Friday, January 27, 2012

How Did Blacks Become Democrats and Republicans Racists? Part II

The last time African Americans in significant numbers seriously considered voting for a Republican candidate was in the 1960 showdown between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy.  Both candidates largely overlooked the civil rights struggle in the 1960 election.  Several signs pointed to a favorable year for the Democrats, out of power in the White House for the eight years of Dwight Eisenhower, but the party still relied heavily on its Southern segregationist wing. 

 Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who waged an unsuccessful campaign to win the party’s vice presidential nomination in 1956, opened the race as a top contender because of family money, a highly publicized war record, his personal attractiveness, and the glamour of his wife, the former Jacquelyn Bouvier.  Kennedy feared alienating key white Southern politicians as he fought an uphill primary battle with two-time presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson, the favorite of the liberal wing, and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson of Texas, who had the support of many key Democratic leaders in the South such as U.S. House Speaker Sam Rayburn, who also hailed from the Lone Star State.

Kennedy avoided discussing civil rights issues as much as he could during his primary battle, and he actively courted and won an early endorsement from arch-segregationist Alabama Gov. John Patterson. During debates on a 1957 Civil Rights Act, John Kennedy had sided with Southern segregationists on some issues.   Noting that Eisenhower had pulled Southern whites into the Republican camp in his 1952 and 1956 campaigns against Stevenson, the eventual GOP nominee, Vice President Richard Nixon, also sought the backing of whites in Dixie who supported Jim Crow laws.

New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller attempted to frustrate Vice President Nixon’s campaign for the GOP nomination by appealing to liberals within the party on civil rights.  Many African Americans grew disgusted with the continued dominance of Southern segregationists in the Democratic Party and had voted for Eisenhower in 1956.  Some African Americans felt reassured by Eisenhower’s use of the National Guard to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957.  Nelson Rockefeller believed that the Republicans had a chance to win the black vote in 1960 and that this could give the party an edge in close races in major Northern and Midwestern states.  Rockefeller demanded a stronger than planned civil rights plank in the 1960 Republican platform and Nixon, also hopeful of winning black support, acquiesced.  The platform pledged “vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws,” support for “court orders for school desegregation” and creation of “a Commission on Equal Job Opportunity” and “Action to ensure that public transportation and other government authorized services shall be free from segregation.”

Nixon tripped over himself trying not to alienate black voters while at the same time hoping to carry white Southern voters as successfully as Eisenhower had in 1952 and 1956.  Kennedy, meanwhile, described segregation as “irrational,” but was largely unaware of the conditions faced by African Americans in the South and seemed to have little emotional investment in the issue.  Yet, he realized that the black vote could swing six of the eight most populous states his way in the November elections.  Liberal advisors persuaded him to reach out to African Americans.  Once, while driving his red convertible through Georgetown on his way to the Senate, Kennedy spotted Harris Wofford trying to get a cab. Wofford was an attorney advising Democratic campaign on civil rights. Kennedy pulled over, picked Wofford up and, as his left hand tapped on the car door, he said to Wofford, “Now in five minutes, tick off the ten things that a president ought to do to clear up this goddamned civil rights mess.” Kennedy soon promised that with a “stroke of the pen” he would end discrimination in federally funded housing.  An incident in Georgia, however, provided an important, lucky opportunity for the Democrat to win over African American voters.

On October 19, less than a month before the election, police arrested civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., along with 53 other African American protestors at Rich’s Department Store in Atlanta, for refusing to leave tables at the segregated Magnolia Room Restaurant.  Five days later, authorities released the other protestors from jail, but King was sentenced to four months’ hard labor for supposedly driving with a suspended license, and was transferred to Reidsville State Prison.  Members of the King family feared that the minister would be murdered while in custody. 

Nixon instructed aides to tell the press that the Vice President would offer no comment on the issue.  The Kennedy campaign, however, saw an immediate opportunity to gain ground with African American voters. Wofford feared for King’s safety and sent an urgent message to Kennedy, who was campaigning in Chicago and in Michigan.   Kennedy placed an immediate call to Mrs. King and told her he would see if he could assist the family. 

Campaign manager Bobby Kennedy phoned the judge who had sentenced King.  “It just burned me up . . . to think of that bastard sentencing a citizen to four months of hard labor for a minor traffic offense and screwing up my brother’s campaign and making our country look ridiculous in front of the world,” Bobby Kennedy later said.  “. . . I made it clear  that if he was a decent American he would let King out of jail by sundown.”  It took a little longer, but within days authorities released the minister from jail.  The incident got relatively little coverage in the white press, but word spread quickly in the African American community.  The civil rights leader’s father, the influential minister Martin Luther King, Sr., had said that, “I had expected to vote against Senator Kennedy because of his religion.  But now he can be my president, Catholic or whatever he is.  It took courage to call my daughter-in-law at a time like this.  He has the moral courage to stand up for what he knows is right.  I’ve got all my votes and I’ve got a suitcase and I’m going to take them up there and dump them in his lap.”

A blue-bound election pamphlet distributed to African American church congregations quoted the elder King’s endorsement and spread among black congregations in the days leading to the presidential election.  Kennedy himself later laughed at the mixed message contained in the African American minister’s words.  “He was going to vote against me because I was a Catholic, but since I called his daughter-in-law, he voted for me.  That’s a helluva bigoted statement, wasn’t it?  Imagine Martin Luther King, Jr., having a bigot for a father.”  Then, acknowledging the controversies surrounding Joseph P. Kennedy, Kennedy grinned as he observed, “Well, we all have fathers, don’t we?”  Kennedy had won over black voters worried about his Catholic background.

The assassination of John Kennedy November 22, 1963 put Vice President Lyndon Johnson in the White House.  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. 

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 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.” The bill ultimately 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.


A younger generation of black protestors was not content to wait upon the slow workings of the United States Senate.  The NAACP, representing an older generation, fought segregation through a series of lawsuits.  Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) sought to defeat Jim Crow through political lobbying, negative publicity about Southern discrimination, and acts of non-violent resistance, such as sit-ins at segregated lunch counters.  With a younger membership, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) favored direct action against injustice, led by local civil rights campaigners.  SNCC’s membership resented King and other civil rights “celebrities” they accused of swooping in at the end of a campaign and claiming credit for the hard grassroots work of locals.

Seen as reckless by the older peers, SNCC members marched directly through the gates of fire, continuing their voter registration campaign in Mississippi in spite of past bloodshed. John F.  Kennedy’s administration had been lukewarm about civil rights demonstrations, fearing that Southern segregationist Democrats would withhold support of the domestic and foreign policy agendas.  To the Civil Rights Movement’s surprise, the president’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, signaled in late 1961 that he would help groups like SNCC receive financial support from liberal charities such as the Taconic Foundation if the civil rights organizations focused on voter registration in the South.  Worried that its mild civil rights record guaranteed that Kennedy would lose Southern states to the Republicans in the 1964 re-election effort, the administration no doubt hoped that an increase in the number of friendly black voters in states like Mississippi would provide a counter to white segregationists.   Many in SNCC feared the White House was using them, but the cash-strapped group found Bobby Kennedy’s offer one they couldn’t refuse. SNCC, the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) launched the Voter Education Project in April 1962. 

More than $870,000 (about $5.5 million in today’s dollars) poured into the Voter Education Project from the Taconic Foundation, the Stern Family Fund and the Field Foundations. Over the next two years, the project registered for the vote more than a half-million African Americans in the South, but the overwhelming majority of these voters lived in big cities.  The large numbers of rural southern blacks remained largely unregistered, and in Mississippi, the project had added only 4,000 new voters.  Just under 400,000 African Americans remained unregistered there.  In rural Pike County, just 200 of 8,000 eligible African Americans were on the voter rolls.  In Walthall County, not one of 2,500 blacks had registered, and Amitie County recorded just one registered black voter.  By 1964, even though African Americans made up 42 percent of the total population they comprised only 6.7 percent of registered voters.

Mississippi became a focus of the registration drive.  Having seen so many African Americans injured or killed over civil rights, and a victim of an attempted murder himself, Bob Moses in the fall of 1963 invited the participation of white students from colleges like Harvard, Yale and Stanford.  His vision of a nation transformed into a “Beloved Community” included blacks and whites.  Moses moved ahead with plans for a “Freedom Summer” in 1964, in which hundreds of white volunteers would join black activists to increase the number of African American voters across Mississippi.  Most of the 900 student volunteers who arrived from out of state for the campaign were well-off white students from elite universities. 


It was a long, hot, and bloody summer.  During the “Freedom Summer” campaign in 1964, arsonists frequently burned down Freedom Schools and the homes of the volunteer staff. In total, police arrested more than 1,000 black and white volunteers, at least 80 civil rights workers suffered beatings at the hands of law enforcement officers or angry white mobs, and at least 37 black churches and 30 black homes and businesses were firebombed or torched during that Mississippi summer. Volunteers lived with high stress day and night, and would later report symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome.  One volunteer recalled, “wondering whether someone was going to sneak in and dynamite you or fire-bomb your home.  Always checking your car before you got in it, because you were worrying whether someone stuck a piece of dynamite under it.  Always making sure your tires were in good condition, because you never know, you may have to race up the road at night.”

The murders of the three young men in Mississippi turned public sentiment strongly in favor of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  For many African Americans, however, the case also served as a reminder that the white establishment valued white life much more than black life.  Soon, black activists in large numbers would part from their white allies and seek a separate black identity that rejected what they saw as the sick values of white society. “I am sick and tired of going to the funerals of black men who have been murdered by white men,” said CORE activist David Dennis, angry tears streaming down his cheeks, during the funeral for James Chaney.  “I’ve got vengeance in my heart tonight . . . If you go back home and sit down and take what these white men in Mississippi are doing to us . . . if you take it and don’t do something about it . . . then God damn your souls.”


Lyndon Johnson had long felt like an unwanted interloper, and rankled that some Democrats saw him as an illegitimate heir to the Kennedy throne.  Thus, Johnson hoped that the 1964 Democratic National Convention that summer in Atlantic City would be his coronation, an untarnished celebration of that year’s many legislative accomplishments.  Unfortunately, in spite of movement in the direction of expanded black civil rights, the signs loomed of a national white backlash against reform legislation, and the atmosphere threatened to spoil the Democratic celebrations.  George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, entered the Democratic presidential primaries and carried 34 percent of the vote in Wisconsin, 30 percent in Indiana, and a shocking 43 percent in Maryland.  When Wallace’s insurgent campaign failed to unseat Johnson, many of these voters began drifting to Republican nominee Barry Goldwater, who portrayed civil rights laws as the intrusion of a growing and increasingly tyrannical federal government into states’ rights.  Rioting in Harlem and other American cities in the summer of 1964 provoked white anger and increased Johnson’s fear of a challenge on the right.

The president, however, perceived a more direct challenge from Southern African Americans seeking to put a stop to the all-white segregationist delegations from the South that had been a feature of Democratic Conventions since the 1830s.  The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) had been organized during Freedom Summer.  Using a black panther as its symbol, the MFDP planned to challenge the credentials of Mississippi’s all-white delegation on the floor of the 1964 convention.  The MFDP held its own primaries, with black representatives from cities and rural communities across the state, as well as four white delegates.  The delegates would charge that the Mississippi regulars conducted primaries that ignored black voting rights and were thus in violation of federal law and could not be legally seated.   One of the MFDP delegates, Fannie Lou Hamer, a former sharecropper who had suffered an involuntary sterilization under Mississippi’s eugenics laws, said, “When we went to Atlantic City, we didn’t go there for publicity, we went there because we believed that America was what it said it was, ‘the land of the free.’”

President Johnson didn’t want a credentials fight at his convention.  Seeking to not embarrass the president, liberals proposed seating both the all-white Mississippi regulars and the Freedom delegation.  Governor Paul Johnson of Mississippi told the president his delegation would walk out if forced to share a place with the dissenters, while Gov. John Connally of Texas warned that other Southern delegations could walk out as well.  Johnson promised Hubert Humphrey a position as his running mate if he could persuade the Freedom delegation to drop its credentials challenge.

Hamer and the other delegates refused to play along and instead presented testimony to the credentials committee on the violent and corrupt oppression of black voting rights in Mississippi. With television networks broadcasting the testimony, Hamer related how she had been beaten in a Mississippi jail for her voter registration efforts. A state highway patrolman ordered black prisoners to beat her.  “The first Negro began to beat, and I was beat until I was exhausted  . . . After the first Negro was exhausted, the State Highway Patrolmen ordered the second Negro to use the blackjack.  The second Negro began to beat . . . I began to scream, and one white man got up and began to beat me on my head and tell me to ‘hush.’ ”

Upset that the Freedom delegation was getting all the attention, President Johnson called a press conference while Hamer was still testifying.  A compromise was offered that would allow two Freedom delegates to sit with the regulars while sixty-six other Freedom Party members could sit as non-voting observers with other delegations.  Unwilling to accept even this watered-down proposal, and a demand that they pledge loyalty to the Democratic presidential ticket, the all-white regular delegation walked out of the convention along with the Alabama delegates.  The walkout didn’t spread, however, which Lyndon Johnson declared as victory.  The convention voted to insist that the 1968 Mississippi delegation had to be integrated.  Hubert Humphrey was rewarded with this outcome by being named Johnson’s running mate. 

The Democratic ticket overwhelmingly defeated GOP nominee Goldwater that November.  The Arizona senator frightened off mainstream voters with a convention nomination speech in which he declared, “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”  Later, Goldwater dismissed the hydrogen bomb as “merely another weapon.”  The night before the general election, the Johnson campaign ran an ad in which a young girl pulled petals from a daisy and counted them, then a voiceover counted down to a missile launch and the screen filled with footage of a mushroom cloud.  The ad was designed to remind voters of the dangers of nuclear weapons, and to imply that Goldwater’s attitude toward them was irresponsible.

The next day, Johnson carried 61 percent of the popular vote and beat Goldwater 486-52 in the Electoral College.  Goldwater’s sweep of the Deep South states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, where he carried the votes of whites angered by Johnson’s support of civil rights legislation, represented the only cloud on the political horizon for the Democrats.


Lyndon Johnson might have gotten his way regarding the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic convention, but Martin Luther King would force the president’s hand regarding passage of a voting rights act in 1965.  King had undergone a subtle transformation in his attitude toward non-violence.  As historian Allen J. Matusow notes, “Once he employed it to persuade racial oppressors of their guilt and to change their hearts.  Many broken heads later – in fact, by Birmingham, 1963 – he had come to direct his campaigns not at the heart of the South but at the conscience of the North, seeking primarily to enlist the coercive power of the federal government against racial injustice.”  For his next voting rights campaign, King targeted Selma, Alabama, where only 383 of about 15,000 African Americans were registered.  King chose Selma not only for the obvious suppression of black voting but because he could count on an overreaction by Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark. This man had acquired a reputation for out-of-control anger and violence. 

The campaign started in January 1965.  King announced that the campaign would climax with a 54-mile march on March 7 from Selma to the statehouse in Montgomery, the one-time capital of the Confederacy.  That day, 600 marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge onto state Highway 80 before state troopers, who arrived in squad cars adorned with Confederate flags, halted the march.  The state police charged into the crowd wielding billy clubs and firing tear gas canisters.  State police chased the marchers back across the bridge with Sheriff Clark shouting, “Get those goddamned niggers.”  

Deputies carried on what was essentially a police riot in Selma’s black neighborhoods that day, seizing a young black man from inside a church and throwing him through a stained-glass window decorated with an image of Jesus.  Footage of the police violence interrupted ABC’s broadcast of the film Judgment at Nuremberg, and the ugly scenes played on televisions around the world.  The event came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.” 

King had been warned of an assassination plot by the Johnson administration and so was not present at the march but, after hearing of the injuries suffered by his friends and allies, he announced a second march.  Johnson worked out a deal with Wallace, however.  King could bring the marchers to the bridge, but they would halt when ordered to by the state troopers.  The protestors would then bow in prayer and leave.  Sadly, violence still broke out the night of the second march on March 9, when thugs beat to death James Reeb, a white minister from Massachusetts who had participated in earlier protests. 
Historian Matusow argues that this event marked a key turning point in the relationship between King and the younger firebrands in SNCC.  SNCC activists already chafed because Selma represented one more case in which local groups laid the foundations for the movement before a national figure like King swooped down with the national media in tow to get credit and publicity.  King’s compromises with state and national officials caused some members of SNCC to charge King with cowardice and betrayal of local activists.

King’s tactics, however, had an impact on President Johnson.  Johnson had wanted a “cooling off” period for civil rights legislation and hoped to focus on Medicare and other parts of his “Great Society” agenda, but the scenes on Bloody Sunday outraged him, and he made a voting rights bill a priority.  Johnson would also step in to allow King and his fellow marchers to complete their symbolic trek from Selma to Montgomery.  Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard for the third march, which began on March 21.  With 1,900 guardsmen shielding them from violence, by the fourth day the marchers numbered 25,000 protestors and included entertainers like the musical group Peter, Paul and Mary, United Nations Ambassador Ralph Bunche, and longtime activists like Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph, and Whitney Young.  On March 25, King spoke from the steps of the Alabama State Capitol, where Jefferson Davis had been sworn in as president of the Confederacy in 1861.

The protestors happily sang freedom songs at the end of the long journey to Montgomery. This moment represented in many ways a final hurrah for King’s movement.  A deep generational split over the tactics of non-violence and incremental reforms would cause the young members of SNCC to move in a more radical direction, to be followed by more confrontational groups such as the Black Panthers.  Too many African Americans got tired of African American non-violence provoking white brutality.  The night of March 25, Viola Liuzzo, a white woman from Detroit, had volunteered to help transport marchers.  The mother of five was driving with a black passenger on Highway 80, the main route to Montgomery, when a car occupied by four Klansman pulled alongside her and fatally shot her in the head.  Gary Thomas Rowe, an informant on the FBI payroll, testified against the other three Klansmen, who were never convicted of the murder but sent to prison for 10 years for violation of the 1971 Ku Klux Klan Act. 


“Bloody Sunday,” followed by the Liuzzo murder, gave momentum to passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.   The act prohibited devices employed by Southern legislatures to keep African Americans from voting, such as literacy tests, which were supposedly equally enforced for black and white voters but were manipulated to systematically deny African Americans the ballot. The law also empowered the U.S. Justice Department to monitor elections in order to prevent intimidation and harassment of black voters in districts with a history of such behavior.

Resistance from Southern senators, who sensed a changing tide of public opinion, proved half-hearted.  Sixty-six senators co-sponsored the bill,  just one short of the number needed to end a filibuster.  Southern efforts to filibuster collapsed quickly.  Longtime civil rights leader Roy Wilkins afterward described Southern resistance to the bill as “lame.”  “That year, they (Southern senators) had neither their old energy nor the sympathy of the country behind them.”

On August 3, the House passed the measure by a 4-1 margin, and the next day the Senate passed the legislation 79-18. Johnson signed the bill into law August 6 in the President’s Room, where in 1861 Abraham Lincoln signed a law declaring free any slaves forced into service with the Confederate Army.  Johnson passed out 89 pens he used to sign the law, with Rosa Parks (who started the Montgomery bus boycott) and Vivian Malone (who had to be escorted into the University of Alabama by federal marshals when the university was integrated in 1963) two of the recipients. 

A jubilant atmosphere attended the signing ceremony, but Johnson knew the political dangers of pushing for such revolutionary change. “I have signed away the South for a generation,” he is said to have commented after he signed the bill into law. Johnson had no way of knowing if African Americans would vote in significant numbers after the bill’s enactment. He could count, however, on an angry Southern white backlash. He would live long enough to see his sad prophecy come true, as former segregationist Democrats essentially became segregationist Republicans across Dixie.

As a result of this law and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, segregation began to slowly fade across the South.  Decades later many students across the country would still attend overwhelmingly white or predominantly black and brown schools.  But in terms of black voter registration, the impact of the 1965 Voting Right Act was dramatic.  In the states of Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Alabama, black registration overall went from 31 percent to 57 percent by the late 1960s .  In the Deep South, the results were more dramatic, with black registration climbing from 32 to 60 percent in Louisiana, 19 to 53 percent in Alabama, and from 6 percent to 44 percent in Mississippi.  In Dallas County, Alabama, where the Selma campaign had just taken place, the number of registered voters rocketed from 320 to 6,789.  The number of black elected officials in the South also sharply climbed.  In the six states mentioned above, the number of black elected officials grew from 70 to about 400.

Although both Kennedy and Johnson had sometimes half-heartedly and inconsistently supported civil rights, the actions of both administrations regarding the black freedom struggle had two long term results. The so-called "Solid South" cracked.  For decades Southern states had elected a delegation to the House and Senate consisting almost entirely of Democrats.  Now segregationists, angered by Kennedy's intervention at Ol' Miss and Johnson's passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights laws in 1964 and 1965, reluctantly drifted from what had been the party of the Confederacy to the Republicans, the once-hated party of Abraham Lincoln.  After a result of the Voting Rights Act,  African Americans were now a factor in Southern elections and , like blacks nationally, became firmly attached to the Democratic Party.  This dramatic racial realignment of the American political system would not be complete until the 1990s.

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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