Today is the 50th Anniversary of the signing into law of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by President Lyndon Baines Johnson. A monumental act that made sweeping changes in our nation and put us on the road to full citizenship of millions of our fellow citizens who had long suffered under Jim Crow laws and defacto segregation. It was one of the hallmarks of Johnson’s presidency and arguably no other president might have been able to accomplish what Johnson wrought. It was and is very ironic that it was a southern president who pushed the bill through congress one who had lived under and was elected by citizens who lived under Jim Crow laws in Texas.
Lyndon Johnson was a strange man in many ways but he was exactly the one person who could manage to do what no other president could and if it were not for his albatross of Vietnam he would likely be considered one of the greatest presidents in our history. Vietnam sealed his place in history and it is only now that people are becoming aware of the great things he did. He was vilified in his time and even after his death for a long time.
Johnson wasn’t a great speaker. He wasn’t very photogenic nor was he particularly liked by the public despite the electorate handing him a lopsided landslide of a victory in the very year he pushed through one of the greatest pieces of legislation in our history. But he was what our nation needed at the time and he had the courage of his convictions and he knew he was on the right side of history. It must have been a bitter pill to swallow for a man who was so outgoing and gregarious and who loved the rough and tumble of politics to have watched as his legacy was tarnished by the bloody conflict that was the quagmire of Vietnam.
But Johnson as much as any president stood tall in the tradition of the Roosevelts and did what he knew to be the right thing. And the Civil Rights Act wasn’t only the beginning for him. There was more great things to come from this man as he would shepherd another piece of legislation through congress only a year later when he pushed for the Voting Rights Act. And added his a third jewel to his crown with the passage of Medicare.
Only Franklin Roosevelt with his New Deal can really compare to the lasting legacy of LBJ and what he accomplished in his 5 plus years in office. Roosevelt had 12 years to change the world and he did, but Johnson also changed our world for the better and he did it in 7 less years. Johnson was a very flawed man but he was the right man for what was needed at the time and he never shirked from what he knew needed to be done. You can argue that the times dictated what had to be done, but without LBJ as president three of the most important pieces of legislation in our history might look demonstrably different.
His reasons and motivations came from giants like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and others of the time who were at the forefront of the push for equality but they needed a man at the top to make what they knew to be right happen and LBJ was qualified like no other person. John Kennedy had all of those things on his agenda but whether or not he could have made them happen is debatable. No one else with the possible exception of Franklin Roosevelt could have done what Johnson did because not even FDR had the knowledge and abilities to cajole and arm twist members of congress from both sides of the aisle that LBJ did.
LBJ may not be the greatest president we ever have had but he was an important one and he changed our nation for the better because he believed in what he was doing and he understood that our nation needed it to be done. And he was willing to sacrifice his place in history for the common good. He was a man who placed his country above his politics! He was a real American Hero. Flawed but of a good heart! And he loved his country!