Thursday, May 18, 2017

Lyndon B. Johnson - Standing In The Kennedy Shadow

  John Kennedy is a hero to Kennedy worshipers and many Black people for his stance on civil rights. Conservatives admire him for his tax cuts. I admire him for both. He was late putting his money where his mouth was on civil rights. Prior to June 1963 Kennedy was trying to manage the progress of  civil rights while at the same time trying not to politically alienate the South. As it turned out instead of  Kennedy managing civil rights, events were managing him. The Greensboro and Nashville sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the integration of Ole Miss, and the Birmingham Children's march just to name a few. The direct action of the Nashville students like Diane Nash, James Bevel, John Lewis, James Lawson, Marion Barry, and others and then there was Martin Luther King himself. Kings letter from the Birmingham jail condemning the moderates on civil rights had a great impact on Kennedy. On June 11, 1963 Kennedy gave a great speech that boldly proclaimed that civil rights for Black people was a moral issue that could no longer be ignored. Kennedy also announced his intention to pass a civil rights bill with real teeth. The following is a few words from that speech. "If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?" June 11th was also important because the Kennedy administration was working to get two Black students admitted to the University of Alabama and later that night Medgar Evers was brutally murdered in front of his family. No one can doubt that Kennedy intentions's were honorable and he had turned a corner on civil rights. Kennedy however would never have been able to pass civil rights legislation or his tax cut bill if he had lived. Congress had been losing power and influence to the executive branch for years. In 1937 Franklin Roosevelt tried to pack the Supreme Court because he was upset that there were too many conservative judges. They had stood in the way of his New Deal programs and had declared them unconstitutional. Congress was so outraged at Roosevelt's blatant grab for power that conservative Republicans formed a powerful coalition with Southern Democrats. Together they would successfully block civil rights legislation until 1957. I believe that conservative Republicans were more concerned with stopping the expansion of Federal power under Roosevelt and the increase in Federal spending rather than stopping civil rights legislation. Roosevelt had always been at odds with Southern Democrats but had tried to woo their support by not rocking the boat on civil rights. This Democrat, Republican coalition would block pretty much everything until Lyndon Johnson became Senate Majority leader in 1955. Because of Johnson's skill and ruthlessness he was able to pass Civil Rights legislation in 1957 and 1960. They were watered down bills but the first civil rights legislation since Lincoln and the Republican Congress passed the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Johnson was mistrusted by civil rights groups and Northern liberals because of his image as a segregationist. However he had allowed the 1957 and 60 civil rights acts to be watered down because he knew that any progress was better than nothing. Blacks had had nothing for close to one hundred years.

  Lyndon Johnson had missed his last chance at becoming president in 1960 when he lost the nomination to John Kennedy. Luckily for Johnson, Kennedy chose him to be his Vice Presidential candidate. This was a brilliant decision on Kennedy's part. Johnson would help Kennedy win Texas and the South in one of the closest elections in American history. For a man like Johnson the office of the Vice President was like living in hell. He was no longer relevant. The crown jewels of Kennedy's legislative program was a substantial tax cut to spur the economy and civil rights legislation. He had other legislation that he wanted to pass. Because of Johnson's experience in Congress Kennedy asked his advice on the best way to advance his legislative agenda. Johnson told him that if he proposed the civil rights bill first, everything else would be held hostage to civil rights by the Southern Democrats. Kennedy did not take his advice and sent his civil rights bill to congress anyway. In the first few months after Kennedy's death Johnson was able to accomplish more legislatively than Kennedy had accomplished during his three years in office. It was an absolutely amazing accomplishment in my view. Johnson's first priority was passing the tax cut bill. If he could pass it first the tax cut bill could not be held hostage by the civil rights bill. Virginia segregationist senator Harry Byrd, a virolent racist, headed up the Senate Finance committee that controlled the tax cut legislation. Byrd had the power to kill the bill but Johnson knew the way to Byrd's heart. He was for very limited government and was known for his frugality. Johnson met with Byrd and asked what it would take to get the tax bill out of committee. Byrd wanted a Federal budget of no more than 100 billion dollars for 1965. Johnson was able to deliver with a proposed federal budget well under 100 billion. The Revenue Act was passed, with bi-partisan support, on February 26, 1964. It would be responsible for one of the longest periods of economic growth in American history. The Revenue Act would be a model for the Reagan tax cuts of the 1980's that spurred the longest period of economic growth in American history that lasted until the housing collapse of 2008.

  Johnson was able to clear the legislative agenda before his full court press on the civil rights bill. He was able to garner much Democratic support but he realized that he would not be able to pass it without Republican support. Johnson appealed to the Republican legacy of being the Party of Lincoln. The bill passed the House with a vote of 290 for and 130 against. When the bill reached the Senate segregationist Southern senators waged a 75 day filibuster. Modern Democrat hero Robert Byrd, a former KKK member, spoke in the filibuster for 14 consecutive hours. After a hard fight the filibuster was broken and the 1964 Civil Rights Act was signed on July 2, 1964. Johnson insisted that this bill would not be watered down like the 57 and 60 civil rights legislation. Amazingly Johnson was able to give Blacks the right to vote just one year later in 1965. This bill brought about more change than anything because White politicians in the South, like George Wallace, now had a new constituency that could not be ignored. That is if they wanted to win elections in the future. Because of these bills the South would become one of the most progressive and economically vibrant areas of the country. For the Kennedy fans that try to give him most of the credit for the Revenue Act and the Civil Rights Act, there is no way that Kennedy could have passed these bills. Richard Russell, the powerful segregationist senator from Georgia, knew Johnson better than anyone. Paraphrasing Russell he essentially said that he never worried about Kennedy in regard to the Civil Rights Act. He knew that the Southern coalition could stop civil rights. Johnson however was a horse of a different color. Russell knew that Johnson would find a way to pass it. Because of Johnson's War on Poverty, and his war in Vietnam, I am not a Johnson fan. On the tax cuts and civil rights he deserves the lions share of the credit.        

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