With four of five living presidents poised to attend the Civil Rights Summit at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Texas, keepers of the LBJ legacy want Americans to take another look at the man.
In other words, they want us to emphasize his accomplishments—including the hallmark legislation he signed to bring forth social, racial and economic equality—but would have us downplay his promotion of a catastrophic war in Vietnam. But should we? Well, let’s take a look.
The summit, which will examine the past and present civil rights struggles in the U.S., comes on the fiftieth anniversary of President Johnson’s historic and iconic piece of legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It is no wonder some folks regard Johnson, a Southern Democrat, as the foremost civil rights president since Abraham Lincoln, that great first Republican president.
Looking at LBJ’s accomplishments, one cannot help but react with amazement. We live in a time when grand pieces of legislation are few and far between—with exceptions such as healthcare reform. And yet, Johnson presided over the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Medicaid, Medicare, Head Start, food stamps, federal funding for education, public broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. This is not to take away from the legislators who undoubtedly took the lead and pushed these bills forward.
His Great Society and War on Poverty programs have received criticism from detractors and skeptics in contemporary times as evidence of waste and failure by big government. But Johnson’s initiatives did help cut poverty. What stood in the way, and ultimately in Johnson’s way, leading to his decision to not seek another term in the White House, was Vietnam.
Johnson was a product of the postwar liberalism of his day on domestic issues, but also a creature of the Cold War. Surrounding himself with hawks and bean counters who cooked the books to show the U.S. was winning a war it really wasn’t, Vietnam was Johnson’s undoing. And rightly so, perhaps, providing a cautionary tale to future presidents who have refused to learn the lessons of that war.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. became a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War, and as a result, a thorn in President Johnson’s side. King and other civil rights activists provided LBJ with pressure in the form of a movement to make sure he did the right thing. Meanwhile, he did not heed the message of King, who himself was scolded by the civil rights establishment for going against the president and daring to veer out of the civil rights lane and into the realm of international human rights.
Linking Vietnam, the anti-poverty programs and the Civil Rights movement in a way that Johnson simply could not fathom, Dr. King realized that the war was an “enemy of the poor” that drained necessary resources from fighting poverty. And he realized the cruel irony of bringing poor black and white young men together to burn a village in Southeast Asia, when they would not live on the same block or attend the same school back home.
“Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population,” King said. “We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”
Johnson, like any politician, or any person for that matter, was imperfect. After all, he was a white Southerner who had opposed civil rights and used racial slurs, while his family had fought for the Confederacy. He managed to rise above it and become a champion of civil rights. “If you can convince the lowest white man that he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you,” Johnson commented.
African-Americans have a more positive attitude towards LBJ than others. The first southerner in the White House in a century, Johnson proclaimed “We have lost the South for a generation,” referring to the high price the Democratic Party would pay for passage of the civil rights laws. Of course, he was right. Southern segregationists would flock to the Republican Party, much as they took their children out of newly integrated schools to form segregation academies. And the Republicans would capitalize on a Southern Strategy built on white resentment of the gains black people made since the civil rights movement.
Lyndon B. Johnson was a son of the South who was willing to face the endemic problems of poverty and racism that plagued the South. Because he was willing to be a part of a vision for America that did not include the old South mentality, and pointed towards justice, he deserves our attention. Call it pragmatism or political maneuvering, or perhaps wanting to cement his legacy. Whatever his motivations, he was a politician, and those of us who have worked in that environment know that the process of making sausage is not a pretty sight.
What we should know is that Johnson’s legacy in Vietnam will always be troubling. However, his record on civil rights and fighting poverty deserves a second look.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove