Photo by Bettmann/Corbis

Photo by Bettmann/Corbis

The Lyndon B. Johnson Renaissance

Feb 17, 2014

Despite his titanic role in America’s quest for civil rights, the greatest domestic movement of the Twentieth Century, LBJ has been largely underappreciated—even ignored—until recently.

History often casts its glow fickly. Sometimes we get a sense of how one will be reflected in its light contemporaneously. Sometimes it takes a little longer to sort things out.

In 1865, when an assassin’s bullet felled Abraham Lincoln, his loss was felt immediately and his place in the presidential pantheon all but assured. Though he had elicited withering criticism during the course of his four-year presidency, the sixteenth president had lived to see the Civil War to its bloody end, keeping the Union whole while putting a constitutional end to the odious institution of slavery. “It is small consolation that he died at a moment in the war when he could best be spared,” wrote Harper’s Weekly just after his death, “for no nation is ready for the loss of such a friend.”
It has taken history far longer to catch up to the legacy of our 36th president, Lyndon Johnson.

A hundred years after Lincoln’s passing, Johnson stood before Congress and delivered one of the great, unheralded speeches of its age, a plea before Congress to put the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. Though slavery had long been abolished at Lincoln’s hand, racism, virulent and intractable, continued to plague much of America. A year earlier, Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the first meaningful civil rights bill since Reconstruction, striking down Jim Crow laws that allowed for racial segregation throughout the South. But the power of the ballot eluded many people of color in Southern states. In Mississippi alone, less than seven percent of the black population was registered to vote in 1962.  “t is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice,” Johnson said as he looked over his former Congressional colleagues in the House chamber, many of them unyielding segregationists, as his mouth tightened and his eyes narrowed determinedly. “And we shall overcome.” read more