Voting Rites

Thirty-five years ago this month, with Selma, Alabama, erupting in violence over the issue of race, LBJ changed the course of history.

ON MARCH 13, 1965, Lyndon Johnson met with George Wallace in the Oval Office. Six days earlier, in a confrontation that would come to be known as Bloody Sunday, the nation had watched in horror as Alabama state troopers attacked more than six hundred black activists who were marching from Selma to Montgomery. Armed only with the desire to vote, the marchers were turned back with nightsticks and tear gas. Wallace, in his first term as Alabama’s governor, had designs on national office and hoped to salvage his reputation; Johnson was under pressure to send in federal troops. With protesters outside the White House criticizing his apparent inaction — some carrying signs that read “ LBJ, Just You Wait, See What Happens in ‘68” — the president directed Wallace to a soft couch. Nearly a foot shorter than Johnson, he promptly sank into its cushions. The president pulled up a rocking chair and leaned in close. The Johnson treatment had begun.

Over the next three hours, LBJ pressed Wallace on the issue of race. Careful not to let the governor play the martyr for states’ rights, he cajoled and flattered him. When the president asked him why he wouldn’t integrate the schools and let black residents register to vote, Wallace said that he didn’t have the power. Johnson thundered in response, “George, don’t you shit me as to who runs Alabama.” In the end Johnson questioned Wallace’s place in history: “George, you and I shouldn’t be thinking about 1965; we should be thinking about 1985… . Now, you got a lot of poor people down there in Alabama … a lot of people who need jobs, a lot of people who need a future. You could do a lot for them. Now, in 1985, George, what do you want left behind? Do you want a great big marble monument that says ‘George Wallace: He Built’? Or do you want a little piece of scrawny pine lying there along that harsh caliche soil that says ‘George Wallace: He Hated’?”

Shortly after the meeting, Wallace agreed to ask the president to send in federal troops. The governor, who just two years before had declared, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” would later say, “Hell, if I’d stayed in there much longer, he’d have had me coming out for civil rights.” On March 15, Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress to propose what would become the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It was a bill he had always wanted, for reasons political and personal: Its passage would signify that a Southern president — this Southern president — had broken the longstanding traditions that had kept blacks from voting and the South from gaining equal moral and economic status with the rest of the nation.

Thirty-five years later, the effects of that landmark legislation can still be felt. In the 2000 presidential race, for instance, Democratic candidates Al Gore and Bill Bradley have made minority issues a centerpiece of their campaigns, embracing everything from affirmative action to the removal of the Confederate flag flying above the South Carolina statehouse. Republican front-runner George W. Bush, meanwhile, is pushing the big tent theory — that the GOP can prosper only if it appeals to minorities; indeed, he has appointed blacks and Hispanics to top jobs in his campaign, just as he has tapped them for prominent posts in state government. For all that, and for other advances in race relations, LBJ’s leadership was crucial.

How did Johnson become the president, as he liked to say, who finished what Lincoln started? Although as a congressman and a senator he had seemingly grown more and more conservative, withholding support for civil rights bills, he did an about-face in 1957. Maybe it was his yearning to be a national politician who could run for president; maybe it was his lifelong identification with underdogs. Whatever the case, as the Senate majority leader, he shepherded President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s civil rights legislation past a group of hostile senators — the first bill of its kind passed since Reconstruction. Four years later, as John F. Kennedy’s vice president, he spoke out even more forcefully on the issue. Yet when JFK sent a sweeping civil rights bill to Congress in June 1963, Johnson was outraged that he was barely consulted. Unhappy in the political shadows, Johnson told one of his aides, “My future is behind me.” A tragic November day in Dallas would change all that.

Within hours of taking office , Johnson was laying the groundwork for his accidental administration. “We got to his home at nine-thirty or ten o’clock that night, so he had only been president for about nine hours,” says Jack Valenti, who was a special assistant to LBJ. “I spent the night with him, as did [aides] Cliff Carter and Bill Moyers. We were all grouped in his bedroom, and until four in the morning, the three of us sat around his bed. He was in his pajamas, and we watched television as the commentators discussed this alien cowboy who was now the leader of the free world. He said, ‘The first thing I’m going to do is get that tax cut. Then I’m going to pass Kennedy’s civil rights bill, which has been languishing too goddammed long.’ Then he said, ‘I’m going to get another bill that’s going to make it possible for everybody to vote without being harassed or having to pay money.’ The germ of the Voting Rights Act was squirming around in his head on the first night that he was president.”

Johnson moved on Kennedy’s civil rights bill, which seemed to have a slim chance of passing. “What Kennedy didn’t do was put his political capital on the line,” says Valenti. “Johnson believed that the Kennedy administration didn’t seize the moral authority.” To legitimize his position as a president for all the people, Johnson marshaled the full force of his office. Advisers told him to wait until after the 1964 election, if ever, to make

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