Lyndon “Magic” Johnson and the invention of poverty politics

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On Jan. 8, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson identified America’s new enemy poverty. On the heels of President John F. Kennedy’s death in Dallas, Texas and in the wake of both a growing militancy in the civil rights movement and an entrenched southern insurgency, Johnson tried to marry two powerful ideas: national interest and racial opportunity.

His words are still powerful, as he spoke of the rising tide of hopelessness and the infatuation with anarchy in America: “Unfortunately, many Americans no longer have hope some because of their poverty and some because of their color and all to many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity. And this administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.

This was a war against poverty and for hope. He would try to, in the words of Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., “Keep hope alive.” He sensed, as President Barack Obama did in 2008, that Americans might have the audacity to let hope in consensus and the constitution guide our politics and public policy.  He would fail to annihilate poverty. He was bound to fail. However, his war on poverty would create a politics that made economics the most important domestic issue trumping social issues like desegregation and race. His new poverty politics would save America from deep social disruption and the union from complete destruction.

1963 was a year of deep social trauma and spoken outrage in America. On Jan. 14, 1963 Gov. George Wallace stood on the steps of the Alabama state capitol and declared, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever. He challenged racial integration and federal government power. He would later block the entrance to Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama in June. President Kennedy would have to send the National Guard to put down the mad dog of segregation. Wallace was a loud voice of a strange freedom, but he was not the lone rebel.  Others in Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana and across the Deep South were entrenched. His speech was a token of the coming challenges of 1963 to the existence of a liberal establishment, a strong federal government and a United States of America.

There was more trauma and talk ahead. On April 16, 1963, Dr. King would write the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, responding to calls to wait on the courts and reject anarchy. He would give his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington later that year on Aug. 28, 1963, amid a nation in turmoil with 758 demonstrations held 10 weeks before the Washington march in 186 cities resulting in 14,733 arrests. Medgar Evers was killed in June of 1963. The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed in September of 1963 killing four young girls. President Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963. There was a growing sense across racial lines and around the nation that America was dangerously close to a race war. National morale was low. As Malcolm X talked of an incurable racism and roosting chickens, it seems the battle lines had been drawn and few had hope in the possibility of a free, equal and just United States of America bound by a trust or hope in shared values and fair procedures.

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson sought to unite the nation by identifying the enemy – poverty.  He seemed all too aware of what was at stake. Hope had to be restored. In order to do that opportunity had to be expanded. The perverse populism growing in America had to be contained.  Neither white Supremacist nor black separatist could be allowed to be the authentic interpreters of what America could be. Blue collar whites should not see blacks, liberal elites or the federal government as the enemy, blacks should not see whites, courts and government as the enemy. Southern states rights defenders shouldn’t see desegregation as encroachment. Liberals shouldn’t see foreign affairs as the most important matter. America shouldn’t see black integration as a bad, but as a good. Poverty was the enemy. It was America’s real threat.

President Johnson said, “Poverty is a national problem. It must be supported by state and local efforts. It cannot be won in Washington. It must be won in the field in every private home, in every public office from the courthouse to the White House.”

Before Erving “Magic” Johnson got to Michigan State University, Lyndon Johnson employed an old trick of liberal politicians – make the social issues disappear and use economic opportunity to shape American politics. Stop whites from worrying about going to school and living with blacks. Stop states from repressing the black movement for freedom. Stop giving blacks more examples of white supremacy – make it all go away. 50 years later, the war on poverty hasn’t been won, but the declaration of war may have saved the union from complete destruction.

D. Alexander Bullock is pastor of Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church. He is also the founder and national spokesperson for the Change Agent Consortium (CAC) a coalition of faith, labor, civil rights organizations and active citizens. CAC combines the best of the protest tradition (direct action) with economic empowerment, community development and community organizing to effect real change and real solutions.  Follow on Twitter: @DAlexanderB