Monday, May 25, 2015

LBJ before Selma: wait -- no, go

After seeing Ava DuVernay' Selma a few weeks ago, I bought Nick Kotz's Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Laws that Changed America (2005). It's a digest of LBJ and King's interactions, beginning in fruitful if sometimes tense collaboration and ending in tragic enmity.  I can't say how central a source this book itself was for the movie, but the encounters it records indicate that those who claim that Johnson was more supportive of the voting rights campaign than their early encounter in the movie implies and those who claim that the scene is an accurate depiction of a pre-Selma encounter are both right.

LBJ and King had exquisitely attuned political antennae -- King with a genius for staging and calibrating confrontations to move public opinion, Johnson for how and when to move Congress. In the early stage of Johnson's presidency, sometimes their antennae were attuned, and sometimes they were in tension. Following his landslide reelection in November 1964, LBJ did ask King to ease up on the voting rights campaign so he could first get his antipoverty program passed. But within a few weeks, he began to think that the time might also be ripe for voting rights legislation, and he alternately tapped the gas and brake as the campaign gained momentum.

LBJ met King alone a week after King had been awarded the Nobel Prize, on December 18, 1964 -- less than three months before the first march on Selma on March 7, 1965 and LBJ's speech introducing the Voting Rights Act to a joint session of Congress on March 15. The upshot, as described in Judgment Days, is the basis of the LBJ-King White House meeting dramatized in Selma:
As they discussed the coming year, Johnson emphasized that King’s leadership and that of other black leaders would be needed if the new War on Poverty programs were to succeed in helping African Americans. King informed the president that he would soon be launching a massive voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama, to demonstrate that blacks could not register to vote in the Deep South without federal legislation. “Martin, you are right about that,” Johnson replied. “I’m going to do it eventually, but I can’t get voting rights through in this session of Congress.  .  .  . Now, there’s some other bills that I have here that I want to get through in my Great Society program, and I think in the long run they’ll help Negroes more, as much as a voting rights bill. And let’s get those through and then the other.” King reminded the president, “Political reform is as necessary as anything if we’re going to solve all these other problems.” Johnson responded, “I can’t get it through, because I need the votes of the southern bloc to get these other things through. And if I present a voting rights bill, they will block the whole program. So it’s just not the wise and the politically expedient thing to do.” King replied that his campaign for voting rights legislation would begin in Selma on January 2. He left the meeting pledging, “We’ll just have to do the best we can” (Judgment Days, Kindle location 4858-4868).
Just a month later, though,  Johnson changed his tune and tactics in a phone call that former Johnson aide Joseph Califano has made the basis of his attack on the movie). Here again is Judgment Days (my emphasis):
On January 15, 1965, Johnson put in a phone call to King on the occasion of his thirty-sixth birthday. The president found King in Selma, Alabama, where the Nobel Prize winner had just launched a daring voter registration drive. Johnson himself had just challenged the Eighty-ninth Congress to approve the most far-reaching legislative agenda since Franklin Roosevelt was president in the 1930s...

Johnson then pressed his agenda, urging King to work with him to win historic legislation initiating Medicare, federal aid to education, and poverty relief. Then he surprised King by mentioning the dire need for a voting rights bill. At their White House meeting only a month earlier, the president had told King that voting rights reform would have to wait so as not to alienate southern congressmen, whose support he needed to pass his Great Society programs. Now, however, buoyed by optimism for the Great Society, Johnson announced that “we have got to come up with [voting rights legislation]. That will answer 70 percent of your problems!” Johnson pledged to support strong legislation to prevent county and state officials from denying the vote to black citizens...

“There is not going to be anything, Doctor, as effective as all [black citizens] voting,” the president continued. “That will give you a message that all the eloquence in the world won’t bring,” because the candidate or elected official “will be coming to you then, instead of you calling him.” “You’re exactly right about that,” replied King. “It’s very interesting, Mr. President, to notice that the only states that you didn’t carry in the South— the five southern states— had less than 40 percent of the Negroes registered to vote,” he observed, revealing his own political acumen. “So it demonstrates that it is so important to get Negroes registered to vote in large numbers; it would be this coalition of the Negro vote and the moderate white vote that would really make the New South.”

“That is exactly right!” Johnson replied. He cherished just that vision of a political coalition that could give birth to a New South of tolerance and prosperity. Furthermore, Johnson knew, the 1964 election returns carried an ominous political warning... The five Deep South states carried by Goldwater were likely to become Republican strongholds, a transformation fueled by white southerners’ resentment of Johnson’s civil rights advocacy. A solid black vote had saved Johnson from defeat in the border and rim states of Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina. More than ever, it was a question not simply of Democratic policy but of political necessity for Johnson and his party to strengthen the black vote throughout the country. In this the South would be crucial.

“I think you can contribute a great deal by getting your leaders and you, yourself, taking very simple examples of discrimination [in voter registration],” Johnson advised King, “where a man has got to memorize Longfellow, or he has got to quote from the first Ten Amendments, or he has got to tell you what Amendments Fifteen, Sixteen, and Seventeen are. Some people don’t have to do that, but when a Negro comes in, he has got to do it.

“If you can find the worst condition that you can run into in Alabama or Mississippi or Louisiana or South Carolina— one of the worst I ever heard of was the president at Tuskegee* . .  . being denied the right to cast the vote. If you take that one illustration and get it on radio, get it on television, get it in the pulpits, get it in the meetings— every place you can— then pretty soon the fellow who didn’t do anything but drive a tractor would say, ‘Well, that is not right— that is not fair.’ Then that will help us in what we are going to shove through in the end.  .  .  . I just don’t see how anybody can say that a man can fight in Vietnam but he can’t vote.” “Yes, you’re exactly right about that,” King replied with growing enthusiasm. “I think the greatest achievement of my administration was the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act,” said Johnson, “but I think this will be bigger because it will do things that even that ’64 act couldn’t do.”

The president and the civil rights leader— the politician and the preacher— were bouncing ideas off each other like two old allies in a campaign strategy huddle, excited about achieving their dreams for a more just society. Here was Johnson, never an admirer of King’s direct-action tactics, now advising King about how to put pressure on Congress for voting rights. And King, never quite sure of Johnson’s motives, was advising Johnson on how to get reelected in 1968. With the Eighty-ninth Congress barely convened, Johnson was so confident that he now seemed willing to risk adding voting rights to his already heavy legislative agenda. But timing was everything, he knew, and both men were masters at sensing when to seize opportunities. Johnson understood that more public pressure was needed before the time would be ripe to pass voting rights. And King was ready to supply the pressure (location 4993-5015).
So for that vital political moment at least, King and LBJ were united. And in his great speech introducing the VRA on March 15 -- two months after this meeting -- LBJ in a sense rendered the post-Selma (movie) dispute as to who was the prime mover and whether his own role was misrepresented moot (though I suppose to Johnson's critics, his large-mindedness on this front is the point):
The real hero of this struggle is the American Negro. His actions and protests, his courage to risk safety and even to risk his life, have awakened the conscience of this nation. His demonstrations have been designed to call attention to injustice, designed to provoke change, designed to stir reform.

He has called upon us to make good the promise of America. And who among us can say that we would have made the same progress were it not for his persistent bravery and his faith in American democracy.

For at the real heart of battle for equality is a deep-seated belief in the democratic process. Equality depends not on the force of arms or tear gas, but depends upon the force of moral right; not on recourse to violence, but on respect for law and order.
"He has called upon us to make good the promise of America." That is in effect a readback of King's "I have a dream" speech:
In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."
Amy Davidson, finding that "Selma is more than fair to LBJ," adds a good deal more nuance, partly via civil rights historian Taylor Branch, in recounting the currents in LBJ and King's encounters in the runup to Selma. In the Jan. 15 phone call she sees LBJ effectively mansplaining to King, who knew a thing or two about the imperative for voting rights, while King neglects to mention his Selma plans. That's in keeping with Nolte's final take on the call:
As always, Johnson did most of the talking. As always, King was polite and deferential to the president. But there was a shared sense of new possibilities, new opportunities for cooperation to bring about historic change (location 5022-23).
That 'shared sense' didn't last. But its effects did.

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