Editor’s note: This post is the fourth in a series of ongoing articles that cover a five-part lecture series presented by David Domke, professor and chair for the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. The series is entitled “Marching to Selma: How MLK, LBJ and the Civil Rights Movement Changed the World.”
In Lyndon Baines Johnson: The Improbable President, the fourth lecture in his five-part “Marching to Selma” series, David Domke launched his talk to the standing-room-only crowd by acknowledging that Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) was a “complicated person who could be viewed in a variety of ways.” He explained that in his lecture he would look at LBJ “through the lens of the civil rights movement,” focusing on how LBJ evolved over time, and how Domke came to see LBJ’s role as a moral force for leadership in this country.
Domke began by providing the backdrop for the improbability that LBJ, a Texan, would become President of the United States, given that as of 1956 there had been no president from the South elected since 1869. The White House had been occupied by a president with Northern roots for 87 years.
In contrast, the South had dominated Congress for decades. Between 1882 and 1960, 200 anti-lynching bills were proposed in Congress and none were passed. Indeed, this blatant pattern of failure led the U.S. Senate in 2005 to approve a resolution apologizing for its failure to enact federal anti-lynching legislation decades ago. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said before the vote on the resolution, “There may be no other injustice in American history for which the Senate so uniquely bears responsibility,”
In a nutshell, LBJ faced a problem: to become President of the United States, something he aspired to from a young age, he would have to get there through Congress, which presented very real challenges.
So, how did LBJ become LBJ? How did he become the president who, in the wake of the brutal violence of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama, would speak to Congress of legislation to assure voting rights for all with such stirring eloquence and gravity?
Forged in the Face of Poverty
Johnson’s early years shaped the man he would become. He was born into a poor family in a poor part of Texas. As he worked his way through San Marcos Teachers College, he was presented with the opportunity to teach the fifth, sixth, and seventh grades at the segregated Wellhausen Elementary School in Cotulla, Texas, which served Spanish-speaking families.
He took the job and dived into his work. Wrote author Robert Caro, in his biography of LBJ, “No teacher had ever cared if the Mexican students learned or not. This teacher cared. He insisted that students speak English and do so in front of audiences—he instituted school wide assemblies at which students performed in skits—and even debate in it. Cotulla’s students had never had extracurricular activities; within weeks, Johnson had arranged interscholastic debating contests, declamation contests, even spelling bees.”
Johnson himself later remembered this formative period when he visited Wellhausen Elementary again in 1966,
“Thirty eight years have passed, but I still see the faces of the children who sat in my class. I still hear their eager voices speaking Spanish as I came in. I still see their excited eyes speaking friendship. Right here I had my first lessons in poverty. I had my first lessons in the high price we pay for poverty and prejudice right here. Thirty eight years later our nation is still paying the price.”
A Powerful Voice for Change
When LBJ entered politics, he walked a tightrope between the Southern Senate, which he joined in 1949, and the Northern White House, which he would occupy 1961 as Vice President with President John F. Kennedy. Early on in his political career, he proved adept at avoiding pitfalls. For example, he did not sign The Southern Manifesto, which attacked the US Supreme Court’s decision of 1956 to desegregate schools. He did not sign it because he did not see it before it was published.
Over time, LBJ’s awareness of the civil rights movement’s call for justice grew. His early life experiences combined with events of the day, such as the bombings and violence in Birmingham, Alabama, led him to deliver an extraordinary address on Memorial Day, May 30, 1963, at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in which he said:
“As we maintain the vigil of peace, we must remember that justice is a vigil, too–a vigil we must keep in our own streets and schools and among the lives of all our people–so that those who died here on their native soil shall not have died in vain.
One hundred years ago, the slave was freed.
One hundred years later, the Negro remains in bondage to the color of his skin.
The Negro today asks justice.”
With these words he responded directly to Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written just a few weeks prior on April 13, 1963. In his compelling letter, King wrote of his frustration with the pace of change:
“For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, ‘that justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”
Johnson closed his talk at Gettysburg with these words that remain apt today:
“Until justice is blind to color, until education is unaware of race, until opportunity is unconcerned with the color of men’s skins, emancipation will be a proclamation but not a fact. To the extent that the proclamation of emancipation is not fulfilled in fact, to that extent we shall have fallen short of assuring freedom to the free.”
Bloody Sunday and the Voting Rights Act
Johnson assumed the presidency in November 1963 after the assassination of JFK. President Kennedy called civil rights a “moral issue” and Johnson concurred with that stance. When he assumed the presidency Johnson called on Americans “to eliminate from this nation every trace of discrimination and oppression that is based upon race or color.”
Almost exactly fifty years ago, on March 7, 1965, Alabama state troopers viciously bludgeoned and gassed peaceful, nonviolent protesters
marching for voting rights in Selma, Alabama. That day became known as Bloody Sunday. Amelia Boynton, who helped organize the march, was beaten unconscious. A photograph of Boynton crumpled on Edmund Pettus Bridge flew across the country and around the world, shining a light on the violent attack.
The events of Bloody Sunday galvanized public opinion and contributed to the passage of the Voting Rights Act seven months later. Boynton, having healed enough from her wounds, was a guest of honor when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
In his speech to Congress upon the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Johnson said, in closing:
“Thus, this is a victory for the freedom of the American Negro. But it is also a victory for the freedom of the American nation. And every family across this great, entire, searching land will live stronger in liberty, will live more splendid in expectation, and will be prouder to be American because of the act that you have passed that I will sign today.”
As we approach the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, 21 states now have voting restrictions in place. The time is ripe for our nation to revisit the vision for voting rights spelled out in the hard-won Voting Rights Act of 1965. We owe it to all who worked so hard and sacrificed so much to bring the Act to life. LBJ would approve.
If you missed the “Marching to Selma” lecture series, then you’re in luck! Professor Domke will present the “Marching to Selma” lecture series again on March 30, April 6, April 13, April 20, and April 27. Register online at uwdomketoselma3.bpt.me, or call Jessica Herzog at 206-543-2660. All funds collected for admission to the lectures go to support students in the UW Department of Communication.