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

This tension between morality and pragmatism has led some to question the motives of those political leaders who championed civil rights in the 1960s. Johnson has been susceptible to the charge that he endorsed civil rights reform largely to enhance his political standing, while Kennedy has been criticized for not moving more aggressively on the matter because he feared the political consequences for himself and his party. But if politics was never far from the mind of either man, the morality of civil rights weighed on both. Indeed, Johnson, the quintessential Texan, was more committed to civil rights than was Kennedy, a son of Massachusetts, home of the abolitionists. Just as many said that only a hard-line anti-Communist like Nixon could go to China, it is perhaps equally true that only Johnson — the southern politician par excellence — could engineer meaningful civil rights reform.

But the question remains: Why did Kennedy and Johnson come to believe that civil rights reform was the single most important domestic issue facing the nation and decide it was worth fighting for? What the tapes depict is an unfolding process between 1962 and 1964. At first, a reluctant Kennedy resented civil rights leaders for their failure to understand the obstacles to change. But as events proceeded, his position shifted, and he became determined to craft meaningful reform, even as he remained unsure about how far to go. Then, in the Johnson period, we see an administration willing to move without hesitation to ensure the passage of the 1964 act. Perhaps most interestingly, the tapes suggest that for both administrations, any attempt to separate moral from political concerns is a futile enterprise.

It is impossible to determine whether Kennedy cared more about the justness of civil rights than about the domestic political implications of the issue. Nor can one separate morality from politics when talking about Johnson. Each man was fully capable of fusing the two, of compromising moral imperatives because of political concerns, or of ignoring political concerns because of moral imperatives. Had Kennedy not believed that the political climate had changed such that ignoring civil rights was no longer politically feasible, it is difficult to imagine he would have acted as he did. And few would argue that Johnson would have invested his political capital in civil rights had he not been convinced that it was, quite simply, the right thing to do.

Civil Rights before 1960

The transcripts begin in 1962, but there is, of course, a rich history that preceded the events covered in the following pages, a history that informed and shaped how the various participants approached the issue of civil rights. The leading figures in the brief but intense drama of the early 1960s stood on the shoulders of thousands of committed people who preceded them, some well known, but most obscure.

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