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 Washington Notebook

January 13, 2005
Vol. 2, No. 2

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent

Washington 
Correspondent
jfeuerherd@natcath.org
 

Johnson and King "were very different men. But what they had in common was a true passion for justice and a commitment deep in their souls - an urgency about improving the plight of the poorest and most helpless people in society."

Roger Wilkins, Johnson-era Justice Department official,
quoted in Nick Kotz's Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Laws the Changed America

 

King and Johnson recalled: history in the making

By Joe Feuerherd

In 1965 Harry McPherson, then a young aide to Lyndon Johnson and now a Washington elder statesman, was on the floor of the House of Representatives when the president addressed a joint session of Congress. The topic was voting rights. The scene is recalled by Nick Kotz in his new book, Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Laws that Changed America.

"Pausing for several seconds, Lyndon Baines Johnson continued slowly in a powerful, determined voice, with a distinct emphasis on each word. 'And -- we -- shall -- overcome.' " The president of the United States -- a southerner with a mixed record on racial issues during his tenure as Senate majority leader -- had just made the rallying cry of the civil rights movement his own. The crowd cheered uproariously, writes Kotz, while "Mike Mansfield, the laconic, dry-witted exemplar of fairness in the Senate, sat with tears running down his face."

Forty years later, McPherson, waiting in line to get Kotz's signature at a Jan. 12 book signing at a hotel just blocks from his old White House office, recalled that he was seated next to a southern congressman during the presidential address. Mimicking a drawl, McPherson, a Texan, recalled the segregationist lawmaker's dumbstruck response. "Gawwd damn," was all he could say. Change was coming quickly.

History doesn't just happen. It is made, created, shaped. And it helps if somebody writes it down -- candidly, factually and with a bit of flair. Which is exactly what Kotz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who had a front row seat to the civil rights dramas as a correspondent with the Des Moines Register, has done. Washington's Great Society glitterati -- Ben Bradlee, Julian Bond, Elizabeth Drew, Haynes Johnson, Frank Mankiewicz, Roger Mudd, Sally Quinn, Daniel Shorr, Roger Wilkins and many others -- were among those who came to the St. Regis Hotel to celebrate not only Kotz's latest, but an era when it wasn't unheard of for politicians, presidents and activists to combine political skill with moral courage.

What everyone at the Crystal Ball Room book signing knew is that the great achievements of that era might never have happened. "Without the synergy they created together," Kotz writes of King and Johnson, "the outcome of the civil rights revolution would have been very different."

Kotz on Johnson, the master legislative strategist: "While he fought to pass a strong civil rights bill in the Senate, President Johnson nimbly worked behind the scenes with the segregationist southerners, supporting their issues when he could He had maintained the goodwill of his former southern colleagues, especially opposition leader Richard Russell. Most of them accepted the political reality that Johnson would push for civil rights while otherwise remaining a loyal and reliable friend."

On King's many skills: "King's oratory aimed to arouse an apathetic and frightened population to stand up and fight for its rights. But the meticulous planning of the Alabama Project -- and the selection of Selma as its focal point -- reflected different King skills. At work here was the pragmatist, the direct-action strategist and tactician, the field general willing to draw hostile fire to achieve his aims, the skilled manipulator of the news media, and the man of steely courage who, despite his own deep fears, was willing to risk his own and others' lives to achieve his goals."

Johnson and King, recalled Johnson-era Justice Department official Roger Wilkins, "were very different men. But what they had in common was a true passion for justice and a commitment deep in their souls -- an urgency about improving the plight of the poorest and most helpless people in society." Wilkins, writes Kotz, was among those skeptical of King -- concerned that the minister's tactics and persona did not always best serve the objectives they both shared.

Then Johnson, in the summer of 1966, sent Wilkins to Chicago to investigate the causes of a riot that had torn the city apart. It was a dicey time, with black anger at northern segregation reaching a violent pitch. Wilkins was with King when the civil rights leader met with the city's toughest black gang leaders.

"What really converted me to Martin King," recalled Wilkins, "was seeing him out of the spotlight, outside the cameras and the print journalists, spending hours talking to the most desperate gang kids in Chicago. Left to their own devices they would have gone out and confronted the Illinois National Guard." Instead, after meeting with King, they went home.

Johnson, meanwhile, pressed on all fronts. "Why don't you just desegregate all your schools?" the 6 foot 4 inch president asked George Wallace, Alabama's diminutive governor, in a private meeting. "You and I go out there in front of those television cameras right now, and you announce you've decided to desegregate every school in Alabama."

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"Johnson knew this city and how it worked better than any president of the 20th century," said Mankiewicz.

Kotz's book has villains, not least FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, whose campaign to discredit King as a communist sympathizer and womanizer was unbridled. "It's better to have him inside the tent pissing out," Johnson said of Hoover, "than outside pissing in." Johnson spent hours reading the memos the FBI director regularly sent him concerning the civil rights leader.

Ultimately, writes Kotz, the Johnson-King alliance shattered, burdened by the president's escalation of the Vietnam War, King's increasingly radical view of America's role in the world, and the frustrations inherent in expanding the struggle for civil rights beyond the obvious evils in the South to the subtler discrimination of the North. In November 1966, the two men had their last private conversation, a phone call in which Johnson urged King to mute his criticism of the war.

On March 31, 1968, Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection; four days later, the 39-year-old King was gunned down in Memphis.

"The favorable political climate for major change in the mid-1960s was brief," concludes Kotz. King and Johnson, however, did not waste the opportunity.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

 
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