It Took a Partnership

President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the White House in March 1966.
President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the White House in March 1966. (By Yoichi R. Okamoto -- Lyndon Baines Johnson Library And Museum)

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By Joseph A. Califano Jr.
Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The greatest fairy tale of the 2008 campaign so far is the accusation that there is some tint of racism or putdown of Martin Luther King Jr. in Hillary Clinton's comment that "it took a president," Lyndon Johnson, to realize the civil rights leader's dreams.

The visionary preacher and the tough-talking master politician would be the first to say that they needed each other. I know how they came to work together, in a complex partnership, to produce a social revolution that has saved this nation.

Just days after President John F. Kennedy's assassination, King was pressing LBJ on civil rights. In conversations with Johnson, King made clear his willingness to seek out dramatic confrontations in the Deep South and to risk his safety if necessary to get government action. He knew it would take presidential leadership, he said, and he shrewdly held out the potential of supporting Johnson in the 1964 campaign.

LBJ appreciated King's powers of persuasion and ability to attract media attention. He decided to "shove my stack of chips into the pot" to push for passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination in education, employment and public accommodations. To break a filibuster, Johnson had California Democrat Clair Engle, who was dying of a brain tumor, wheeled onto the Senate floor. Engle couldn't speak, so LBJ had him signal his aye vote by pointing to his eye.

The day after passage, Johnson told his aide Bill Moyers, "I think we delivered the South to the Republican Party for your lifetime and mine." Indeed, he was defeated in five Southern states in 1964, four of them states Democrats had not lost in more than 80 years. The losses didn't faze him, and he turned his energies to voting rights for black Americans.

Johnson met with King on Feb. 9, 1965, about his campaign to register voters in Alabama. As a politician preparing to press a voting rights bill, LBJ loved King's choice of Selma. Dallas County's population was 60 percent black; most of its voting-age population was black, but only 335 out of 10,000 registered voters were black. Voters could register only two days a month and had to complete a form with more than 50 blanks, write passages from the Constitution and answer complex questions about the U.S. government.

King urged Johnson to propose voting rights legislation, and LBJ said that he would soon and that he thought the pressure of a march would help. Johnson was appalled when state troopers used clubs and whips to halt the march from Selma to Montgomery, even killing some protesters, and he blamed Alabama Gov. George Wallace, whom he called "a runty little bastard, just about the most dangerous person around."

Sensing the awakening public sentiment, Johnson gave one of his most powerful speeches on March 15. He proposed his voting rights act to a joint session of Congress and, in closing, slowly intoned the battle hymn of the civil rights movement, "And we shall overcome." For a moment the chamber was frozen. Then almost everyone rose in thunderous applause.

King knew that the march was essential to keep the heat on. He began again on March 22, this time with federal protection. Thanks to the Army presence, there was no serious violence.

Later, on his way to sign the act, Johnson spoke to staffers of "a new day in America, if, if, if," he said, "the Negro leaders get their people to register and vote." He signed the bill in the Capitol room where, 104 years earlier, Abraham Lincoln had signed a bill freeing slaves who had been pressed into Confederate military service. Johnson gave the first pens to key legislators and then gave one to King. He urged King and other rights leaders to shift their energies "from protest to politics."

In 1966, Johnson's attention turned to the Fair Housing Act, which prompted the most vicious mail LBJ received on any subject. When King went north to push for fair housing, he said he had "never seen such hate -- not in Mississippi or Alabama -- as I see here in Chicago." Sadly, this turned out to be their last joint achievement. By March 1968 there was still no hope of passage in the House. The morning after King was assassinated, President Johnson called me into his office and said, "At least we're going to get our fair housing bill. I'm asking the speaker [John McCormack] and minority leader [Gerald Ford] to pass the Senate bill today." He worked the phones, citing this as a last tribute to King. Days later, the House passed the bill.

Enacting these laws took both the civil rights leader and the "Washington politician" whom John Edwards has derided in attacking Hillary Clinton. And both of them knew it. With the 1964 and 1965 civil rights acts, King told Johnson, "You have created a second emancipation." The president replied, "The real hero is the American Negro." That's an example the presidential candidates and civil rights leaders of 2008 would be wise to follow.

The writer was President Lyndon Johnson's special assistant for domestic affairs from 1965 to 1969. He is president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. His e-mail address isJCalifano@casacolumbia.org.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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