Lyndon B. Johnson: Moral clarity on civil rights

This is one in a series of 13 Yahoo News interviews with historians about defining moments in presidential leadership. The interviews were conducted by Andrew Romano, Lisa Belkin and Sam Matthews, and the videos were produced by Sam Matthews.

Journalist and historian Jonathan Darman, author of “Landslide: LBJ and Ronald Reagan at the Dawn of a New America,” spoke to Yahoo News about Lyndon Johnson’s defining moment of presidential leadership: the risky decision to pursue civil-rights legislation over the objections of his fellow Southern Democrats — and his own political advisers.



Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson really believed that what he needed to do was to get the country moving again behind a big cause. One of the things he discussed was civil rights. And some of Johnson’s aides said to him, “There’s a lot of danger in that. You should stay away from that because it’ll take a lot of the momentum out of your new presidency and spoil some of the goodwill that you’ve got coming your way.” The South was solidly Democratic at this time.

And Johnson’s response was, “Well, what the hell is the presidency for?”

Johnson believed that if he was ever going to move beyond the mythic force of the Kennedy presidency — a force that was haunting him from the earliest hours of his own presidency — he needed to do something big. And he saw the Civil Rights Act as his opportunity to do that.

He says, “We have talked enough about civil rights. We have talked about it for one hundred years. The time has come to act.”

Johnson’s masterstroke was to take this emerging Kennedy myth and put it to work for himself. He says, “The way that we honor John F. Kennedy is to complete the legacy that he started.” And he really gets people behind that idea very quickly.

The public reaction to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is strongly positive among both whites and blacks. It was only in the South and within the more extreme factions in his own party that his actions were criticized.

So the immediate fears that Johnson had, early in his presidency about how civil rights might jeopardize his future in the 1964 election and the future of the party, don’t pan out. It becomes pretty clear early that Johnson is a unifying figure who has broad support from the country.

In 1964, Johnson just destroyed Republican Barry Goldwater all over the country. Johnson also gets a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and a huge 2-to-1 majority in the House of Representatives. He realizes better than anyone else that this is an opportunity to make significant legislation happen.

The Civil Rights Act was not a perfect piece of legislation. It left unaddressed the issue of voting rights, which had been the key factor in African-Americans’ oppression in the South for the previous 100 years.

Martin Luther King Jr. was aware of the slow timetable that officials in Washington were taking on the issue of voting rights. He and other leaders in the civil rights movement staged a major campaign in Alabama to draw attention to the issue by marching from Selma to Montgomery. They were, at first, worried that they were not going to get enough attention. But they chose, in Selma, a white establishment that was particularly inflammatory and particularly inclined toward violence.

The country’s attention was riveted on Selma when marchers were attacked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. People who were peacefully protesting were mauled in these horrific scenes by police, and it was another one of these moments from the 1960s that struck the nation’s conscience. This was something that was not supposed to happen in America.

Johnson is presented with a choice. He has to react to it, because it is this moment that is crying out for leadership. He could just do what a lot of politicians would do, which would be to condemn the actions of the white officials in Alabama, and then move on. Or he can take this as an opportunity to move the ball forward in a major way on voting rights. And Johnson decides, in the hours after those horrific images from Selma are broadcast all over the country, that this is his moment. He is going to go before the country and speak, and say that now is the time when we will do something about civil rights and about voting rights, and solve this issue once and for all.

The speech that he gave on voting rights was not like any other speech he ever gave. And I think that is because moral clarity is freeing for a president. He knew that he was doing the right thing on voting rights, and he was going to communicate that to the country in a very clear, direct and meaningful way.

In his speech, Johnson famously speaks the words that had defined the civil rights movement: “We shall overcome.”

People who were there described it as an almost ghostly feeling when they heard Johnson say that. They realized this was an historic moment they were living through.

Johnson is a Shakespearean figure. You have vanity, you have deep empathy, you have cruelty and you have the most wonderful form of kindness. And he’s ultimately a tragic figure. Because he sets out this goal for himself, and he achieves it. He does more for African-Americans than any other Democratic president had ever done before. But that’s not ultimately what he’s remembered for.

His presidency gets overtaken by the war in Vietnam, and it’s excruciating for him.

Still, Johnson’s pursuit of civil rights shows leadership at the highest level, which is understanding that there’s something greater than himself.

He didn’t come to the cause of civil rights for totally selfless reasons. He wanted to do something big, he wanted to be great and he understood that civil rights was an opportunity to do that.

But the more he devoted himself to the cause of civil rights, the less it became about him. It really became about the cause.


Click below to view the rest of the 13-part series.

Cover Thumbnail photo: President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act in 1964. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP)