Wednesday, July 2, 2014

We're Much the Better for It

It happened fifty years ago tonight.

A man who spent his first 26 years in Washington (beginning in 1937) sticking up for Jim Crow had a change of heart...and stuck his neck out for America.

Not his own political legacy. Not his Democratic Party.

Lyndon Baines Johnson stuck his neck out for his country when, on 7-2-1964, he signed into law the first really meaningful civil rights legislation in this country's history. 

It happened thirteen months after Johnson's predecessor and old boss (that's right- John Fitzgerald Kennedy) made the initial pitch to get this bill put together and put before Congress. And to even make that pitch required Kennedy to show his own change of heart.

On 1-20-1961, JFK gave one of the most famous and most memorable inaugural addresses in American annals. In it, the youngest chief executive ever elected called for the United States to spread democracy all over the globe. 

Too bad he didn't call for the spread of democracy throughout these fifty states. 

Yeah, I know...if Kennedy had mentioned just one domestic issue during his inaugural speech (including That One), those Southern Democrats in the Senate [like Georgia's Richard Russell, South Carolina's Strom Thurmond (that's right- Thurmond was still a Donkey back then), and the Mississippi duo of John Stennis and James Eastland] would've torn the new president to pieces. 

Maybe at the Inaugural Ball.  

It took lots of events- before and after JFK got in at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue- before he could understand that a country whose name supposedly means freedom and wants to expand it all over the planet ought to ensure freedom for all its citizens.  

That understanding was probably one of the reasons Lee Harvey Oswald ended the presidency of a man born in Brookline, MA 1,036 days after that term of office began.  

And so, from the time LBJ raised his right hand, he decided to make the passage of the Civil Rights Act a top priority. 

The man from near Stonewall, TX was going to finish JFK's unfinished business.  

To do all that, Johnson had to pull out all the tricks that served him in good stead as the Senate Democratic leader (LBJ was minority leader from 1953-1955, then majority leader from 1955-1961). He knew what the US senators he left behind when he joined Kennedy's administration wanted...and he knew how to appeal to that.

Yes, it got coarse...but Johnson got it done.
And when it was all over, 27 of the 34 Senate Republicans voted for the Civil Rights Act. Meanwhile, 46 of the 66 Democrats then in this country's Senate went all in.  

With the Voting Rights Act passing in 1965 and the Fair Housing Act getting signed into law three years later, America began to open long last.

And that even with so many Democrats who didn't want the new legislation to get on the books switching over to the GOP.

Thurmond was one of the defectors...and he helped shape the current Republican tone. (That's right...that angry, blustery, obstructionist tone that keeps making headlines.)

What today's Republicans- the ones the 1948 Dixiecrat presidential nominee left behind when he passed away in 2003- don't accept and don't understand is this:

A nation works best when ALL its citizens get to have their say...whether it's at a polling place during an election or someplace else where people can get their opinions noticed. 

I'm glad the Civil Rights Act of 1964 got the ball rolling.

No comments:

Post a Comment