President Lyndon B. Johnson and Civil Rights

Some individuals attempt to portray President Lyndon Baines Johnson, signer of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, as a civil rights hero.  They pretend that Johnson realized the worth of black folk when in reality he merely recognized the power of the black vote.  For political expediency as a congressman, Johnson voted with his fellow Southern Democrats in Congress against all types of civil rights measures that would ban lynching, eliminate poll taxes and deny federal funding to segregated schools.  Johnson fiercely opposed Democrat President Truman’s Civil rights program and continued his rejection of civil rights through Republican President Eisenhower’s program.  As a congressman, he effectively killed all of Eisenhower’s attempts to secure civil rights and fair voting practices for blacks.  And although he was a key player in the passage of Eisenhower’s two civil rights bills making him appear to have softened his stance on civil rights, he solidified his political popularity with the Southern Democrat racists by diluting the 1957 and 1960 civil rights bills so much that Johnson made Eisenhower’s bills largely unenforceable.  

It was only during his time as Vice President to President John F. Kennedy—when the civil rights and racism issues became so volatile that they threatened to, as Kennedy expressed, cause blood in the streets—that Johnson began to “evolve” on his civil rights position.  Kennedy made Johnson the chair of a committee on Equal Employment Opportunity to appease blacks, a job that Johnson did not want.   

 As Vice-President and President, Johnson clearly saw the need to ease racial tensions because the nation was in turmoil.  After the assassination of President Kennedy, newly appointed President Johnson knew something had to be done.  It was then that Johnson announced his vision of a “Great Society” for America with an “end to poverty and racial injustice.”  He, like his predecessors Truman and Eisenhower, reintroduced civil rights legislation to Congress—this time without the “watering down” of the bill that he introduced and supported in the previous bills.  His bills received much of the same opposition from Democrats as other bills had in the past, only the tides were turning in favor of civil rights all around the nation and there was no longer enough opposition from Democrats as there had been previously to kill the bills.  Several Democrats voted, for the first time, with the Republicans to pass Johnson’s 1964 Civil Rights Act. 

After seeing how politically expedient his decision was in being a President that promoted fairness and equality, Johnson saw another opportunity to profit from his “civil rights” evolution.  After Dr. Martin Luther King’s launched a popular campaign in Selma, Alabama to get blacks to register to vote, Johnson crafted the 1965 Voting Rights Act outlawing discriminatory voting practices. The passage of this act dramatically enlarged the black vote and influenced blacks, many of whom were voting for the first time, to vote the Democrat ticket.  Johnson’s actions did much to win the black vote for the Democrat Party.  In 1965, Johnson introduced and passed other bills to help shore up the black vote and others who were interested in the advancement of civil rights.  He extended the hand of the government to aid minorities, who were a now an influential and politically active voting block, in areas of education, healthcare, and housing.   

Due to an extraordinary set of circumstances outside of his control, Johnson was able to do what his predecessors were unable to do—not because he had a change of heart concerning blacks—but because the civil rights issue was a political land mine that was gaining popularity—therefore it was politically expedient for Johnson to do so.

Below is an Excerpt from Bruce Bartlett’s Book: Wrong on Race, The Democrat Party’s Buried Past

Texas and had been installed in his position by Southern Democrats precisely in order to block civil rights legislation. Until the late 1950’s, Johnson’s record of opposition to all civil rights initiatives was spotless. But he was ambitious and wanted to be president, so his political calculation in 1957 was based not just on what was good for his state or even his position in the Senate, but on his view of what would give him the best path to the white house.

After dragging his feet on the civil rights bill throughout much of 1957, Johnson finally came to the conclusion that the tide had turned in favor of civil rights and he needed to be on the right side of the issue if he hoped to become president. As he told a friend at the time, “You can either get out in front and try to give some guidance, or you can continue to fight upstream, and be overwhelmed or be miserable.”  Historian Robert Dallek explains Johnson’s change of heart:

It was clear to Lyndon that pressure from Southern blacks made change in the region inevitable.  Renewed pressure for legislation that would implement the Brown decision on school desegregation and enforce black voting rights made these matters ripe for action in Congress. With the house likely to pass a bill, as it did in 1956, the Senate would be the focus of attention. If he could lead a major civil rights bill through the Senate, it would be the first federal legislative advance in this field in eighty-two years. Such an achievement would have multiple benefits; not the least of which would be a boon to his presidential ambitions. A civil rights bill credited to Johnson would help transform him from a Southern or regional leader into a national spokesman. 

At the same time, the Senate’s master tactician and principal opponent of the civil rights bill, Democrat Richard B. Russell of Georgia, saw the same handwriting on the wall but came to a different conclusion.  He realized that the support was no longer there for an old-fashioned Southern Democrat filibuster, such as the one that killed the anti-lynching bill in 1938. There just weren’t enough senators left who could be depended upon to make it work.  So Russell adopted a different strategy this time of trying to amend the civil rights bill so as to minimize its impact. Behind the scenes, Johnson went along with Russell’s strategy of not killing the civil right bill, but trying to neuter it as much as possible. As Johnson explained:

These Negroes, they’re getting pretty uppity these days and that’s a problem for us since they’ve got something now they never had before, the political pull to back up their uppityness.  Now we’ve got to do something about this, we’ve got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference. For if we don’t move at all, then their allies will line up against us and there’ll be no way of putting a brake on all sorts of wild legislation. It’ll be Reconstruction all over again.

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