Thursday Bookshelf: Civil Rights, Lyndon Johnson, MLK Jr. and Congress

Review of When Freedom Would Triumph: The Civil Rights Struggle in Congress, 1954-1968 and Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws That Changed America

While the History of Florida is somewhat different from the rest of the south in the 1960s thanks largely to the efforts in the 1950s of one man, Governor Leroy Collins, Florida still was a hotbed of segregationism. The Florida Democratic Party was split between legislators and activists from the Miami area who were largely pro-integration and the leadership of the rest of the state who were pro-segregation. Business leaders tended to align with integration forces despite their general conservatism otherwise, further complicating the party’s dilemma on the issue. As we discussed in a previous Thursday Bookshelf, Florida’s legislature in the pre-reapportionment days (before the landmark Baker v Carr decision) was disproportionately pro-segregation and largely racist even though sentiment in urban areas of the state, particularly in Miami was quite the contrary.

When Freedom Would Triumph: The Civil Rights Struggle in Congress, 1954-1968

Most books that discuss the Civil Rights era focus on the movement itself on the ground in the southeastern states. Robert Mann’s “When Freedom Would Triumph.” looks at the battle in Congress and the political world. It is an updated and abridged and highly readable version of Mann’s longer “Walls of Jericho,” which was published in the mid 1990s. I bought the hardcover version of the Walls of Jericho at a bookstore in Ocala while a UF student in 1996, and have read the abridged version on the Kindle.

Harry S. Truman had pushed a Civil Rights program in 1947 and 1948 that put him at odds with much of his own party. Southern states objected to Truman’s policies and many defected in 1948 to create the “States Rights Democratic Party” which ran Strom Thurmond for President in 1948. Thurmond didn’t run against Truman in the states he won. He ran INSTEAD of Truman, as the National Democratic ticket was removed from the ballot in Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and Louisiana and replaced by the “Dixiecrat” ticket.

For the south, the most reliably Democratic region the country, betrayal meant that they would fight to the death to give up control of their party to northern and midwestern liberals. Much of this battle was fought in Congress, where the one-party nature of the South meant that the region’s Democrats had survived the Republican landslide of 1946 and thus when the Democrats won back a majority in the Congress in 1948, most of the major chairmanships were held by Southerners (as would be the case into the 1970s).

Against this backdrop the narrative begins in earnest as newly appointed Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren had broken the court’s previous 5-4 deadlock in favor of Segregation using the political skill he learned as the Governor of California and the 1948 Republican Vice-Presidential nominee. Once on the court, Warren forced four other justices  previously against reversing Segregation laws in-line behind him for a unanimous Supreme Court decision outlawing Segregation in Public Schools. Warren’s remaking of the court which would move the country’s law significantly to the left was rejected wholeheartedly in the South. Warren was a liberal Republican and not the more moderate President Eisenhower’s type of politician. However Ike owed Warren who delivered California to him at the 1952 Republican Convention and thus owed Warren a seat on the Supreme Court in one of the most important political deals in post-war America. This deal essentially opened the door for massive social changes in America as Warren’s liberalism was unchecked once he was running the court. Warren’s appointment was the most important single moment in the development of the United States into a progressive more egalitarian social society, though Eisenhower himself soon regretted the appointment calling it “the biggest damn fool mistake I ever made.”

On the issue of race, in 1954 no such thing existed as a Southern white racial liberal (with the exception of arch-liberals with a national following like Claude Pepper, Ralph Yarborough and Estes Kefauver. Pepper’s perceived racial liberalism and his sympathy for the Soviet Union was part of the reason he lost in 1950). Those white politicians who were local or regional figures were all segregationists, though their degree of hostility to integration, the court and African-Americans varied from the refined racial arguments of some in the planter class to the rabble-rousing, pro-Ku Klux Klan demagoguery of many Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia politicians.

The book traces the linear careers of Richard Russell, the statesmanlike yet strong segregationist Georgia Senator, Lyndon Johnson the Senate Majority Leader who in time would be President and Hubert Humphrey the liberal Minnesota Senator who was a close all of Johnson’s and a staunch Civil Rights backer.

Mann carefully details the effective dilatory tactics of the Southern Senators led by Russell and the political battles within the Democratic Party throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s on the issue of Civil Rights. The final debate on the 1964 Civil Rights act in Congress is vividly recalled including the key role in which Christian and Jewish religious organizations played in securing the support of enough Republicans to break the Southern filibuster (prior to this no Southern filibuster had EVER been broken on a Civil Rights or anti-lynching bill) and pass the most important law of the 20th Century.  The book is brilliant and a must read for anyone interested in this era, or African-American history.

The book also is valuable in demonstrating how many conservative Republicans rejected their instincts to deal a terrible defeat to President Johnson and crossed over to break the filibuster (which at the time needed 67 not 60 votes like today) for the good of the country. It is a lesson today’s politicians would be wise to repeat.

Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws That Changed America

Using telephone conversations and logs as a framework, Nick Kotz paints the picture in this excellent book about the partnership of LBJ and MLK Jr. that saw the passage of the Civil Rights Act. More emphasis is put on the relationship between the two men than in Mann’s seminal work and the relationship between the administration and other civil rights activists is also covered. This work shows how King’s pragmatic streak which was often lamented by more radicalized elements in the Civil Rights community held the movement together and won it large-scale mainstream white political support.

The tragedy of this book is contained in the collapse of the relationship over Vietnam. Like so many other works about LBJ, a great Presidency collapsed on one issue. The Texan could have been the most important American of the 20th Century as far as domestic progress but instead is largely remembered for a bungled war in the jungles of Southeast Asia. That like so many other discussions of LBJ is a great takeaway from this book.

Both books are well worth reading and highly recommended by TFS. 

2 comments

  1. […] focus today on the two items momentous congressional legislation pushed in the 1960s by President Lyndon Johnson and passed over the objection over the vast majority of the Florida Delegation. The Civil Rights […]

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  2. […] covered the first year of LBJ’s Presidency previously on TFS via book reviews and it’s a period I have studied extensively, particularly the legislative […]

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