Friday, April 11, 2014

Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Isaiah 1.16-20

“Come, let us reason together,” was one of President Lyndon Johnson’s favorite Bible verses. He quoted it often and it was indicative of how he thought government was supposed to work.

Fifty years ago today, congress passed the Civil Rights Act. It stands as testimony to the greatness of his political skill and moral leadership.

As a young person living through Johnson’s presidency, I gave him little credit for the Civil Rights Act, or the War on Poverty, or the Voting Rights Act, or Medicare, or Medicaid. And I gave him almost all of the blame for the war in Vietnam. Looking back, I am amazed by his accomplishments.

For many people today, the Civil Rights Act seems like ancient history. And for a significant number of people, it seems like something that has outlived its usefulness. We no longer have segregated businesses, there are no laws about who sits at the back of the bus, we don’t have “colored” bathrooms or water fountains, our schools are integrated, and there are no (legally) segregated neighborhoods. Listening to the Diane Rehm show on NPR yesterday morning, I heard a caller delineate his own impeccable personal history of Civil Rights awareness, explaining that he had been brought up with an integrated circle of family friends and acquaintances, so that he never thought about race. Then he asked earnestly if perhaps the pendulum had swung too far. One of the panelists thanked him for his profession of racial acceptance and then gently recounted the racial disparities in employment, income, wealth, education, and incarceration.

We have come a long way.

But we have a long way to go. One of the benefits of being white is that we don’t have to think about race. That is a significant part of the meaning of “white privilege.” The inability to recognize white privilege is one of the major reasons that further progress in combating racism is so difficult.

Fifty years ago, the issues were more black and white.

But that should not blind us to the enormous courage required for President Johnson and others to support the Civil Rights Act fifty years ago. And without taking away from Johnson’s heroism, we should also remember that he didn’t do it alone. He was supported by an army of civil rights works, congressional staffers, and government bureaucrats who worked tirelessly and selflessly to do the right thing.

And then there was the bipartisan support, which is almost unimaginable today. When the bill was filibustered by Senate Democrats Richard Russell and Robert Byrd, Republican leader Everett Dirksen led 27 northern Republicans to vote with 45 northern Democrats and one southern Democrat (Ralph Yarborough of Texas) to end the filibuster and pass the bill.

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