It has been about 50 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act. During that time, my memory of the man who made it happen, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, has faded. And, let’s be honest here, we liberals wanted it to fade…fast. To paraphrase Marc Antony, The evil that Lyndon Johnson did lived after him, the good he did was oft interred with his bones. But only in our memories is that true. In the bright light of now, the good that Lyndon Johnson did is pervasive and the evil is fading.
Of all the presidents that come to mind – of all the people, really – Lyndon Johnson is the one with whom I have the most ambivalent feelings. That was my opening line, but the more I think about Johnson, the less ambivalent I become. Somewhere towards the end of my post, I was going to say And – and it is a huge and - he escalated the Vietnam War in which 58,286 Americans died and 153,303 were wounded. He did escalate that tragic war, but he didn’t start it. Truman started it when he gave the French Colonial Forces air support, Eisenhower started it when he wouldn’t sign the 1954 Geneva Accords. Kennedy started it when he sent in advisors and Johnson, who couldn’t do anything halfway, escalated the hell out of it. It became Johnson’s War. He knew it was wrong, but he couldn’t help himself.
For that, most Liberals – including me – find it hard to forgive Johnson. As an aside, I was so disappointed in the Vietnam War that I didn’t vote in 1968, even though Hubert Humphrey, the democratic nominee, was an early and strong proponent of Civil Rights and would have made an excellent President. I am very sorry for that now. End aside.
Besides Vietnam – and there really doesn’t have to be a besides - Lyndon Johnson was crude and, often, embarrassing to us effetes. He just looked crude – especially after the refined Kennedys – with his big, goofy, ears and a big nose. He acted crudely, calling his dick Jumbo, narcissistically showing the press his gall bladder surgery scar, lifting his beagles up by their ears. Shit, he even talked crudely, with his deep Texas’ Hill Country accent.
For years, we ended up interring Johnson’s greatness with his bones and only remembered the evil. We forgot his greatness, he was bigger than life; he was Hamlet more than Willie Loman.
During the 1960s Democratic Primaries, before I could vote – minimum voting age was 21 in those days – I was hoping that Johnson would be nominated. I don’t remember why for sure, maybe it was because Johnson was the only guy besides Estes Kefauver, I had heard of before the primaries; maybe it was because I have always been a sucker for smooth-talking Southerners; but it was probably because I was captivated by stories of Johnson and Rayburn meeting in Rayburn’s office, drinking Bourbon and Branch Water, plotting how to turn the country liberal during the Eisenhower years. As an aside, it was one of life’s minor disappointments when I learned that Branch Water was just a Texas way of saying Tap Water. End aside.
In that Liberal era, the 30s through the 50s, Southerns were liberal or, at least, Populist. The New Deal rested on Southern support and that support came with racism even with Liberals like Lyndon Johnson. The only time I have lived anywhere near the South was when I was in the Army, stationed in Texas – at Fort Bliss – and seeing the all-pervasive, undisguised, racism first hand was a shock. I shouldn’t have been shocked though, racism was the water the whole country swam in. In the South, it was more overt, but – everywhere – nice people, good people, admirable people, so-called-thoughtful people, thought Negroes to be inferior. Negroes were considered sweet and hardworking, but simple. Think Uncle Remus.
Then, it was very easy to be a Racist and a Liberal (I never even saw a black person in anything but a subordinate role until I started going to Jazz Clubs in the late 50s). Of course this is an oversimplification – President Harry Truman had desegregated the Armed Forces in 1948 and the Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954 – pressure was building for fairness and neither Black People nor a growing minority of Whites liked the status quo. By the 60s, that pent-up pressure was changing the world. In music, movies, writing, art, architecture, everywhere. Lyndon Johnson, now President, changed with it. That is also an oversimplification also; episodes of fairness can be found throughout Johnson’s life. He probably learned it even before he was a janitor, working his way through Southwest Texas State Teachers College, certainly Johnson’s sense of fairness, his compassion, must have been there by the time he became a teacher at a Mexican-American school in south Texas. Still, he voted with the racist Southern Caucasus most of the time.
But, for whatever the reason, when Lyndon Johnson became president, he became a great champion of Civil Rights. He signed the The Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He not only signed those landmark bills, Johnson was the only reason they were passed. They passed because Johnson cajoled, browbeat, and traded favors with Southern Democrats to get them passed. He knew it was going to ruin the Democratic Party for a generation and he got three major Civil Rights Acts passed that changed our world. When he said, I am a freeman, an American, a United States Senator, and a Democrat, in that order, he was telling the truth.
He was also a transformative environmentalist, signing – hold on to your hat (or skip ahead) – the Clean Air Act, 1963; the Pesticide Control Bill, 1964; a Water Quality Act, 1965; the Water Resource Planning Act, 1965; a Water and Sanitation Systems in Rural Areas Bill, 1965; the Solid Waste Disposal Bill, 1965; Air Quality Acts, 1966 and 1967; and laws forming the National Water Commission. Not all of these were Johnson’s babies, most of them weren’t, but he gladly signed the bills.
He signed laws to give aid to education with Head Start in 1965 and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act which provided additional funds to schools based on the population of low-income students. He signed the Child Nutrition Act of 1966, the National School Lunch Act of 1968, and he signed Food Stamps into law with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. He was instrumental in establishing the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts and he appointed Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court.
Along the way, he advocated and pushed through Congress, two major Health Bills; Medicaid and Medicare. (Yeah!! for Medicare, just ask anybody over 65.)
Now, fifty years later, I am starting to remember that Lyndon Baines Johnson in that short time, from 1964 to about 1967 – became one of our greatest and most influential Liberal Presidents. With that burst, he might also have become the greatest Civil Rights President in our history.