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

Until midway through the Kennedy administration, the White House was a reluctant partner in the civil rights struggle, as the President and some of his advisers viewed the demands of the movement's leaders as politically naive and even unreasonable. But that changed in 1963, largely because of the brutal events in Birmingham that May, which made an often apathetic country sit up and take notice. In response to the violence in Alabama, the Kennedy administration proposed legislation more sweeping than any federal civil rights reform since the 1870s, and while Kennedy never fully overcame his ambivalence about the bill, his reservations were political not moral.

But Lyndon Johnson would be different, for unlike his predecessor, he was wholly determined to do whatever was necessary to pass effective civil rights legislation. About this, Johnson was passionate and adamant, and he staked his political future on passing the 1964 bill. Had Johnson not made civil rights the number one priority of his first months in office, it might have been some time before Congress passed meaningful legislation. While Johnson has rightly been blamed for his failings in Southeast Asia, it is appropriate to credit him for his achievements on civil rights at home.

To be fair, the two Presidents faced different challenges, and the transcripts highlight different aspects of their presidencies. A substantial portion of the Kennedy tapes shows the President responding to crises, whether at Ole Miss or Birmingham. Confronted with dangerous and unpredictable situations, Kennedy did not have the luxury of careful deliberations, and his primary concern was to contain the chaos that threatened to engulf the South. Johnson, on the other hand, faced only a legislative crisis. The moral stakes may have been high, but violence and social disorder were not immediate concerns. Only in the weeks before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, confronted with the murder of three volunteers in Mississippi and the specter of a white backlash against the act, did Johnson have to contend with the same level of immediate danger on a civil rights issue as Kennedy had to in 1962 and 1963. Kennedy's ambivalence toward reform, therefore, may have been aggravated by his understandable sense that the South was a tinderbox waiting to ignite, while Johnson had the more straightforward task of dealing with a complicated congressional morass.

Both Kennedy and Johnson were political animals, who rarely made a decision without closely considering its political consequences. But civil rights had long been framed as a moral question, and those who led the campaign for race reform based their demands not on the ephemera of domestic politics but on timeless questions of right and justice. In the discussions and debates on the 1964 bill, the moral and the political were often merged. In the halls of Congress as well as in the Oval Office, advocates and opponents of the bill made it clear that what was just would have to be reconciled with what was possible in Washington and throughout the country.

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