A staunch opponent of segregation, Lady Bird Johnson shares the glory of the greatest presidency for civil rights since Lincoln.
Topics: Politics News
The obituaries of former first lady Lady Bird Johnson extol her beautification projects, graciousness and steady handling of the outsize personality of her husband. But she was also an unwavering supporter of civil rights and through the decades kept close ties to key people in the movement. Her achievements are inseparable from her marriage. Lady Bird managed Lyndon’s turbulence, quietly offered her counsel, ignored his wandering eye, and calmed those he might upset. Nothing of that relationship was easily reducible to simple motivation. Over time, rather than becoming more submissive and diminished, she became stronger, more formidable and clearer minded. At almost every turn, at every difficulty and problem they encountered, Lyndon discovered and rediscovered his reliance on her strength and judgment.
Lady Bird belonged to the other South, the liberal South that confronted the harsh realities of segregation and the monolithic system of power that enforced it. She came to her beliefs gradually and, like many other Southerners, engaged in an internal struggle to remake herself and her legacy. She was born, 94 years ago, in a part of East Texas 10 miles from the Louisiana border, amid cotton plantations and “many, many blacks,” she wrote, “totally part of the Old South … a whole feudal way of life.” The bricks of her large house had been handmade by slaves. Her grandfather had fought for the Confederacy at Shiloh. Her father was known to whites as “Cap’n” and to blacks simply as “Mister Boss.” Her mother came a big and influential family in Alabama, where as a girl Lady Bird spent her summers.
“She did not start out as an all-out civil rights person. It took getting there,” Harry McPherson, a longtime aide to Lyndon Johnson, told me. “My recollection is of an enormously civilized woman who was also politically intelligent and knew how important the civil rights issue was to the country and to her husband. That was the main tide she was sailing on. But there was a riptide, the long Southern background, the Montgomery, Alabama, background of her family.”
When Lyndon Johnson was first elected to the House of Representatives in a special election in 1937 and arrived in Washington, he and his wife immediately became part of a small circle of liberal Southern New Dealers. “We were so young and so liberal,” Lady Bird said later. Among the Johnsons’ friends were such New Deal officials as Clifford and Virginia Durr and Aubrey W. Williams, who became important figures in the civil rights movement. The Durrs were from Alabama; Virginia’s brother-in-law was Hugo Black, appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt to the Supreme Court. Williams, another native Southerner, was deputy to Harry Hopkins, Eleanor Roosevelt and FDR’s close aide, and had hired 28-year-old Johnson to run the National Youth Administration in Texas, which became a gleaming example of New Deal success. “Lady Bird and Mother were very close friends from the very early days for the New Deal,” Lucy Hackney, Virginia’s daughter, told me. “They were a group of Southern liberals — that’s what they thought of themselves at that point. She was younger than Mother. Mother introduced her to Washington, had been up there a little longer.”
The Durrs eventually moved back to Alabama, becoming central figures in the civil rights movement. In 1954, when Sen. James Eastland, an arch-segregationist from Mississippi and chairman of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, subpoenaed them and Aubrey Williams, Virginia called Lady Bird. According to Virginia’s memoir, “Outside the Magic Circle,” she woke Lady Bird up. “Bird,” she said, “you know, Jim Eastland has called Aubrey and me down to New Orleans, and we’re going to be put on the hot seat in one of those inquisitions. I’ve got to speak to Lyndon.” Lyndon came on the phone. “Why, baby, I don’t know a thing about it. That’s terrible. What can I do for you?” Now the Senate majority leader, Johnson arranged things so that no other Democrats showed up at the hearings.
Johnson had made a kind of separate peace with the Southern barons who ruled the Senate, refusing until his masterful field marshaling for the 1957 Civil Rights Act to push for such legislation. In Alabama, meanwhile, the Durrs led the fight against the poll tax, which effectively disenfranchised blacks. Lucy Hackney recalled: “When my mother was doing the poll tax campaign, Lyndon would say, ‘Darling, I’ll do that if you’ve got the votes.’” But the consummate politician of his generation was keeping his counsel. He was, after all, the only Southern congressman to vote for an anti-lynching bill in 1938.
In December 1955, in Montgomery, Ala., when a department store worker named Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a segregated public bus, launching the boycott that brought a young minister, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., to the city to lead it, the Durrs were deeply involved. Parks, in fact, had been trained as a civil rights worker to undertake her mission. And after she was fired from her job, the Durrs hired her to work for their family as a seamstress. “Lady Bird was very supportive of mother,” said Lucy Hackney. “They were very close during the bus boycott. Lady Bird called, stayed connected.”
Michael Janeway, a young aide in Sen. Johnson’s office whose father and mother — Eliot Janeway, the economist, and Elizabeth Janeway, the novelist — were close to the Johnsons, is now a professor at the Columbia Journalism School. He remembers Lady Bird reading Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” almost as soon as it was published in 1960. “Despite being more Southern than Johnson, she was absolutely civil-rights-oriented,” Janeway told me. “The closest relations she kept up were to Virginia and Clifford Durr, Lindy Boggs [wife of Louisiana congressman Hale Boggs, who later filled his seat], Aubrey Williams. So many people felt they could talk to her who couldn’t talk to him [Lyndon Johnson]. When he was in one of his manic-depressive phases and they fell out, she was the behind-the-scenes mediator. Some people maintained a separate relationship with her.”
In the closing days of the 1960 campaign, Lyndon Johnson, the vice presidential running mate of John F. Kennedy, feared that they would lose his home state of Texas, and he rushed to Dallas on Nov. 4. Conservative Southerners had excoriated Johnson as a traitor to his region and race for having endorsed the civil rights plank of the Democratic Party. “LBJ,” they contended, meant “Late Blooming Judas” or “Let’s Beat Judas.” Lyndon and Lady Bird arrived at the Adolphus Hotel in downtown Dallas to be greeted by a hostile, well-heeled crowd — later dubbed the “Mink Coat Mob” — led by a far-right congressman, Bruce Alger. (Alger took pride in voting against the school milk program.) At the emergence of the Johnsons in the lobby, the crowd spat upon them, grabbing Lady Bird’s hair and clothing. After this “High Noon” incident, Johnson appeared in a new light different from the stereotypical Texas wheeler-dealer. For Lady Bird, the event remained traumatic, and years later she exhibited physical nervousness when it was brought up. But it did not deter her.
When President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, striking down Jim Crow in July 1964, he famously remarked to his young press secretary, Bill Moyers, “We have lost the South for a generation.” But he did not intend to give it up so easily. Months later, he sent Lady Bird on a 1,682-mile, eight-state, 47-stop campaign train tour of the South. Her speeches consisted of honeyed and steely words. “I am proud that I am part of the South. I’m fond of the old customs,” she said. Then she quoted Robert E. Lee’s injunction after Appomattox, “Abandon all these local animosities and raise your sons to be Americans!” And she urged acceptance of the Civil Rights Act. “There is, in this Southland, more love than hate.”
As the train drew deeper South, the crowds grew menacing. In Mississippi, the Ku Klux Klan tried to blow up a railroad bridge. In Columbia, S.C., Klansmen burned a cross and thousands of hecklers assembled before the state capitol to jeer. Signs read: “Black Bird, Go Home,” and “Johnson Is a Nigger Lover.” In Charleston, 10,000 people gathered to shout her down. “Today,” Lady Bird said, “the South, like the rest of the nation, is at a crossroads … It is the choice between a new progress — and a new nullification. Here in Charleston, once the hub of the Old South, you have to make that choice.”
President Johnson flew to New Orleans to embrace his wife as she ended her exhausting trip. Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee, was running well in the South — and he would carry five deep South states, an augury of a new Republican realignment. Yet Johnson was determined not to concede the South, but to fight for it. The night before his visit to New Orleans, Moyers sent him a campaign memo noting that “several people in New Orleans, including our advance men, feel the President should not refer to ‘civil rights.’” On Oct. 9, 1964, Johnson delivered the most dramatic speech of the campaign.
Now, the people that would use us and destroy us first divide us … But if they divide us, they can make some hay. And all these years they have kept their foot on our necks by appealing to our animosities, and dividing us. Whatever your views are, we have a Constitution and we have a Bill of Rights, and we have the law of the land, and two-thirds of the Democrats in the Senate voted for it and three-fourths of the Republicans. I signed it, and I am going to enforce it…
Then Johnson recounted the story of an old Southern senator who confided to Rep. Sam Rayburn, Johnson’s mentor from Texas, “‘Sammy, I wish I felt a little better. I would like to go back to old’ — and I won’t call the name of the state; it wasn’t Louisiana and it wasn’t Texas — ‘I would like to go back down there and make them one more Democratic speech. I just feel like I have one in me. The poor old state, they haven’t heard a Democratic speech in 30 years. All they ever hear at election time is Nigger, Nigger, Nigger!’”
After his election, the progress of Johnson’s Great Society became mired in Vietnam. As the war escalated and opposition grew, and her old friends turned into protesters, Lady Bird still maintained contact, but she became increasingly recessive and even depressed. She was fraught with anxiety about her husband’s health and the fate of his presidency.
I met Lady Bird six years ago, through a friend of mine, her nephew, Philip Bobbitt, who had been a colleague in the Clinton White House. She had suffered some hearing loss and her eyesight was dimmed, but her mind was clear and sharp. Another couple was present, from Texas, wealthy Republicans, talking up the virtues of George W. Bush, and Lady Bird quietly but pointedly encouraged debate with their conservative views.
Lady Bird was of her time and ahead of it. As first lady she was a bridge between the eras of Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton. Unlike either of them, Lady Bird reserved her influence strictly for behind the scenes and did not impose herself in public apart from her husband’s agenda, except on environmental issues, on which she was a pioneer. She shares the glory of the greatest presidency for civil rights since Lincoln. In 1960, after seeing Lady Bird’s picture in Time magazine, Virginia Durr wrote Lyndon: “Of course I’ve thought that Bird is your secret weapon … Southern womanhood really has something when they are like Bird.” Let us now praise famous women.
More Related Stories
- Stop cutting the Weather Service already!
- Limbaugh: No one willing to impeach the first black president
- Top White House aides knew about IRS probe but didn't tell Obama
- Gohmert: IRS would've "probably shot the Boston Tea Party participants"
- Oregon senator proposes appeal to Monsanto Protection Act
- Supreme Court to rule on prayer at government meetings
- Beltway scandal machine breaks, knows nothing about America
- Top GOP official: "Sometimes our party does not value" women "as much"
- Colorado Dems fight back against GOP's Voter ID measures
- Watchdogs: ABC "in danger of losing a lot of credibility" on Benghazi saga
- Father of gay high school student arrested for dating classmate speaks out
- IRS meltdown was long overdue
- Can a liberal wonk save the Senate?
- Arkansas treasurer charged with extortion
- Corporate greed is poisoning America -- literally
- The new geography of poverty
- Barack Obama: Incidental black man?
- Obama to all-male university graduates: Be the best husband to "your boyfriend or partner"
- Big Soda SNAP-ing up billions off government programs
- The truth in Kanye's anti-prison rap
- Tea Party Patriots push nationwide anti-IRS rallies
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11
Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.