By George E. Curry
Lyndon B. Johnson has done more to help African Americans and poor people than any modern president. But his defenders are cheapening his legacy by inflating his accomplishments, which is an insult to the people – Black and White – who lost their lives fighting for civil rights.
The first and most obnoxious example of a LBJ supporter becoming unhinged is Joseph A. Califano, Jr., President Johnson’s domestic policy adviser from 1965 to 1969.
In a column for the Washington Post, he wrote: “In fact, Selma was LBJ’s idea, he considered the Voting Rights Act his greatest legislative achievement, he viewed King as an essential partner in getting it enacted – and he didn’t use the FBI to disparage him.”
The idea of a Selma-to-Montgomery March actually originated in Marion, Ala., about 30 miles northwest of Selma, with the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson. Marchers were protesting the arrest of James Orange, a key Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) field organizer. In fact, they were marching from Zion Chapel Methodist Church a short distance to the jail when Jackson was killed by an Alabama State Trooper James Bonard Fowler. At the time, he was trying to defend his 82-year old grandfather, a scene vividly captured in the movie, “Selma.” The account is also recounted in Selma 1965: The March That Changed the South by Charles E. Fager.
Instead of a traditional funeral, the idea was proposed to march to Montgomery and present Jackson’s body to Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace at the state capitol. Wiser minds prevailed and the idea was refined to hold a traditional funeral for Jimmie Lee Jackson and march 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery to demand full voting rights for Blacks.
It was the death of 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson that inspired the Selma to Montgomery March, not an “idea” floating around in LBJ’s head. Neither Califano nor anyone else is entitled to use the blood of the Civil Rights Movement to create a myth that is contrary to history and common sense.
The most recent attempt to super-size LBJ’s legacy is the assertion that it was the former president’s idea to include Latinos in the Civil Rights Movement.
An Associated Press story noted, “While this week’s commemorations of the 50th anniversary of ‘Bloody Sunday’ may invoke memories of historic events in which the ‘real hero,’ as Johnson said, was ‘the American Negro,’ little is said about Johnson’s call in that speech to include Mexican-Americans in the struggle for equality.”
The story added, “Appalled by the brutality in Selma, Johnson viewed it as an opportunity to ‘liberate himself’ by linking the voting rights struggle with the struggles, 37 years earlier, of his poorest [Latino] students in Cotulla…”
Dr. King worked hard to build coalitions with other groups, including Latinos. In fact, many were in attendance in great numbers at the 1963 March on Washington.
Former New York City Councilman Gerena Valentín said, “Martin Luther King Jr. invited me to Atlanta, Ga., to discuss the march that was being organized, and I went there with a strong team. He personally invited me to organize the Latinos in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts, and so I did.”
King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech – made two years before the Selma to Montgomery March – was a broad appeal for justice for “all of God’s children.”
So it’s preposterous to suggest that it was President Johnson’s idea to include “Mexican-Americans in the struggle for equality.”
The reality is that Johnson was anything but a civil rights advocate in Congress.
PoliticFact.com, the fact-checking site, noted that Robert Caro, LBJ’s biographer, said: “for eleven years he had voted against every civil rights bill – against not only legislation aimed at ending the poll tax and segregation in the armed services but even against legislation aimed at ending lynching: a one hundred percent record.
“Running for the Senate in 1948, he had assailed President Harry Truman’s entire civil rights program (‘an effort to set up a police state’)…Until 1957, in the Senate, as in the House, his record – by that time a twenty-year record – against civil rights had been consistent.”
Luci Baines Johnson accepted an award from march organizers Sunday morning in Selma on behalf of her father, saying, “It means the world to me to know that a half-century later you remember how deeply Daddy cared about social justice and how hard he worked to make it happen.”
It was only after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and Johnson’s elevation from vice president that he overcame his past, signing into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
Those three laws forever changed the United States for the better. LBJ’s legacy is firmly established. He doesn’t need his supporters to lie about his record in order to enlarge his reputation.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA) and BlackPressUSA.com. He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge and George E. Curry Fan Page on Facebook. See previous columns at http://www.georgecurry.com/columns.