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.

March 2000By Comments

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 his push. Johnson refused. He twisted arms, bargained with enemies, and ran roughshod over friends like Richard Russell, the Georgia senator who was most responsible for his rise to power in the Senate. Even the longest filibuster in Senate history — by a bloc of Southern senators — couldn’t prevent passage of the bill. Though most of the voting rights provisions had been gutted, the bill outlawed discrimination in public places and in employment and brought an end to “colored” restrooms and segregated lunch counters. It was an extraordinary victory, though it was never entirely Johnson’s. When Robert F. Kennedy gave an aide a pen that Johnson had used to sign the legislation on July 2, 1964, he inscribed the following words: “Pen used to sign President Kennedy’s civil rights bill.”

The night that the bill became law, with the 1964 presidential election just four months away, Johnson realized how his leadership might destroy the Democratic party in the South. Sitting on his bed among newspapers that chronicled the day’s historic event, he told Moyers, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican party for a long time to come.” In November Landslide Lyndon received 61 percent of the popular vote, more than any other candidate in the twentieth century. But despite his victory over Barry Goldwater, it was already clear that LBJ’s premonition was coming true. Goldwater, who had opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, carried only six states. One was his home state of Arizona. The other five were Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.

As Johnson prepared for his first full term, he focused on problems that would affect the nation by the year 2000. He formed task forces to provide solutions to such problems as funding for education and inadequate health insurance for the elderly. He deliberately stayed away from civil rights, even though he wanted a voting rights bill. “He believed there needed to be a pause in the effort,” says Johnson biographer Robert Dallek. “He worried that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would produce violent opposition in the South, though he was wrong on that count: Violence never materialized.” Still, in December he privately instructed Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach to begin looking into legislation that could be introduced when the time was right. “I tried to slow him down,” Katzenbach recalls today, “but he wanted his own civil rights bill.” With Katzenbach working behind the scenes, LBJ waited for a reason to move forward.

Martin Luther King, Jr., gave him one. On the day after the presidential election, King told the New York Times that he was ready to organize marches across the South in an effort to secure black Americans the right to vote. In Mississippi only 6 percent of eligible blacks were registered. In Alabama only about 20 percent were registered, but in Selma, it was fewer than 1 percent; for that reason, the city would become a focal point. Starting in January, black protesters met with violence at the hands of white police officers, and they were arrested in great numbers. Newspapers tallied the results: “Dr. King and 770 Others Seized”; “520 More Seized.” One state trooper reportedly told a marcher, “Sing one more freedom song and you are under arrest.” On the day King was released from jail, an ad written in his voice appeared in the Times: “There are more Negroes in jail with me than there are on the voting rolls.”

By February King was urging Johnson to act, but the president moved cautiously. Johnson knew that back-to-back civil rights bills could cause an electoral backlash, not only in the South but across the rest of the country. And despite calls for federal troops to protect the protesters, he stood firm: sending soldiers in would cause the Democratic party to lose every white Southern vote. Johnson argued that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 needed time to work, but he said that Congress would receive a voting rights bill by year’s end.

That timetable quickly changed. On February 26 a black protester died after being shot by a state trooper in Selma. March 7 brought Bloody Sunday, and two days later a white minister sympathetic to the civil rights movement was beaten by a white mob; he died the next day. Selma came to a boiling point, and Johnson was criticized for his slow reaction by the same activists he wanted to help. He knew he had to act; with Wallace in line, it was finally time. “Johnson was a great believer in timing,” says Valenti. “After Selma, he seized that moment like a trout going after a fly.”

In his address to both houses of Congress on March 15, LBJ said, “What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.” Appropriating the language of the civil rights movement itself, he added, “And we shall overcome.” Congress responded with a standing ovation.

The Voting Rights Act passed the Senate on May 26, the House on July 9. On August 6 Johnson signed it into law. In typical fashion, he did so in the same room in which Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation. So many people wanted a pen commemorating the day that LBJ used different ones for different parts of the letters in his name. And for good reason: The bill was in many ways more important than the Civil Rights Act. It suspended all literacy tests in seven of the former Confederate states and placed federal examiners in counties where black registration was below a prescribed level. For Johnson, it became the centerpiece of the Great Society, a sign that he could accomplish anything. Even Vietnam seemed, at that point, winnable.

The optimism would soon shatter. After the Civil Rights Act was enacted the previous year, Johnson had told civil rights leader Roy Wilkins, “Our troubles are just beginning. I guess you know that.” He’d feared widespread violence by whites in the South. Though it never happened then, rioting broke out in the black Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts five days after Johnson signed the 1965 bill. When it was over, more than thirty people were dead and six hundred arrested. “Johnson was shocked by it,” says Dallek. “That was one thing that pained him throughout the administration. He kept saying, ‘Look at everything I’ve done for black Americans. Why are they doing this to me?'” As riots spread to cities like Detroit and Newark, he wasn’t the only one to sense a shift in the content and direction of civil rights. In 1964 only one third of all Americans thought that racial change was coming too fast. Two years later, 85 percent did.

Yet Johnson ultimately accomplished what he wanted. Morally, the nation is united on much higher ground than anyone ever could have imagined. Economically, integration has been a boon to all Americans; one need only look at cities like Atlanta for proof. Politically, the impact of the Voting Rights Act cannot be overstated. By the end of 1966, only four states in the South had fewer than 50 percent of eligible blacks registered. By 1968 registration averaged 62 percent. Furthermore, in the sixties, only a few hundred blacks had been elected to public office; now about nine thousand hold office, thanks in some part to the creation of safe minority districts that almost guaranteed a black candidate could win election.

Most interesting of all, at least as far as the White House is concerned, the electoral power of the South is more certain than ever. Before Johnson, no Southerner had been elected president since before the Civil War, yet three of the six men who succeeded him have Southern roots. “I don’t think you could have had another Southern president without the Voting Rights Act,” says Katzenbach. “You needed it to legitimize Southern politicians in the North.” The 2000 race proves the point: Front-runners George W. Bush and Al Gore each hail from former Confederate states. It’s a situation that would no doubt make Johnson proud — except for the fact that the candidate from Texas is a Republican.

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