The Story of Lyndon Johnson, Part 10


Lyndon Johnson tried for the presidential nomination in 1956, but waited too long and was unsuccessful. He was convinced that liberals didn’t like him, and didn’t know why. Friends told him it was because of his voting record, and he didn’t want to believe it, but eventually realized he had to get liberals on his side if he hoped to win the presidency. He had plenty of friends in the South, partly because of where he came from, partly because he’d cultivated them. But he couldn’t win with just the South. He had to have supporters in the North too.
The background to his thoughts was the Civil Rights movement. Brown vs the Board of Education had declared separate schools for black and white unequal, but that ruling hadn’t been enforced, or enforced very little.. Rosa Parks had refused to give her seat up to a white woman, and the boycott in Birmingham had forced the bus company to desegregate, and Martin Luther King had become a leader approaching national stature.
Robert Caro says that Lyndon Johnson had always had compassion for the underdog, but when it collided with his ambition, ambition always won. When the two happened to align, he could make almost miraculous things happen, though.
Both parties had been doing political calculations. Both parties saw that doing something for blacks would be profitable. A huge migration had been going on from South to North, and had accelerated since World War II. Blacks couldn’t vote in the South, but they could in the North, and would make candidates there sorry if they didn’t pay attention.
Johnson saw this, and realized that Republicans would capitalize on this opportunity if Democrats didn’t. He started talking to the Southerners in his party about allowing a civil rights bill to pass. The Southerners liked Lyndon Johnson, and would be willing to bend a little to help him, but how far they would bend had strict limits. Liberals didn’t like Rule 22, which allowed the filibuster, and wanted to get rid of it. Southerners wouldn’t allow that, because the filibuster was their ultimate weapon, the reason no civil rights legislation had passed since 1875.
That era echoes this one, because there was gridlock then too. That term hadn’t yet been coined, but there had been gridlock since Franklin Roosevelt had tried to pack the Supreme Court in the late 1930s. Conservatives in both parties had allied to stop him, and once realizing they could work together, had refused to allow any more of his domestic legislation to pass.
Liberals planned a legislative maneuver to get rid of the filibuster: a motion to have the Senate adopt rules for the current session. Having allied themselves with Richard Nixon, who very much wanted Republicans to be on the right side of the civil rights issue, and frequently (as vice president) presided over the Senate, liberals would then immediately ask Nixon to rule on whether the motion was in order, and under what rules the Senate was proceeding. Nixon would then rule that the motion was in order, and would further rule that the Senate was operating under standard parliamentary rules, because it was a new session, and rules hadn’t yet been adopted. Under parliamentary rules, any motion could be passed by simple majority, which would bypass the filibuster by allowing cloture (ending debate) by simple majority instead of two thirds majority.
This had not been kept secret, though, and when the liberals made their play, two of them rose to complete it, but Lyndon Johnson stood up in front of them, and moved to table the motion. This made the prior motion no longer pending business, so no ruling could be obtained on it. The tabling motion would be voted on first. That ended any effort against the filibuster.
Johnson had made this move to stay friends with the South, but it became apparent that the Southern Senators wanted him to become president mainly to keep things as they were in the South. However, there was increasing pressure for civil rights legislation, with resentment from both blacks and whites in the South and elsewhere. These voters had to be accommodated, or to seem to be accommodated, and Johnson saw that a civil rights bill needed to be passed, not just for his own benefit, but for the benefit of the Democratic party, and ultimately the nation as a whole. So he began searching for parts of the bill on which the different parties could compromise.
Liberals wanted Title 3, which would end segregation in all public places to be passed intact; conservatives were determined not to pass it. Johnson kept asking all parties about areas of possible compromise, and from conservatives was able to hear what they were not saying: there was one part of the bill on which they felt uneasy. This was Title 4, which guaranteed voting rights. As extremely skilled politicians and parliamentarians, all of them were also strict constitutionalists, and weren’t comfortable with denying anyone voting rights, which were specifically guaranteed in the constitution. Liberals were still determined to pass Title 3, but Johnson told them that if black voting rights were guaranteed, other rights would follow: politicians would have to give things to black voters if they wanted to get elected. He also predicted that getting the first civil rights bill through the Congress would make it easier to get subsequent bills through. So the first one need not fix everything at once. Later bills could do what had been neglected.
One leverage Johnson had with Southern senators was that if they were unwilling to compromise at all, Republicans would ally themselves with liberals, and pass the bill no matter what Southerners did. And if they managed to stop the bill with a filibuster, they might lose a filibuster the next time. But if the South was to allow a civil rights bill to be passed, it had to be weakened to the point that it wouldn’t be offensive. That was Johnson’s next task.
The South wouldn’t even allow a civil rights bill to reach the floor, unless it was confident it had the votes to defeat it; and if they were isolated, they wouldn’t have the votes. Civil rights was now an important issue, so a lot of people supported it. These other senators didn’t have the parliamentary skills of the Southerners, but they had the numbers. So the South would filibuster, starting before the bill even reached the floor, and continuing as long as necessary to kill the bill. Unless they had enough votes to kill any bill they couldn’t accept.
Johnson found them those votes. In the far Northwest of the country was Hell’s Canyon, where senators from the Northwestern states (Washington, Idaho, Oregon, etc) had lobbied for years for the federal government to build a dam to generate hydroelectric power. Power companies had blocked their proposals, because they wanted to build a dam themselves, and be able to charge whatever rates they wanted for the electricity. The Northwestern senators wanted the dam built by the government to keep rates down. Johnson sold Southern senators on backing the Northwesterners (on a project Southerners considered socialistic) by telling them first that if they didn’t, Northwestern votes wouldn’t be available to them on the civil rights bill, and second, that voting for the dam bill wouldn’t guarantee the dam would be built anyway. So the deal was made, and Southerners became willing to at least consider a civil rights bill. On neither the power nor the civil rights bill would more of each group vote than necessary at any time (Southerners wouldn’t want to be seen voted for “socialism”, Northwesterners against civil rights) to aid the aims of the other. The first step was made when the civil rights bill was allowed to be placed on the Senate calendar, from whence it could come to the floor, with the aid of Northwestern votes, and the Hell’s Canyon bill passed immediately afterwards, to the dismay of the liberals, when when they saw that some of the Northwesterners had voted AGAINST allowing the civil rights bill. They knew that such an alliance would make passage of civil rights even more difficult.
Next the civil rights bill had to be brought to the floor for debate, then to a vote, and then the votes had to be found to pass it. So far, only one hurdle had been surmounted. Liberals didn’t see it that way. They thought that since Republicans were now on their side, they wouldn’t have to compromise. That was because they couldn’t see enough moves ahead. There were enough votes for passage, but if the bill reached the floor, it would be filibustered, and there WOULDN”T be enough votes for cloture, which would shut debate down, and allow the measure to be voted on. To actually pass the bill, Johnson had to find a way around these problems.
The next problem was detected by Richard Russell in the Brownell amendment to the bill, which would give the federal government power to enforce the law by force, if necessary. This referred directly to Title 3, desegregating the public areas and services in the South, which Southern senators would never accept. And the bill would allow the government to enforce the bill with troops, bringing back memories of Reconstruction.
Johnson arranged a secret meeting with President Eisenhower to tell him that Title 3 would prevent the civil rights bill from being passed, and got Philip Graham, owner of the Washington Post, to talk to Joe Rauh,one of the most important Democratic liberals, about the right to vote being more immediately important than full desegregation. Eisenhower saw the problem, and in a speech emphasized the importance of the right to vote. Rauh was unconvinced,leaving Johnson unable to pay the South’s price for a civil rights bill.
Then he came upon another important senator trying to find a way to save the bill. This was Clinton Anderson, also a liberal, but one who realized that Title 3 was the big problem in the bill. Johnson noticed he had been at his desk on the Senate floor more often than usual, and asked what he was doing. Anderson had first been trying to rewrite Title 3, but realized he couldn’t do it in a way acceptable to the South, so had crossed out almost all of it. Not only did he want to save the bill, but he thought that Title 3 would provoke a filibuster, which Republicans could exploit. He didn’t want that either. Explaining this to Johnson, he suggested that the remainder of the section be introduced as an amendment by a Southerner or conservative. Johnson immediately saw how this could work, and replied, “YOU do it”, and when Anderson asked how, said, “Get a Republican–a GOOD Republican.” Anderson saw the point of this, and did so. Southerners were still reluctant, but Richard Russell reminded them that after allowing the bill to reach the floor, they could each still vote against it. They finally agreed, and the amendment was passed.
The next problem was jury trials. Should the civil rights bill pass, the South wanted the guarantee of jury trials for any possible violators. Liberals objected to this because it was well known that jury trials in the South were all white, and would convict any accused black person, while exonerating any accused white person, regardless of evidence. This was a particularly uphill fight. Johnson thought sufficiently outside the box to appeal to unions on the issue: several refused to go along with jury trials at the expense of black rights, but John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers, and Cy Anderson, of the railroad brotherhoods came out in favor of jury trials.
That still wasn’t enough. Frank Church of Idaho, had gotten Lyndon Johnson angry at him earlier in the year, by refusing to vote with the South. He wanted to get back in Johnson’s good graces, and he also became more and more interested in the civil rights issue. Considering the bill as a lawyer (which he was), it dawned on him that the problem liberals had with Southern juries was that they were segregated. If juries could have black members, liberals would be more likely to vote for the bill.
The bill finally came down to a drama orchestrated by Johnson. Joseph O’Mahoney began speaking in defense of jury trials, then yielded to Church, who presented his amendment to desegregate juries, which O’Mahoney accepted. They were followed by John Pastore of Rhode Island, who asked the questions many senators were asking themselves. One of these was that an amendment had changed violators of the proposed law to be liable for both civil and criminal contempt, and not criminal contempt only. Thus, a registrar who had been jailed by a judge for civil contempt, and then freed on promising to register Negroes, would suffer a lighter punishment if he reneged because the violation would still be civil contempt, not criminal. Pastore went through the whole issue, bit by bit, asking questions, and then answering them, and ended up affirming the jury trial amendment. Caro says this was one of the speeches that made members of the Senate rethink their views, and there have been relatively few of those.
Richard Nixon realized that things weren’t going the way he wanted, and began frantically lobbying Republicans. But the debate prior to the vote began, and with the vote the jury trial amendment passed.
Many blacks and liberals were initially displeased. They saw the amendment as having taken the teeth out of enforcement, and were bitterly disappointed. But they had to reconsider: this bill could be the first civil rights bill passed in 82 years. They had to believe that it was better than nothing, and could lead to further, better civil rights bills. Roy Wilkins, the well-known civil rights leader, wasn’t happy with the bill, but eventually decided that, on balance, it was better than nothing, and that to pass nothing wouldn’t serve the cause of civil rights. He decided to support the bill.
And the bill passed.
This was the high-water mark of Lyndon Johnson’s time in the Senate. He wouldn’t accomplish anything comparable in his remaining time there. More civil rights bills would be proposed, but none would pass. 1960 was approaching, and with it the time for Johnson to pursue the ambition he had first voiced as a teenager: he wanted to be president.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s