--could be my mother, my sister, my daughter--describe what they had done to her in Mississippi, I ask myself how in the world can we ever expect to be respected as men when we will allow something like that to be done to our women, and we do nothing about it? How can you and I be looked upon as men with black women being beaten and nothing being done about it, black children and black babies being beaten and nothing being done about it? No, we don’t deserve to be recognized and respected as men as long as our women can be brutalized in the manner that this woman described, and nothing being done about it, but we sit around singing, “We shall overcome.”
Malcolm X’s analysis and conclusions received considerable attention especially his plea that African Americans begin to speak “their language.” He declared, “if his language is with a shotgun, get a shotgun.” He noted that Hamer challenged the legitimacy of the existing Congressmen and Senators from the southern states where African Americans were denied the right to vote. The tremendous political power wielded by the bloc of southern lawmakers then was used to maintain the racial status quo not only in the south, but in the nation as a whole. At the heart of the problem was President Johnson, he concluded. Johnson “could have gotten Mrs. Hamer into Atlantic City” but he was “playing the same game” with his fellow white southerners.
During 1964 the FBI’s intelligence activities were stepped up. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover sought to undermine the credibility of Martin Luther King and install a “manageable black leader.” Internal FBI discussions considered Roy Wilkins and Samuel R. Pierce, Jr., as suitable substitutes. The prospect of King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize motivated Hoover to escalate his activity against King. On November 18, Hoover told the media that King was “the most notorious liar in the country.” Interestingly, no audible call for Hoover’s resignation could be detected and President Johnson did not rein him in. Simultaneous with activities of this sort, the FBI used other tactics against King, such as urging him to commit suicide. The FBI distributed clandestinely recorded tapes of King’s private life to other African American leaders as part of this effort.
President Johnson went all out to ensure the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights bill. This was the key decision for the Texan since it meant the probable loss of considerable white support, especially in the South. The day after he signed the measure, Johnson told aide Bill Moyers, “I think we delivered the South to the Republican Party for your lifetime and mine.” Title VII of the legislation created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that was charged with the elimination of employment discrimination related to race, religion, color, sex, and national origin. By January 1965, the Justice Department was using its provisions to launch a school desegregation lawsuit in two southern states.
In April 1964, Malcolm X declared that in the year 1964 “it’s the ballot or the bullet” in presenting his detailed analysis of the problem confronting black politics and American society. Feeling that President Johnson was “in cahoots” with the filibustering southern senators, he pointed out that Georgia Senator Richard Russell, who was leading the filibuster, was “tight” with the president. The longest filibuster in the history of the United States Congress occurred over the 1964 Civil Rights bill during the winter and through the spring. The power flowing from the position and seniority of southern senators was formidable in a generally conservative body. Yet, with arm-twisting and behind-the-scenes maneuvers President Johnson smashed the southern filibuster. A signing ceremony that included major civil rights figures took place on July 2, 1964.
President Johnson’s influence with black leaders was subsequently demonstrated following the outbreak of rioting in Harlem just two weeks following the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. On Johnson’s request Martin Luther King, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young called for their “members voluntarily to observe a broad curtailment if not total moratorium of all mass marches, picketing and demonstrations until after Election Day, November 3.” This was a profound testament to the respect they held for the president and his role in the forging the milestone legislation.
President Johnson’s opponent in the 1964 presidential campaign, Barry Goldwater voted for the 1957 and 1960 civil rights laws. The monumental 1964 civil rights legislation, however, was another matter. Basing his opposition on the work of right-wing scholars future Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist and future Reagan Supreme Court nominee, Robert Bork, Goldwater declared that the legislation was unconstitutional and voted against it. Goldwater stated that the “problems of discrimination cannot be cured by laws alone” upholding the sanctity of “states’ rights.” While the Republican candidate’s strategy, banking everything on winning the white southern and the anti-black vote nationally, proved to be a turning point committing the Republican Party for the long-term against black interests he reached an agreement with the Johnson campaign not to make civil rights a major issue. Nevertheless, in some cities, Republicans used tactics aimed at discouraging and intimidating African Americans from going to the polls. While President Johnson and others noted and deplored the strategy it would be used increasingly in future years to offset the power of the black vote.
In the 1964 presidential election, President Johnson won reelection by a margin of almost 17 million garnering 61 percent of the electorate’s votes, the highest percentage of popular vote in the history of presidential elections. In several southern states newly enfranchised blacks voted for Johnson in overwhelming proportions allowing him to win those states. White suggests that Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s fatal flaw politically was his failure to explicitly utilize racist appeals to the nation’s white electorate.
President Johnson made a major address to Congress on March 15, 1965, entitled “The American Promise” which arguably was the greatest presidential speech since the Gettysburg Address, Johnson remarked that:
. . . When the Liberty Bell rang out in Philadelphia, it did not toll for the Negro. When Andrew Jackson threw open the doors of democracy, they did not open for the Negro. It was only at Appomattox, a century ago, an American victory was also a Negro victory. And the two rivers--one shining with promise, the other dark-stained with oppression--began to move toward one another.
Johnson told Americans that their obligation to realize the objective of guaranteeing every citizen’s right to vote was based on the Constitution assuring the nation that this guarantee would benefit “not just Negroes” but the entire nation. “A century has passed, more than a hundred years, since the Negro was freed. And he is not fully free tonight. . . . A century has passed, more than a hundred years, since equality was promised. And yet the Negro is not equal.” Asserting that the “real hero of this struggle is the American Negro,” Johnson pointed to the mass protests that had “awakened the conscience of this Nation. So powerful were his final words, “We Shall Overcome” that Reverend Martin Luther King himself was reportedly moved to tears.
Later that year, the outbreak of serious rioting by African Americans in the Watts section of Los Angeles stunned President Johnson. August 11, 1965 was a day that deeply disillusioned Johnson and many others who believed that serious protests and disruptions would be a thing of the past in the wake of the civil rights legislation. Only five days before the historic Voting Rights Act had been signed amid much fanfare, now African Americans in Watts indicated en masse that this was too little too late for their satisfaction. Unaware or unimpressed by the historic nature of the legislation and mainly attuned to their immediate daily realities and the hard history underlying them, their anger exploded into violence. The events in Watts served to quicken the transformation of black consciousness in the process while, at the same time, fanning the flames of what was becoming known as “White backlash.” From this point on, for the next decade, municipal preparations for “long, hot summers” became annual rite. Much of the media focus in late 1966 and early 1967 had been the slogan of “Black Power,” popularized by Stokely Carmichael, the Chairman of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee(SNCC). In short order, condemnation of Black Power became a litmus test for black politicians desiring legitimacy in the eyes of the American establishment.
At the same time, racially-driven murders of assertive and activist blacks continued at sites of racial struggle. In Belzoni, Mississippi Reverend George W. Lee led the voter registration of thirty blacks and refused the order to remove their names from the rolls by the sheriff. Later he was shot in the face with a shotgun as a car pulled alongside his on a road. Another resident, who had witnessed the martyred Lee’s half-blown off face in the casket only months earlier, was shot and wounded in his grocery store. Despite the recent civil rights legislation, the struggle for voting rights would continue to be fought out in local areas often with bloody consequences. Reverend Lee had committed the de facto crime of continuing to register blacks in the town to vote.
From a long-term perspective, Watts can be seen as the beginning of the type of national catastrophe Jefferson prophetically wrote of almost two centuries earlier. A conjunction of a number of demographic, political, and cultural factors made the rapidly urbanizing African-American population more of a political-military threat than ever before. With a new type of mass consciousness African Americans, crowded into cities, aware of their growing power and angry at the racial injustice they witnessed, exploded into anger at whatever target was available. The phenomena reflected both acquisitive urges, more directed anger at particular business enterprises, and a general hostility toward the state of American society. The black uprisings and rebellion caught the United States at a particularly vulnerable moment with the United States bogged down in a Southeast Asian war, and in a state of fiercely Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union.
African Americans benefitted during the Johnson administration by the enactment of dozens of social programs which disproportionately effected blacks as a low socioeconomic status population. Model Cities, urban transportation, child nutrition, anti-poverty, education, and other programs of the Great Society had a positive, if gradual, impact on the black community. Educational programs were particularly important, including the Upward Bound program which allowed low-income and minority youth who had been accepted into college to attend summer sessions and thereby bolster their chances of academic success. These and other educational programs helped bolster black college enrollments from 270,000 in 1965 to 1.1 million in 1977.
At the same time, President Johnson was not about to be seen as soft on black violence. He condemned black rioters as he offered programs designed to restore domestic tranquility. On August 20, 1965 he compared rioters carrying Molotov cocktails to members of the Ku Klux Klan. Both were “destroyers of constitutional rights and liberties.” On a broader level, Johnson continued to allow J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to conduct counter-insurgency intelligence operations and ongoing surveillance of civil rights organizations of all political persuasions ranging from the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to the Black Panther Party and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. President Johnson himself was an eager consumer of information derived from the infiltration of the civil rights movement and from the surveillance of Martin Luther King. The Poor People’s March, a movement led by Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King’s successor as leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and conceived of originally by Marian Wright (later Marian Wright Edelman) built a encampment on the Washington Mall to highlight the needs and demands of the nation’s poor. Johnson was determined to prevent the erection of this encampment as well as repress the impact of the Poor People’s Campaign by other means. Within the Johnson administration Attorney General Ramsey Clark was an advocate for permitting the demonstrations and events to go unmolested by federal authorities.
Eventually racial liberalism caught up to Johnson politically, as he had feared. A November 1966 meeting of Democratic governors in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia saw Missouri’s Governor Warren Hearnes question whether the president should be renominated in 1968. At the top of his mind was the perceived betrayal by their fellow southerners whose civil rights acts destroyed their confidence in him. They complained that his racial policies were destroying the Democratic Party in the South driving white voters into the arms of an increasingly conservative Republican Party.
The challenge of George Wallace in the 1964 presidential primaries had already shown the potential of race as a factor in northern presidential contests. The fact that Wallace, the contemporary icon of white racism, received a relatively large and significant percentage of white votes outside of his home turf in the South, in border and northern states such as Maryland (43%), Wisconsin (34%), and Indiana (30%), is significant not only because it reflected the political strength of anti-black sentiment but also because it further spurred black radicalization. The elections of 1966 marked the rise of the phenomena labeled “white backlash” leading to a distinct power shift in the House with Republican members increasing by forty-seven seats, damaging the liberal majority previously enjoyed by the Johnson administration. While hesitant, Johnson nevertheless appointed Thurgood Marshall to the United States Supreme Court in June 1967 as the flames of black urban rebellion flickered in the background.
Repression was not the only response of President Johnson to the wave of black rebellion sweeping the nation, the most important wave of civil disorder in the history of the nation since the Civil War. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders appointed by the president on July 27, 1967 while the flames of Detroit and many other cities were still flickering eventually produced a landmark document known as the Kerner Report. Its conclusions startled the nation and President Johnson himself by their sweeping indictment and radical recommendations. Johnson was so angered that the report stressed racism and police brutality as indirect and direct cause of the mass violence while embracing an array of wide-ranging reforms that he refused to accept a private copy of the report. The Commission recommended that American society strive to bridge “the gap between promise and performance” and to “change the system of failure and frustration” existing in the ghetto by immediately creating programs designed to quickly alleviate social conditions and according them its highest priority. The report concluded that America was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
Nineteen sixty-eight was a pivotal year in American late 20th century history. Following the February 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the nature of the Vietnam War was profoundly changed. President Johnson’s decision not to seek reelection was soon followed by the April 4, 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King in Memphis and the subsequent nationwide surge of black rebellion. The nation as a whole entered a period of increasing arguments and debate on race and violence as King’s murder was soon followed by that of Robert F. Kennedy, John F. Kennedy’s brother as well as a leading Democratic presidential candidate in his own right.
©Christopher Brian Booker, 2014.