Monday, January 10, 2011

LBJ: Unlikely Civil Rights Ally

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below, I discuss the complicated nature of the man who replaced John Kennedy in the White House and the feelings this one-time segregationists Southerner had about civil rights.

Lyndon Johnson might be the most complicated figure in American political life in the mid- and late-twentieth century. Often crude, he nevertheless proved to be perhaps the greatest political tactician of his era. The graduate of Southwest Texas State Teachers College, a small Central Texas campus, he often suffered from an inferiority complex in the company of the Ivy Leaguers peopling the Kennedy Administration, yet his ambitions bordered on the grandiose. A small-town Southerner, Johnson would use the word “nigger” in private conversation but still devoted much of his public life to promoting civil rights and fighting poverty. An inveterate compromiser, Johnson would also propose some of the boldest reform legislation in American history.

Johnson’s early career as a grade-school teacher would shape his political worldview. During the 1928-29 school year, he taught fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders at a tiny, segregated Mexican American school in Cotulla, Texas, just south of San Antonio. Three-quarters of the Mexican population in the town, according to Johnson biographer Robert Dallek, lived in “hovels or dilapidated shanties without indoor plumbing or electricity.” The parents worked at area ranches and farms for “slave wages.” Johnson would later recall that his heart broke looking at students “mired in the slums . . . lashed by prejudice . . . buried half-alive in illiteracy.” He remembered looking at their eyes and seeing “a quizzical expression on their faces” as they wondered, “Why don’t people like me? Why do they hate me because I am brown?”

Johnson was often harsh and sometimes intolerant as a teacher, using corporal punishment if he caught students speaking Spanish, but he also felt empathy for his young charges’ poverty. Johnson would say, “I was determined [to help] those poor little kids. I saw hunger in their eyes and pain in their bodies. Those little brown bodies had so little and needed so much I was determined to spark something inside of them, to fill their souls with ambition and interest and belief in the world, to help them finish their education. Then the rest would take care of itself.” Johnson may have underestimated the power of racism to deter educated, ambitious people of color, but he devoted himself to his students, distributing toothpaste sent to him by his mother and starting extracurricular activities like debate, track, baseball, spelling bees, and band.

Johnson carried his conflicted personality, which was both bigoted and empathetic, to his job as director of the New Deal-created National Youth Administration in Texas from 1935 to 1937. Though he sometimes accommodated local anti-Mexican prejudice in his hiring of unemployed youths on projects such as constructing roadside parks, he was more assertive in recruiting and promoting African Americans. Under Johnson, the NYA created Freshman College Centers for students who had received a high school education but could not, with their small NYA salaries, afford tuition at local colleges. Under this program, students could take a pair of college courses tuition-free, improving their education and their resumes at the same time.


In 1937, the congressman in Johnson’s U.S. House district died. Johnson ran for the open seat as a supporter of the New Deal and Franklin D. Roosevelt. A close friend of House Speaker Sam Rayburn, Johnson remained in the House for 11 years, and was named head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 1940. He ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in a special election in 1941. Johnson served in the Navy in 1942, but returned to his House seat at the insistence of President Roosevelt. Johnson ran for the Senate again in 1948 in a heated and controversial race against the archconservative and segregationist former Texas Gov. Coke Stevenson, winning the Democratic primary by only 87 votes. Johnson earned the ironic nickname “Landslide Lyndon” as a result of this election, and charges of voter fraud dogged him the rest of his political life, although Stevenson himself certainly engaged in ballot box stuffing in the same election.

Early in his Senate career, Johnson intervened in the controversy surrounding Private Felix Longoria. Longoria was killed in the Philippines during a volunteer mission in the closing days of World War II, and his body was shipped to a cemetery in Three Rivers, Texas. But the funeral director refused to allow a wake to be held in the chapel, supposedly because there had been disorder at previous Mexican-American funerals and because “the whites would not like” sharing the funeral grounds with Mexicans. Dr. Hector Garcia, a Corpus Christi Mexican American civil rights activist, contacted Johnson, who arranged a funeral with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery on February 16, 1949. Johnson and a personal representative of President Harry Truman attended the service with the Longoria family.

In 1955, Johnson’s peers selected him as Senate majority leader. “No longer the deferential youngster, Lyndon Johnson was now a towering presence in the Senate anterooms where deals were cut, a wheeler-dealer who poked his face within inches of his fellow senators, gripping their forearms with one hand, persuading, intimidating, and calling in debts to secure the votes he needed for advancing his legislative and personal agenda,” as one observer noted. Franklin Roosevelt had predicted that Johnson might become the first Southern president since antebellum times. With a White House bid in mind, in the late 1950s Johnson positioned himself as a racial moderate.

He was pointedly not asked to sign the so-called “Southern Manifesto” circulated among and supported by 101 members of the House of Representatives and the United States Senate. The 1956 document condemned the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown school desegregation order and said in part, “This unwarranted exercise of power by the Court, contrary to the Constitution, is creating chaos and confusion in the States principally affected. It is destroying the amicable relations between the white and Negro races that have been created through 90 years of patient effort by the good people of both races. It has planted hatred and suspicion where there has been heretofore friendship and understanding." Johnson, the Senate majority leader who was distrusted by his Dixie colleagues as a racial liberal, joined Tennessee senators Estes Kefauver and Albert Gore, Sr., as the lone Southern standouts in the Senate who did not lend their names to the Manifesto.

Lyndon Johnson also gave his critical support to the 1957 Civil Rights Act, the first voting rights law passed by the Congress since Reconstruction. Under this law, Congress established the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. The law empowered this division to investigate claims of voter harassment and racial discrimination by election officials. The Justice Department now could prosecute individuals conspiring to deny voting rights. The law also established a six-member United States Civil Rights Commission, which examined cases where voters were denied the ballot because of race. Johnson also proposed in 1959 a federal civil rights mediation board where disputes over elections could be resolved.

Johnson entered the 1960 Democratic presidential primary race, losing to Kennedy. He was selected as running mate because the party faithful worried about their prospects in Texas, a state that had gone for Eisenhower twice in the previous two presidential elections. Kennedy and Johnson proved a mismatch. The president and his brother Bobby saw Johnson as unsophisticated, and they underestimated his political skills. Johnson bridled at serving as junior partner to the younger Kennedy; Johnson had previously held seniority in the Senate.

Nevertheless, when Johnson spoke up, it could be with force. Johnson later recounted an anecdote: He was vice president and he asked his African American cook and her husband to drive him from Washington, D.C., to Texas. Their route took them through Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, and the entourage could find no restaurants or restrooms open to two of the three passengers. “Two people who worked for the Vice President of the United States peeing in a ditch . . . That’s not right,” Johnson would later drawl. As historian Allen Matusow notes, Johnson was passionate, if ineffective, as head of the president’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity and he “urged Kennedy to tour every Southern state to tell white people in person that segregation was morally wrong, utterly unjustifiable, and in violation of the tenets of Christianity.”


Johnson frequently invoked his martyred predecessor as he pushed, needled and cajoled the Congress toward passage of his top legislative priority, the 1964 "Civil Rights Act." The law banned segregation at public facilities and racial discrimination in the work place, empowered the attorney general to initiate lawsuits against segregated school systems, and allowed the federal government to withhold funds from schools refusing to comply with desegregation orders. In the Senate, Richard Russell of Georgia launched a filibuster, relying on a team of 18 colleagues who attempted to talk the bill to death, claiming the proposed law would lead to “amalgamation and mongrelization of the races.”

Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, Democratic leaders joined by liberal Republicans defeated more than 100 “poison pill” amendments that would have gutted the legislation or made it unacceptable to a Congressional majority. Attempting to kill the bill, Rep. Howard Smith of Virginia introduced an amendment banning employment discrimination against women as well as African Americans. Rep. Emanuel Celler of Brooklyn, one of the House liberals, objected, saying the amendment would overturn traditional gender roles and that it ignored the “biological differences” between men and women. Smith responded by mocking Celler’s hypocrisy. Mistakenly thinking that adding women’s rights to the civil rights bill would kill the legislation, Southern segregationists joined with feminists to approve Smith’s amendment. One critic said that Smith “outsmarted himself,” and the bill passed by an overwhelming 290-130 vote.

The struggle to pass the bill sometimes took on physical dimensions. Arch-segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who had switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party because of “liberal” civil rights legislation, tried to prevent enforcement of the law by boycotting a key subcommittee meeting, provoking Texas’ last liberal Senator, Ralph Yarborough, to literally drag Thurmond into the hearing room. The two wrestled each other to the ground. Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, soon to become Johnson’s vice president, urged Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, not previously a supporter of civil rights legislation, to join the cause. On June 10, 1964, Dirksen announced his support for a cloture vote, which would end the filibuster and allow a vote on the bill. The cloture motion passed 71-29, with four votes more than needed to close debate. The front lines of the battle for social justice, however, would not be found in Washington, D.C., but in the backwoods of Mississippi.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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