LBJ’s poignant paradoxes and the Civil Rights Act of 1964

 
 
A sea of hands greets president Lyndon B. Johnson as he arrives at the Deauville Hotel on Miami Beach on September 1968.
A sea of hands greets president Lyndon B. Johnson as he arrives at the Deauville Hotel on Miami Beach on September 1968.
Eamon Kennedy / MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Politco

AUSTIN – Forty-five years after he was driven from the White House in despair and disrepute over Vietnam, four presidents and a raft of luminaries from the worlds of politics, sports and entertainment gathered here this week to honor Lyndon Baines Johnson at a three-day conference celebrating his role as godfather of the landmark law that made modern America: the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

It’s a tribute long in coming for a president of peerless political talents and outsize flaws, whose transformative legacy was barely mentioned when Barack Obama claimed the Democratic nomination in Denver on August 27, 2008 – the very date that would have been Johnson’s 100th birthday. A leader who was once anathema to elite opinion leaders has been lionized in a series of panels and tributes at his presidential library sponsored by such all-American brand names as Google, General Motors and Coca-Cola, and billed as “The Civil Rights Summit.”

Jimmy Carter kicked off the conference Tuesday, declaring that “too many people are at ease” with a black unemployment rate roughly double that for whites, and with schools that are still effectively segregated.

“We’re pretty much dormant now,” Carter added in a conversation with the library’s director, Mark K. Updegrove. “We accept self-congratulations about the wonderful 50th anniversary which is wonderful – but we feel like Lyndon Johnson did it, and we don’t have to do anything anymore.”

Indeed, the conference highlighted two poignant paradoxes: This celebration of Johnson’s achievement comes so late that few of the 36th president’s contemporaries remain to raise a glass. His daughters, Lynda Byrd and Luci Baines, sat proudly in the front row, near their children and grandchildren. But trusty steeds like Jack Valenti and Horace Busby are long gone, and Bill Moyers, arguably Johnson’s senior surviving lieutenant, declined an invitation. Even Carter, now 89, had to confess, “I never had a chance to meet him. I was just a peanut farmer.”

What’s more, few, if any, of the dwindling handful of (mostly anonymous) legislative aides who actually helped pass the bill on Capitol Hill – sometimes in defiance of Johnson’s own preferred tactics – were invited here to share in the credit, supplanted by celebrities and civil rights supporters from other spheres and eras who could be counted on to draw the media spotlight and donors, including Graham Nash, Billie Jean King, Tina Brown and David Robinson, the Hall of Fame center for the San Antonio Spurs who is now active in educational philanthropy.

The assemblage was indisputably glossy. As evening came on Wednesday on a clear and breezy spring day, hundreds of invited ticket-holders were already lining up for first-come, first-served seats to hear an address by Bill Clinton, who came to political consciousness amidst the civil rights movement in Arkansas. Clinton was introduced by his old friend Vernon Jordan, the Washington super-lawyer and former president of the Urban League – who joined Johnson at his last public appearance, a civil rights conference in the same auditorium, in 1972.

“We’re here because the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act made it possible for Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to be president of the United States,” said Clinton.

Clinton was to be followed on Wednesday by Obama and George W. Bush, with the elder George Bush alone among the living occupants of the Oval Office unable to attend because of age and infirmity.

The conference’s lineup aspired to counter Carter’s lament that the civil rights movement was dormant, and to explore the Civil Right’s Act present-day legacy, with a discussion on gay rights featuring David Boies and Theodore B. Olson – the bi-partisan legal team that won the California gay marriage case in the Supreme Court – and another on civil rights in sports featuring Bill Russell and Jim Brown. Russell, the NBA’s pioneering black player, noted that when asked how he’d feel about having a gay teammate, his first question is always, “Can he play?”

Three surviving powerhouses of the grassroots movement – Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), former Atlanta Mayor and U.N. ambassador Andrew Young and former NAACP chairman Julian Bond – recalled their earliest days in the civil rights struggle, in student sit-ins, “freedom rides” and street action, sometimes drawing rueful laughter from the appreciative audience, as Bond did when he recalled trying to integrate the cafeteria at Atlanta’s City Hall, which had a sign welcoming the public, only to be told by a city worker, “We don’t mean it.”

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