LBJ as Yanker of Chains, Kisser of Butts
In this, the third portion of Robert Caro’s seemingly endless recreation of Lyndon Johnson’s life, we get a uniquely intimate lesson in how one senator can manipulate what is supposed to be our most deliberative branch of Congress. How did Johnson do it? “Utter ruthlessness,” is part of Caro’s explanation, and the reader of these thousand pages will see that by ruthlessness he means an enormous talent for getting his way through treachery, corruption, deceit, and just plain meanness.
Caro ranks Johnson as “the greatest Senate leader in America’s history.” If by “greatest” he means the most powerful, Caro’s own examples of some other leaders weaken that claim. There was, for instance, Majority Leader Henry Cabot Lodge, who virtually single-handedly killed our chances of joining the League of Nations, an alliance which, if we had supported it, just might have prevented World War II. And before Lodge there were those rogues of the “Gilded Age,” William Allison of Iowa and Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island, who for 30 years raped the federal government on behalf of banks, railroads, oil companies, and the sugar, steel, and copper trusts.
But Johnson’s power was certainly equal to theirs, and like them he mainly used it negatively. And since devils are always more interesting than saints, that’s what makes this biography so hypnotically fascinating. Sometimes Johnson used his power to help his rich Texas patrons screw consumers and workers–but more devastatingly he used it for many years to frustrate any solution to this country’s most persistent and heartbreaking problem: racial injustice.
Caro writes that Johnson’s “rise was financed by men so bigoted that to talk to them when their guard was down was to encounter a racism whose viciousness had no limits.” He was speaking of those immortal enemies of Texas liberals, George and Herman Brown of Brown & Root, the major financiers of Johnson’s rise; Ed Clark, Johnson’s chief attorney, sometimes known as the “Secret Boss of Texas;” and Austin attorney Alvin Wirtz, the crafty political “string-puller who was the single most powerful figure in Johnson’s congressional district, an attorney for Brown & Root and a number of oil companies, and a key figure in Johnson’s career.”
When talking with liberals and moderates, Johnson watched his tongue, and he claimed, “I never had a drop of bigotry in me.” But his own diaries, as well as conversations he didn’t know were being taped, show that he considered blacks and Mexicans to be dumb, lazy, pushy, and prone to drunkenness and violence.
Of course it’s true that actions speak louder than words and perhaps one shouldn’t attach too much importance to the racist expressions that Southerners used two generations ago, but they do have some significance. Johnson’s backers, who told Caro that Johnson talked about “niggers” the same way they did when they were together, felt no need to hide their own feelings. When Caro interviewed Ed Clark, he was immediately subjected to a joke about a black man climbing a tree in Africa and being shat on by a monkey. As for Wirtz, his “racism was so virulent that he could not restrain himself even at a Georgetown dinner party at which Virginia Durr began advocating giving Negroes the vote. Wirtz responded, ‘Look, I like mules, but you don’t bring mules into the parlor.'”
Johnson said Wirtz “was like a daddy to me,” which didn’t mean much because Johnson claimed the same imaginary relationship with Franklin Roosevelt, Sam Rayburn, Ed Clark, Richard Russell, and others, as he rode their coattails.
Wirtz’s assistance began when he helped Johnson, only 29, get appointed director of the Texas branch of the National Youth Administration, established in the Great Depression to hire young people for various tasks. His boss at NYA’s Washington headquarters told Johnson that because Texas had such a large black population–about 850,000–there should be at least one black member of the State Advisory Board.
Either because of personal bias or out of deference to Wirtz, whom Johnson had already made chairman of the board, he refused to add a black. Ten other southern states, even Mississippi and Alabama, did have blacks on their advisory boards, but not Texas.
Giving assistance to students in high school and college was the NYA’s major program. During Johnson’s 19-month tenure as Texas’ director, black youths comprised 27.8 percent of the state’s total youth population, but they received only 9.8 percent of the school aid–the worst record in the country.
Mexican Americans got the same kind of treatment. Although they comprised almost 12 percent of the state’s population, “there was not a single individual with a Spanish surname on a list of the top 37 Texas NYA staff.”
President Truman was the first president to seek full entry of the federal government into the civil rights fields with a comprehensive program. Fifteen years before Johnson reached the White House, Truman presented Congress with a package of legislation that would have made lynching a federal crime, would have outlawed the poll tax and discrimination in interstate transportation, and would have barred discrimination in the armed services, in federal Civil Service jobs, and in work done under government contract.
The Southern Mafia in the Senate, using the filibuster, killed all those bills. But Truman outfoxed the bastards to some extent, by using executive orders to desegregate the military and Civil Service and federal contract employment. Truman also ordered the Federal Housing Administration to deny financial assistance to any new housing project that had racial or religious restrictions. That was 1948, the year Truman won re-election to the White House, although his civil rights program prompted a huge hunk of the normally Democratic South to desert him.
Lyndon Johnson was also running that year. It was his first bid for a U.S. Senate seat. And Truman’s program was a key part of his campaign, too, but in quite a different way.
During his 11 years in the House of Representatives, he had always voted–yes, 100 percent of the time–against civil rights legislation. Now, on May 22, 1948, in Austin’s Wooldridge Park, he opened his campaign by telling the rally that Truman’s “Fair Deal” program (more housing, higher minimum wage, protection for unions, civil rights, etc.) was “a farce and a sham.” He also asserted his opposition to “an effort to set up a police state in the name of liberty,” by which he meant, “I have voted AGAINST the so-called poll tax repeal bill; the poll tax should be repealed by those states which enacted them. I have voted AGAINST the so-called anti-lynching bill; the state can, and DOES, enforce the law against murder. I have voted AGAINST the FEPC [Fair Employment Practices Commission]; if a man can tell you whom you hire, he can tell you whom you can’t hire.”
We know that those capitalized words were written into Johnson’s speech for emphasis because Caro, that fiendish researcher who apparently has turned over every sheet of paper in the Lyndon Johnson Library, uncovered the original manuscript, and found, well, let him tell it:
After he became president, Johnson wanted his image to be that of a man who had ‘never had any bigotry,’ who had been a longtime supporter of civil rights. The memory of the Wooldridge Park speech would blur that image, so he did his best to make sure it wouldn’t be remembered. Stapled to the text of the speech in the White House file was the following admonition.
DO NOT RELEASE THIS SPEECH–NOT EVEN TO STAFF, WITHOUT EXPRESS PERMISSION OF BILL MOYERS. As background, both Walter Jenkins and George Reedy have instructed this is not EVER TO BE RELEASED.
Wirtz again contributed to Johnson’s advance in 1949, almost as soon as he moved into the U.S. Senate. I say “advance” only because it solidified the confidence, and more importantly the financial support, that the oil and gas men of Houston would invest in Johnson from then on. Otherwise, what happened in 1949 was ethically the low point in Johnson’s career. After it was over, even Tommy Corcoran, one of Washington’s most notorious political fixers, was moved to tell Johnson to his face, “That’s the rottenest thing you have ever done.”
What he had done was destroy the career, and in effect destroy the life of Leland Olds, as decent and public-spirited a bureaucrat as ever worked in the federal government. Olds had served two five-year terms as chairman of the Federal Power Commission. Among other things, the FPC regulated the price of natural gas sold to and by pipeline companies. During Olds’ tenure, he had saved consumers a quarter of a billion dollars (big bucks in those days) in rate reductions. He had introduced into regulation practice the concept of rates based upon the number of dollars actually invested rather than upon what the market will bear.
At this point, the plot thickens. Johnson’s old allies, Herman and George Brown, had purchased at a give-away price thousands of miles of gigantic pipelines built by the government during World War II, and had established the Texas Eastern Transmission Company. If they could do away with government regulation or get rid of Olds and have him replaced by a more “cooperative” chairman of the FPC, it would mean many millions of extra dollars to them each year.
Olds was now up for re-confirmation to a third term as chairman of the FPC. It seemed a sure thing. After all, he had twice before–in 1940 and 1944–been confirmed without a hitch.
But the Texas gas boys were determined that he would never make it, and the way to do it would be to drown him in the tidal wave of anti-Communist hysteria that was already sweeping the country. They felt that things Olds had done in his past could be twisted enough to make him seem subversive, and they had the twister to do it–their new senator, Lyndon Johnson.
By today’s standards, the things that Olds had said and written do not seem at all radical–certainly no more radical than, say, the record of Jim Hightower or Molly Ivins.
But Olds, as it turned out, had one fatal handicap. Among the 100 different newspapers that subscribed to his fiery material was, alas, the Communist Party’s Daily Worker. He had no control over who subscribed to his material. And the Texas gas conspirators were overjoyed that he hadn’t.
The Daily Worker material was assembled in Washington and loaded into Brown & Root’s DC-3 and flown down to Austin. “The coordinating of the research,” writes Caro, “was done there–by a master: Alvin Wirtz, who was the Austin lobbyist for many Texas oil firms and natural gas companies. One of the reasons that Wirtz was a feared figure to those who had dealings with him was the combination of cruelty and guile that he possessed.” Both qualities were now called into play.
“Selectivity was the key. During his years with the Federated Press, Olds had written more than 1,800 articles.” Out of all those articles, Wirtz and Johnson selected 54 that they thought would be most damaging to Olds, “and out of those 54, they had selected portions–a paragraph from one, a sentence from another, sometimes only a phrase.”
If time has mellowed your judgment of Lyndon Johnson, your memory of him as he really was will be sharpened again when you read Caro’s account of the professional assassination he carried out in his successful blocking of Olds’ confirmation, garroting him with lies and innuendo both in committee and on the Senate floor. It’s also a valuable section because it shows you a Hubert Humphrey who has not yet surrendered to Johnson and who was gutsy enough to stand up for Olds (one of only five senators to speak on his behalf) on the floor of that inhospitable Senate, and deliver his speech with a passion that I confess really gets to me every time I read it, as I have at least a dozen times over the years. In part:
“There is not one iota of evidence that Olds was ever a Communist. In fact, he is a devoted American… In the 1920s the American enterprise system should have been criticized, and anyone who conclusively criticized it should have a crown of diamonds. If there is any room in heaven for a politician, the politician who will be in heaven is the one who had the courage to stand up and condemn the exploiters of child labor and adult labor, the exploiters of the widows who put their money in phony stocks. If Mr. Olds had the courage to stand up in the 1920s and say that he did not like that kind of rotten business practice, God bless him. Those who should be on trial tonight are those who sat serenely and did not raise a finger of protest when millions of people were robbed, families were broken, homes were destroyed, and businesses were bankrupted. All they did was to talk about some kind of business confidence, and prosperity around the corner, and split up the loot. If there is any divine justice those men will fry, and Mr. Olds will have a crown.”
Maybe eventually, but at the moment he had neither a crown nor a job, and he would never get another government position. Johnson’s natural gas buddies got what they wanted. The man appointed to the FPC to replace Olds believed in deregulation.
One scene in this long process of destruction conveys the purest Johnsonian evil. During a recess in the subcommittee hearing over Olds’ confirmation, Johnson met his victim in the hallway, put his hand on Olds’ shoulder and said, “Lee, I hope you understand there’s nothing personal in this. We’re still friends aren’t we? It’s only politics, you know…”
Within three years after reaching the Senate, Johnson was the Democratic minority leader, and two years later he was the party’s majority leader–in both instances, the youngest in history. How did he move up so rapidly? Why, he was simply a world-class sycophant. As Johnson put it, “Christ, I’ve been kissing asses all my life.” Caro agrees: “The key to his advancement had fit the pattern of his entire life: As he had done in the House of Representatives, he had identified the one man who had the power that could best help him, and had courted that man.”
In the House, that one man had of course been the speaker, old Sam Rayburn of Texas. And Johnson courted him shamelessly, often kissing him on the top of his very bald head and whispering, “How are you, my beloved?” Rayburn wasn’t fooled. He would often say to a friend, “I don’t know anyone as vain or more selfish than Lyndon.” Still, he granted Johnson almost any favor. Rayburn was a lonely bachelor and avoided social gatherings because he was clumsy at small talk. Johnson virtually made Rayburn a part of his own family, having him to dinner on a regular basis.
In the Senate, “the one man who had the power,” and who almost totally shaped Johnson’s future, was Senator Richard Brevard Russell Jr. of Georgia. Russell was also a bachelor and from all evidence as lonely and as unsociable as Rayburn. He always ate dinner at the same café, sitting alone at the counter, and then went back to his two-room apartment to spend the evening alone, reading. In his monotonous loneliness he even read Gibbon’s multi-volume Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire three times.
Johnson courted Russell as he had Rayburn, having him regularly to his home for weekend meals, or accompanying him to baseball games, a sport that Russell loved and Johnson didn’t give a damn about. John Connally, knowing what was going on, asked Johnson sarcastically, “Do you know the pitcher from the catcher?”
But the courtship went far beyond that, and in much more significant ways. From the day he stepped onto the Senate floor, and with no let-up thereafter, Johnson was the creature of Russell–his puppet, his lapdog, his attack dog. Russell was the most powerful man in the Senate, being the only member who sat on both the Democratic Policy Committee, which controlled the flow of legislation to the floor, and the Democratic Steering Committee, which controlled the party’s committee assignments. He was also chairman of the Armed Services Committee and was the main reason many states in the South almost sank beneath the weight of armaments produced for the Cold War.
Since this was the politician Johnson imitated and served so slavishly (and who in a real sense put Johnson on the road to the White House), we should take a closer look at him. “His ancestors,” Caro tell us, “were part of the upper reaches of the slave-owning patrician aristocracy that dominated the South’s plantation culture and embodied its social graces.” They were financially ruined by the Civil War. In his imagination, throughout his life, says Caro, Russell never stopped fighting the war, or the “Lost Cause,” as it was sometimes called–”the lost dream of the Old South that was crushed at Gettysburg.”
He arrived in 1933, right in the middle of the Great Depression, so of course he supported all the federal welfare programs that kept Dixie’s white farmers from starving. He also, of course, opposed all programs to help blacks. The lynching of blacks had become a favorite pastime in the South, so in 1935 and 1938 liberal senators tried to bring anti-lynching bills to the floor for a vote. They would surely have passed because in 1938 the bill had 70 sponsors. But Southern filibusters stopped them. And Russell was one of the most stubborn opponents, arguing that to pass a federal law against lynching would “strike vital blows at the civilization of those I represent.” And then, raising those memories of the Lost Cause that Caro correctly says were always in the forefront of Russell’s desire for revenge, he added, “We have not yet come to the state of affairs in Georgia where we need the advice of those who would occupy the position of the carpetbagger and the scalawag of the days of Reconstruction to tell us how to handle our internal affairs.”
It will come as no surprise to learn that Johnson’s maiden speech in the Senate, a one-hour 25-minute contribution to a filibuster, was aimed at killing civil rights legislation. The audience he had most in mind, Russell, called it, “one of the ablest speeches I have ever heard on the subject.”
When Johnson arrived in the Senate, and for years thereafter, most of the important committees were under the control of the Old Bulls of the South. To reach the kind of power he wanted he had to curry their favor, too. And what a gang of thugs they were. It takes only a few to convey the prevailing spirit: Olin Johnston of South Carolina, who boycotted a Democratic banquet in Washington because he feared his wife might have to sit next to a black person; Allen Ellender of Louisiana, who larded all his speeches with the word “nigger”; Harry Byrd of Virginia, who called for “massive resistance” to civil rights laws for fear they might cause “close, intimate contact” between children of various hues; and Jim Eastland of Mississippi, who considered black Americans “unbearably stinking.” He once told an Alabama rally that “all whites are created equal with certain rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of dead niggers.” Incredible though it may seem, Eastland was chairman of Judiciary Committee, through which all civil rights bills had to pass.
Johnson knew that if that crowd ever turned against him, he could be ruined. He made sure they didn’t. He might treat liberals with brutal contempt, but “he didn’t rant and rave at the Harry Byrds of the world,” George Smathers, once a slick senator from Florida, told Caro. “Oh, no, he was passive, and so submissive, and so condescending, you wouldn’t believe it. I’ve seen him kiss Harry Byrd’s ass until it was disgusting.”
But with the Southern Bulls behind him, he felt secure enough that he began to treat many of the moderates and certainly the liberals like dirt. He handed out committee assignments according to their willingness to be submissive. And he took harsh revenge on those who stood up to him.
The great liberal Paul Douglas of Illinois, a former professor at the University of Chicago and the Senate’s most respected expert on taxation, had whipped Johnson too many times in debate and did not hide his contempt for the majority leader. So he was not put on the Finance Committee, where he would have been the star. He was banished to the Joint Economic Committee, which had no power at all. Johnson sneered to Bobby Baker, his invaluable gossip-collector and vote-counter, “I’ll give Professor Douglas some papers to shuffle.” To complete his vengeance, Johnson took away the Joint Economic Committee’s room and made it part of his offices.
Now that he was on top of the heap, his façade of courtesy dropped entirely. He stopped returning phone calls from Senators he didn’t “need.” He would ostentatiously walk off the Senate floor when Senators he felt weren’t on his “team” began to speak.
Caro says that “a single attempt at independence by a Senator, even one whose alliance was of long duration, could end that alliance permanently. ‘As for Senate loners,’ Russell Long said, ‘he could make their lives miserable.'”
He had always made life miserable for his staff (and for his wife, Lady Bird, but that’s too involved a story to go into here). He was subject to uncontrolled fits of temper–what John Connally, who once worked briefly for Johnson, described as “just wild, wild, raging, ranting, screaming, totally out of control.” That changed, for a while, after his heart attack in 1955, when he curbed his temper to avoid dying. The attack had been brought on by excesses, of course. Johnson had always swilled scotch whiskey (in Russell Baker’s phrase) “like a man who had a date with a firing squad” and shoveled food into his mouth (in Bobby Baker’s phrase) “like a starving dog.”
And with his usual willingness to use whatever tactics, however tasteless, to get his way, he used his heart attack to wrangle pity. “Throughout the 1956 session he would refer to his heart attack to get what he wanted from senators.”
Neither bullying nor whining worked with all members. Few liberals sold out. The most embarrassing exception was Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, whose rousing civil rights speech at the 1948 Democratic convention had made him an instant national celebrity. When he got to the Senate, Johnson at first shunned him for months. Thus, having tamed him, Johnson gradually turned him by the mid-1950s into what could be called a lackey. Literally. He would order Humphrey to run an errand, and if he didn’t move fast enough, Johnson would kick him on the shin. Humphrey unashamedly showed the scars to his friends–but kept running the errands. When rebuked by Johnson, “Humphrey’s reaction was instant grovel.” In some of the key civil rights fights Humphrey betrayed the liberals by convincing them to “give Johnson a chance.”
Which brings us to what is perhaps the heart, or rump, of this book: The legislative fight over the 1957 civil rights bill.
The last civil rights law passed by Congress was in 1875, and within five years it had been wiped off the books. There had been dozens of efforts to pass another civil rights law, but only a handful had even reached the Senate floor and there they had been crushed, as expected, by Rule 22. That rule permitted filibusters to live forever unless cut short by a vote of two-thirds of the members. When a civil rights bill was at issue, that was an impossible percentage to reach because, aside from the solid South, there were senators in other states who hesitated
to disturb the tradition of unlimited debate.
But by the 1950s violent things were happening in the nation that made the passage of a civil rights bill seem imperatively needed as a pacifier. In the South, segregation and gutter-level abuse made life for most blacks about the same as it had been for their great-grandparents. They were getting mad as hell, and some weren’t going to take it anymore. That was made obvious enough for even crackers to see when, in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person and was thrown off the bus. The resulting yearlong Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott showed just how powerful “black power” could be. And it introduced the nation to a young Montgomery preacher by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr.
And southern blacks were fed up with their children’s lousy schooling. The first sign of things to come was in Mansfield, about 17 miles southeast of Fort Worth. The school district was made up of 688 white and 58 black students. The latter were bussed into Fort Worth. With the U.S. Circuit of Appeals’ approval, three black boys announced their intent to enter the Mansfield school in 1956. For three days before school opened, a mob controlled the town. Free knives were offered white students who promised to use them. An assistant district attorney was hit, kicked, and cursed. Television cameras were broken. The blacks’ attorney pleaded with Governor Shivers for help. He refused to send state troops to protect what he called “NAACP agitators,” but he did send Texas Rangers with specific instructions to protect the white people of the town. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus later indicated that Mansfield was the inspiration for the way he handled the 1957 integration crisis at the Little Rock high school, where, as the world watched in awe, President Eisenhower sent a thousand paratroopers with fixed bayonets to protect nine black students.
The rest of the nation was, with the added assistance of television, becoming increasingly aware of the Deep South’s pure savagery. In 1955, something happened that, historically speaking, was not at all unusual–thousands of similar murders had been committed, unpunished, over the generations. But this time television and other parts of the press brought the horror right into the front room of the world. A 14-year-old black boy from Chicago named Emmett Till, visiting his mother’s hometown on the Mississippi delta made what the locals considered a few sassy remarks to a white clerk–a woman.
Word got around of this unforgivable act, and that night two white men, armed with .45 automatic pistols, went to the home of the boy’s uncle and aunt and took him away to a nearby shed, where they beat him on the head so hard that one of his eyeballs dangled from its socket. Then they forced him to carry a 70-pound exhaust fan down to the Tallahatchie River, where many other black lives had been ended. They beat him some more, crushed his skull, shot him in the face, tied the fan around his neck and tossed him into the river. Three days later his body, so bloated the fan couldn’t keep it down, bobbed to the surface. A policeman said it was the most badly beaten face he had ever seen. The boy could be identified only by an initialed ring on one of his fingers.
That might have been the end of the event. Such events in the South usually had a swift, virtually unnoticed ending. But this time things were different. Emmett’s mother refused to let him be buried in the South. She insisted that his body be sent back to Chicago, and she ordered that the casket be left open for three days. “The church in Chicago’s great South Side black ghetto in which the casket lay held seventeen hundred people but it wasn’t enough.
Thousands upon thousands of black men and women lined up in the street outside and filed past it. Men’s faces changed as they saw what was inside, women fainted…” Then the black magazine, Jet, with a national circulation, used a photograph of the boy’s face. Roy Wilkens of the NAACP spoke to a Harlem rally about Mississippi’s “jungle fury” and 10,000 people jammed the street to hear him. Other rallies were held in Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, and Los Angeles.
Tallahatchie County, where Emmett was murdered, wasn’t perturbed. Dozens of the nation’s best reporters were there for the trial, but by southern standards, the trial was pretty ordinary. The all-white jury (one good reason there were no blacks on the jury was that to be a juror you had to be a registered voter, and though 63 percent of the county’s residents were black, none had been allowed to register) was out only an hour and seven minutes before coming back to declare the murderers innocent. One juror said they wouldn’t have taken so long, “if we hadn’t stopped to drink pop.”
These tremors of a racial earthquake on the way showed whites outside the Deep South just how lawless a lot of folks in the region could be, Chamber of Commerce sorts as well as rednecks. And it showed the millions of blacks who had never lived in the South–an increasingly potent voting group in some northern and West Coast cities–that a new Gettysburg should be enforced via politics.
So how could a high-level Southern politician with hopes of being elected president ever persuade enough of those people that he was different? Getting credit for manipulating a civil rights bill through Congress–the first successful civil rights effort in 80 years–would be one way, maybe the only way. Although Johnson had helped kill at least a dozen civil rights bills since he reached Congress, now he had to present himself as the prodigal son come home, having learned his lesson about brotherhood. To get enough votes outside the South, he had to at least seem to have changed character. He was convinced of that, and, more importantly, so was Richard Russell.
Which is why Russell, for this first time in his life, was not only willing to let a civil rights bill be passed, but eager to help its passage–so long as it was an exceedingly weak one.
For him, it was a matter of revenge. Russell had tried for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1952 and had been mortified by the size of his defeat. That left him exceedingly bitter. But if Lyndon Johnson, his protégé and son of the Confederacy, could be put in the White House, the Lost Cause would no longer seem quite so lost.
There would, of course, be difficulties, very risky difficulties, in this scheme. First, the bill would have to start out written in such a strong form that liberals would think they were really getting something to change the world. And then, before southern senators got so angry they pulled a filibuster, it would have to be amended so much they could see it was just a token, not dangerous at all to the Southern Way of Life. “A successful southern filibuster,” Caro reminds us, “would wreck Johnson’s chances of winning the Democratic nomination–but so would an unsuccessful filibuster. The very launching of a filibuster would not only emphasize the split in his party, it would force him, as the Senate’s procedural leader, to take a stand on one side or the other, to take steps either to support it or to end it”–thereby losing either northern voters or southern ones.
Johnson avoided a filibuster by promising liberals and moderates a civil rights bill, and by promising southerners that he would gut it.
He kept both promises. How he did it–through a psychodrama of lies, chicanery, fudging, exploiting gullibility, dickering, threats, pleas for pity, and more lies (with the crucial assistance of some labor unions and liberals who sold out)–consumes the last 200 or so pages of this book, and they are well worth reading, if you are interested in learning how a blackguard magician works his trade. But I’ll compress the results into two paragraphs.
The heart of the bill that the Senate started out with was Part III, covering a broad array of civil rights that would make segregation illegal–and subject to stern penalties–in schools and in public places such as parks, swimming pools, hotels, motels, theaters, and restaurants. Liberals were adamant that that part had to stay in. They considered it absolutely crucial, if the bill was to mean anything. Southerners were equally adamant that it had to come out. So, of course, it was taken out.
That left non-southerners only with Part IV, which allegedly guaranteed federally enforced voting rights. Not a bad fallback prize, since the difficulty for blacks to register to vote was rather stunning. In the 11 southern states, more than six million blacks were eligible to vote–but only one out of five had dared register. “In 1957, there were scores of counties in the South which had tens of thousands of black residents, but in which, in some elections, not a single vote had been cast by a black.” As originally written, Part IV would have allowed judges to jail registrars for criminal contempt if they cheated blacks out of their vote. Southern senators insisted that instead of leaving punishment in the hands of a judge, the accused registrars should get a jury trial. So that was added to the bill. Of course, the idea that a southern jury with even one white man on it would convict a white registrar for something as commonplace as keeping a black from the ballot box was absurd. Thus, with the insertion of the jury trial, Part IV became meaningless.
Just how meaningless was shown by the Southern Regional Council’s survey in 1960 that found “the net gain in black voter registration in the Old Confederacy appears to have been a flat zero.”
In obvious fact, the thing called the Civil Rights Act of 1957 was, as the great black leader A. Philip Randolph said, “worse than no bill at all.” The liberal columnist Thomas Stokes correctly appraised Johnson’s work: “looking back on it all, we might say that never was a strategy so brilliant to bring about so evil a result.”
It wasn’t all Johnson’s fault. Some liberals and moderates were also to blame. Although in the 20 years he had been in Congress he had never supported any civil rights legislation, some of that gullible group convinced themselves that this time he was sincerely trying to do right and took his guidance. And after it was over, Johnson tried to appease the suckers with the kind of country bullshit that was so typical of him: “Once you break her virginity, it’ll be easier next time.”
Next time was 1959 and another next time was 1960, when he easily screwed the nation with two more “civil rights” acts, each so useless that Caro admits they “may even have been a step back.” Meanwhile, the politician Caro calls “the greatest Senate Leader in America’s history” seemed mostly content to be no more than a spectator to those years of riots, marches, school closings, lynchings, mutilations, and increasing inter-racial distrust and hatred.
Robert Sherrill writes about the abuse of political and corporate power for the Observer. He is a very busy man.