Civil Rights and Cherry Blossoms
Civil rights and cherry blossoms are in the April air. New books are sparking old memories and fresh conversations about the life-changing Civil Rights Act of 1964.
One new book, "An Idea Whose Time Has Come," by Todd S. Purdum, captures in cinematic detail the constant dialogue between Congress and the man in the White House, Lyndon Baines Johnson. The Act was his triumph rising out of the tragedy of John F. Kennedy's death late in 1963. Johnson seized on the vale of sorrow as a political opening to build upon Kennedy's unfinished bill. In true Texan style, Johnson made it bigger than anyone dreamed possible, to finish what Abraham Lincoln started, he said.
Johnson's presidential legacy is finally getting a fairer shake. The ghosts of the Vietnam War are not the whole story anymore. Johnson was the best of presidents at home, and the worst of presidents in foreign policy. The contradiction still stares at you.
In Austin, Texas, this week, a LBJ Civil Rights Summit gathering of four presidents — including Barack Obama and Bill Clinton — is framing Johnson anew. Other figures of the era are also tied to the legislation forever: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were in the East Room when Johnson signed the bill. King had given his soaring "I Have A Dream" speech the summer before. "Damned good," said President Kennedy, watching from the White House. Three months later, he was dead in Dallas.
The monumental law changed the South in no uncertain terms. No more Jim Crow, who had lived there too long. Lunch counters, restrooms and motels had to be open to all. The workplace had to be fair and free of discrimination. It took a Southerner, perhaps, to see how mean life could be to a person of color south of the Mason-Dixon.
Perhaps it took a Southerner to defy his own Democratic "Southern bulls" in Congress, rigid upholders of segregation, such as Richard Russell of Georgia. Perhaps it took a Southerner to know in his bones the Civil War wasn't yet over, a century later.
The new president's compass had shifted to the North Star, the star of freedom fighting. Give Johnson that, a deep sense of human dignity. That must be remembered, along with his deft political skills, a trait seldom seen before or since.
Jackson orchestrated Congress in a breathtaking fashion, first the House and then the Senate — his prior home as the majority leader. As Purdum points out, he widened the North vs. South paradigm on race. In the House, a key ally was William McCulloch, an Ohio Republican. In the Senate, Republican Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois became instrumental in rounding up votes. Dirksen identified with Lincoln and the abolitionists who once lived in his part of the state.
Midwestern Republicans are not often associated with civil rights, but they were staunch allies. By his reckoning, Johnson needed to make up for losing the slew of Southern Democrats — and to help break the filibuster that he saw coming.
One pleasure of Purdum's book is meeting characters that have gotten lost in the cracks, such as a stately man from Baltimore known in the Capitol as "the 101st senator." Clarence Mitchell, the NAACP lawyer-lobbyist, comes across as constant and upright as the Ohio Clock outside the Senate floor.
As a young newspaperman, Mitchell covered a lynching on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. In these pages, we see Mitchell walk a "dejected" Russell back to his office, even after the Georgia senator accused colleagues of acting like a lynch mob. As Purdum writes, Mitchell did so "in the courtliest of gestures," Only in America.
Other backstories spring back to life from this magnificent chapter in the nation's life. Robert Kennedy's smoldering hatred of Johnson even as he served in the Cabinet as attorney general is startling, even in retrospect, and makes you wonder why Johnson tolerated it, with his Texas-sized ego.
Those were the days in many ways, but for the exclusion of blacks and women from most halls of life. The Civil Rights bill, passed by white men, did not come easy. The South never surrendered, even in defeat. Johnson's victory, sweet as it was, felt bitter, too. He rightly predicted the South was as gone as the wind for his party.
To find out more about Jamie Stiehm, and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.
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