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.
“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.