BY JOSEPH H. CARTER SR.
In quaint historic events, four U.S. presidents swooped into Austin, TX this week to praise President Lyndon B. Johnson’s pivotal and unlikely leadership in passage of Civil Rights laws five decades ago. After all, LBJ spawned into law these controversial ideals as a Southerner and an elected Texan.
Many folks seem to have forgotten. LBJ’s image even among Democrats was blemished by the war in Vietnam. Now, a dramatic turn, the late Texan president drew rave reviews from Presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and even Republican President George W. Bush. The ailing elder President George Bush sent a letter extoling LBJ’s landmark changes in America’s racial landscape.
It happened during LBJ’s five-year stint in the White House where Johnson championed and signed more than 200 new laws under the heading of creating a “Great Society.” Chief among the initiatives were laws of civil rights designed to impact minority people such as blacks, gays and even women but plainly improving civilization for everyone.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act was signed by the Texan on the 47th day of the presidency Johnson inherited when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The bill that LBJ signed on Jan. 7, 1964 was only the start of courageous federal initiatives ordained to free blacks and other classes of America, including folks living in poverty and with few educational and economic chances.
Right-wing Southerners, Texans and Okies who previously had figured Johnson was their ideological servant were bewildered. Sure, voters elected LBJ by his own right overwhelmingly in 1964.
But just 58 months after the civil rights bills were signed, Republicans narrowly won the office of chief executive. Methodically, GOP President Richard M. Nixon set out to undermine, repeal or defund the LBJ social programs and set the stage for a long line of right-wing operatives to succeed.
As a former speechwriter for LBJ, during a pleasant afternoon with the retired president at his Texas ranch, Johnson told me bluntly: “When we passed the Civil Rights bills, Democrats lost the South.”
The truth of his observation is reflected in the totally Republican dominance of once liberal, populist Oklahoma, Texas and southern states that lost the war of 1861-65.
Famous civil rights activist Andrew Young said in Austin that “in 1968, we lost the Nixon-Humphrey race by one vote per precinct. That was when we lost the Supreme Court and that’s where we lost the movement.”
In recent months, the Republican-dominated U.S. Supreme Court nullified key elements of the LBJ-led 1965 Voting Rights Act. President Obama’s 2014 civil rights battles concern immigration, a reform that Republican Tea Party lawmakers – including Oklahoma’s seven Congressional members – are fighting and seem to be blocking.
Back in 1964-68, Oklahoma’s senators and congressmen were allies with LBJ. While U.S. Sen. Robert S. Kerr fought Medicare and Medicaid, he was a top Johnson pal. Carl Albert of “Little Dixie” skillfully lined up votes in the House to ratify the Great Society although he cleverly worked behind the scenes, betraying the redneck culture of Southeastern Oklahoma.
President Obama recalled that when aides warned of the dangers of a Southern president championing civil liberties, LBJ said, “What the hell is the presidency for?”
On April 8-10, in a widely-watched celebration in Austin, some 50 speakers including the four presidents openly and proudly hailed the legacy of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, Democrat of Texas.
Yet, many warned that major fights are ahead in areas such as minimum wage, economic equity, immigration reform and women’s rights.
As for rights of black Americans, quoted was something attributed to Martin Luther King, to the effect: “the civil rights laws didn’t mean you had to like us, but it means you can’t lynch us.”
Without exception, each speaker at the summit rendered an appreciation of Johnson’s adept leadership. Sadly, “The Civil Rights Summit” included only four former LBJ staffers and ignored the critical efforts by great Oklahomans like former House Speaker Carl Albert.
Missing were great behind-the-scenes persons such as Oklahoma’s Mike Reed, aide to Carl Albert during his time as Democratic whip who is still alive despite these 50 years. Where was Muskogee’s James R. Jones, top aide to LBJ who worked 16-hour days in the White House months after months? Jones also had been an aide to U. S. Rep. Ed Edmondson, a top thinker-leader in Congress.
Many of the key lobbyists/bill writers of the LBJ era, like Lyndon Johnson himself, are dead. In a large sense, the Austin conference was inspired by LBJ’s two fiery daughters to bring a new, favorable and just spotlight on their father.
One front-line fighter and White House aide, Joe Caliafano, was present and spoke powerfully about the legislative battles where he played a role. Harry Middleton, the former speechwriter who spent 30 years building the LBJ library, spoke, as well as ex-aides Larry Temple and Tom Johnson.
My tenure in the White House came in the final nine months of the administration, long after the great battles in Congress raged and I expected no spot on the agenda – sitting contently in the audience, enjoying the accolades LBJ deserved.
I simply wished that the legislative machinery that Johnson employed had been defined and shown as a pathway to overcoming today’s problems.
The event staged at Austin’s presidential library spotlighted many aged black civil rights leaders who were strong in praise of LBJ’s effort. But without the final touches that LBJ pried from Congress, their firebrand speeches and marches would have been in vain.
The 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act seemed to shine inordinately on the marches and doings outside of Congress. Even President Obama, facing a hostile racist and ignorant House of Representatives ruled by the ultra-right, could have learned from the legislative tactics that had succeeded during the 1960s.
Little was shown during the summit about the inside workings of lawmakers – many who had been elected by racists back home – who voted into law the civil rights and social reforms that President Johnson proposed.
While the right-wing Tea Party folks still revile and fight the Great Society legacy, the results of LBJ’s work remains obvious because Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start and aid to education are revered institutions today in America. The results of the teamwork between Congressional leaders [many Republicans during that kinder era] and the LBJ White House are even more glaring.
“We’re here,” former President Bill Clinton said bluntly, “because the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act made it possible for Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to be elected as presidents of the United States.”
Absolutely – without the votes unleashed by those two bills passed by Congress, none of three would have won the presidency.
Hatred toward those laws is what fired up the Republicans who prefer to elect presidents that used the office to appoint Supreme Court justices and members of Congress like Oklahoma’s who would openly fight concepts of civil and equal rights for all people, including racial minorities, gays and women.
The two Bush family presidents, in giving faint praise to LBJ’s extraordinary administration, both seemed to have been more victims of the anti-government, ultra-right wing Republicans than White House victors who won votes spawned by the hatred.
In today’s America, the support of civil rights laws by mainstream Republicans like the Bushes preclude repeal of the legislation by those fundamentalist Christians and other extremists who spell the word Negro with two G’s. On the other hand, minions of the Republican Party work nefariously to circumvent the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by various schemes.
In his summation of the challenge faced in passing his programs, on Mar. 15, 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson said: “It is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”
While his feats and 200-plus liberal laws were remarkable, effective and so successful that even Tea Party folks shout “Don’t Touch My Medicare,” the “legacy of bigotry and injustice” in Oklahoma and America is yet to be overcome.
– This essay was written by Joseph H. Carter Sr. and edited by Michelle Lefebvre-Carter. Joseph H. Carter Sr. was reared in west Tulsa in the 1930-50s era. He is author of Never Met A Man I Didn’t Like: The Life and Writings of Will Rogers [HarperCollins] and The Quotable Will Rogers [Gibbs Smith Publishers].
Photo: Joseph H. Carter Sr. re-enacting the famous LBJ “lean-in” powers of persuasion.