Excerpt: 'Kennedy, Johnson, and the Quest for Justice'

Anyone who has wondered just what was said inside the White House during the civil rights struggles of the early 1960s can get an inside look with the new book Kennedy, Johnson, and the Quest for Justice.

Authors Jonathan Rosenberg and Zachary Karabell weave in actual transcripts of secret recordings that Presidents Kennedy and Johnson made about the racial turmoil in America in the early 1960s, including heated phone calls between Kennedy and government leaders in Birmingham, Ala., and late-night conversations that Johnson had with Martin Luther King, Jr.

Here is an excerpt.

Chapter 1: The Twentieth-Century Struggle

"Let us close the springs of racial poison. Let us pray for wise and understanding hearts. Let us put aside irrelevant differences and make our nation whole." So declared President Lyndon Johnson, in a speech to the nation on a July evening in 1964, the day he signed the Civil Rights Act into law.

The Civil Rights Act was a milestone in the history of the U.S. civil rights movement. In the eyes of many, the complex legislation, which outlawed discrimination in public accommodation, employment, and federally funded programs, was the most important civil rights law in nearly a century, and leaders in the struggle for racial justice hailed its passage enthusiastically. The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth described it as "the second emancipation of the America Negro," while the NAACP's Roy Wilkins likened it to the Magna Carta. And Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the country's foremost African American leader, declared that this "monumental" legislation had emerged from the cauldron of mass meetings and marches, and was then "polished and refined in the marble halls of Congress." The result, he said, was an "historic affirmation of Jefferson's ringing truth that 'all men are created equal.' "

In asking Americans to "help eliminate the last vestiges of injustice" from their country, Lyndon Johnson, the first southerner to occupy the White House since Woodrow Wilson, noted that the bill was the product of months of "careful debate and discussion," which had been initiated by John Kennedy, "our late and beloved president." While true in the narrowest sense, Johnson's observation did not convey a larger and more significant truth, namely, that the 1964 legislation was the product of decades of toil by countless men and women who had devoted their lives to working for racial justice in twentieth-century America.

If the movement to abolish American slavery was the noblest cause of the nineteenth century, then the civil rights struggle was the most heroic crusade of the twentieth. Indeed, the quest for racial justice in modern America was a continuation of the historic effort of a century before, when a group of determined individuals sought to compel the nation to end slavery and realize America's age-old promise. While it had taken a bloody war to sweep slavery from the national landscape, the twentieth-century civil rights movement was wrenching in its own right and, if not as cataclysmic, nearly as dramatic.

The story of the civil rights crusade has become part of the mythos of America, as towering heroes, possessed of great dignity and greater courage, labored energetically in the quest for justice. Arrayed against them were less noble figures, who, with equal zeal, worked to thwart the aspirations of the reformers. Whether a particular figure was a hero or a villain was of course a matter of one's perspective.

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