LBJ Goes for Broke

“I do understand power, whatever else may be said about me, I know where to look for it and how to use it,” said Senator Lyndon Johnson, the Majority Leader. In Robert Caro’s new book, Master of the Senate—the third in his four-volume study of the 36th President—the author charts Johnson’s masterful exercise of power.

“My books are not biographies of famous men but are about political power, the power that affects all our lives,” says Caro, whose The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1975. “In the new book, I had to find out where LBJ found power in the Senate and how he used it to transform that hidebound body.”

Caro (and his one-person research staff, Ina, his wife of 44 years—an author herself) has devoted more than 25 years to Johnson, 12 to the latest volume alone. He interviewed 260 people, sorted through 2,082 boxes of Senate papers and wrote several drafts in longhand before typing others on an old Smith Carona. Caro calls Johnson “the greatest Majority Leader in the history of the Senate. I took the guy who did it best. And studied him.”

How does Caro feel personally about his subject? “I don’t think I like or dislike him,” he says. “But I am in awe of LBJ. Watching him get the 1957 Civil Rights Act through . . . I am in awe. This is not legislative power, this is legislative genius.”

The excerpt that follows chronicles Johnson’s seemingly hopeless 1957 attempt to pass the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, which southern Democrats were at first determined to block, as they had blocked every other civil rights bill for 82 years. Johnson, Caro shows, had long wanted sincerely to help people of color; in addition, he planned to run for President in 1960 and needed passage of the bill to make him acceptable to liberals and northerners. Though the bill that was originally introduced addressed a number of wrongs against African-Americans, what was left of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 gave the attorney general new powers to enforce the rights of African-Americans to vote, rights that in much of the South had long been denied through trickery and intimidation. Getting any civil rights bill through Congress would mark a milestone. “It didn’t matter that the bill was not strong,” says Caro, “because blacks needed to know they could have hope that civil rights legislation could pass the Senate. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 was hope.”

Passage of the bill hinged on an amendment giving a person charged with contempt for disobeying a judge’s order—say, a white official trying to prevent blacks from voting—the right to a trial by jury (which in the South meant an all-white jury). The amendment, which liberals felt eviscerated the act, had been drafted to make it palatable to the South, but satisfied no one. “All the compromises and deals that had been hammered out in seven months of negotiations had only brought the two sides to an impasse at which no compromise seemed possible,” Caro writes. In fact, everyone seemed to know that the bill was dead—except LBJ:

To keep the two sides negotiating— to keep the 1957 civil rights fight from degenerating into the open hostility and bitterness in which so many previous civil rights bills had died— Johnson had to persuade his colleagues to conduct the debate in an atmosphere of outward friendliness and respect, or at least civility, so for some days, the opening scene of the Senate each noon hour featured the Majority Leader as Emily Post. In statements written by aide George Reedy and delivered during Johnson’s opening remarks each day, he encouraged the Senate to mind its manners, saying that it was on trial, that the world was watching it, and that he was confident that the Senate would do itself proud.

Johnson’s opening homilies were almost his only public utterances on the subject of civil rights. He had again assumed a low profile, and was not often on the Senate floor, spending his time in the Democratic cloakroom or huddling with aides behind closed doors, or with senators in his offices in the Capitol or back in the SenateOfficeBuilding. But there, in the cloakroom or behind closed doors, he was fighting, too, using the gifts he had demonstrated so vividly during his entire life.

All his life, he had had what Texas oilman and backer George Brown called a “knack” for simultaneously convincing people on opposite sides of an issue that he was on their side, and never had this knack been more vividly displayed. He did it with the tone of his voice: with northerners, his Texas twang became harder, more clipped; when he talked to southerners the twang softened into a full-fledged southern drawl. He did it with words. “If we’re going to have any civil rights bill at all, we’ve got to be reasonable about this jury trial amendment,” he said to liberal Illinois Senator Paul Douglas in the cloakroom one day. Five minutes later, he was at the opposite end of the cloakroom, telling Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina to “be ready to take up the Nigra bill again.”

He tried to make the southerners understand that as long as the bill contained a jury trial amendment, its passage would have minimal political repercussions for them. “You can go back [home] and say, ‘Listen, we could not stop them entirely. They just had too many votes, so they rolled over us. But look what we got. We fought and fixed it up so that those damned Yankee carpetbaggers couldn’t come back, and also they couldn’t brand you a criminal without a jury trial.’ ” He played on their pride as southerners. He played on their hopes: their hope that he might become President, and that if he did, that would be a victory for the South, a victory so great that its possibility should overrule all other considerations. He played on their fears. “The colored are not going to give up. They’re determined,” he told them. “We can’t continue to push these things down their throats. They won’t sit still any longer. We have to give them something. If we don’t allow progress on this issue, we’re going to lose everything.”

With the liberals—not with the most ardent “red-hots,” for with them there was no hope—the key words were also we and us. He made them feel that they were in a battle, and that in that battle he was on their side. Warning one liberal senator that there must be a liberal “sentry” on the floor at all times to guard against a sudden southern legislative maneuver, he told him, “They’ll get us on the floor if we’re not manned on the floor at all times.” He told him, “They’ll pick our moment of least resistance and move in.” He played on their fears—the fear of what southern power in the committees could do to their vital projects.

He had to persuade the northerners to allow some sort of jury trial amendment in the bill, even though such an amendment stripped the act itself of its teeth. He tried to make them understand that the important thing was to get some bill, any bill, passed “to show them we can do it—once we’ve got the first one passed, we can go back and improve it”—and that the only way to get it passed was to vote for the amendment. When Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey tried to argue with him, he said, “Yes, yes, Hubert, I want all those other things—buses, restaurants, all of that—but the right to vote with no ifs, ands or buts, that’s the key. When the Negroes get that, they’ll have every politician, north and south, east and west, kissing their ass, begging for their support.”

Day after day, he was arguing one side of a point with the southerners and the other side with the liberals—and arguing both sides with equal persuasiveness. At the same time that he was telling the South that he had counted votes and had found that a filibuster couldn’t win, he was telling liberals that they couldn’t beat a filibuster.

He was working the cloakroom and the corridors now, working them with everything he had.

He used his health. He had had a heart attack [in 1955], he said, he was a sick man and he knew it. The strain was too much for him, he said, when he went home at night, he couldn’t sleep, the doctors kept giving him new pills, they didn’t work, he was starting to get chest pains again. “Ah don’t want to die right here,” he said. “Ah don’t want to fall on my face, drop dead right on the floor of the Senate.” He couldn’t take much more strain; “He made you feel that if you wouldn’t go along with what he was asking, you might be murdering this man,” one senator recalls.

He used their pride in the Senate: “We’ve got the world looking at us here! We’ve got to make the world see that this body works!” He used their pride in their party: “You’re the party of Lincoln,” he reminded one Republican. “That’s something to be proud of.” To Democrats, he said, “Our party’s always been the place that you can come to whenever there’s injustice. That’s what the Democratic Party’s for. That’s why it was born. That’s why it survives. So the poor and the downtrodden and the bended [sic] can have a place to turn. And they’re turning to us now. We can’t let them down.” He used his power and his charm. “I can see him now,” aide Bobby Baker says, “grasping hands and poking chests and grabbing lapels, saying to the southern politicians something like, ‘We got a chance to show the way. We got a chance to get the racial monkey off the South’s back. We got a chance to show the Yankees that we’re good and decent and civilized down here, not a bunch of barefoot, tobacco-chewin’ crazies.’ ” When he had finished presenting his arguments to a senator, aide Harry McPherson was to say, “he would sink back into the chair, his eyes wide with the injustice of his burdens, the corners of his mouth inviting pity and support.” Then he “would come back faceto- face, perhaps sensing that the other wanted to help and in that event should hear the whole story, all the demands, the pressures and the threats, as well as the glory and the achievement that awaited reasonable men if they would only compromise, not on the main thing, but just on this part that the other side would never accept as it was; unless there could be some accommodation, there would be nothing, the haters would take over, the Negroes would lose it all, I need your help.” He used his stories, and he used his jokes, he used his promises, used his threats, backing senators up against walls or trapping them in their chairs, wrapping an arm around their shoulders and thrusting a finger in their chests, grasping lapels, watching their hands, watching their eyes, listening to what they said, or to what they didn’t say: “The greatest salesman one on one who ever lived”—trying to make his biggest sale.

To every crisis in his life, he had risen with that effort that made men say, “I never knew it was possible for anyone to work that hard,” that effort in which “days meant nothing, nights meant nothing.” Now, in this greatest crisis, Lyndon Johnson, heart attack or no, rose again to that kind of effort. In the early-morning hours the residential districts of Washington and its suburbs were dark and silent, but now, in the night, the silence of a darkened street would be broken by the faint ringing of a telephone in a senator’s house. The senator, picking it up, would hear, “This is Lyndon Johnson.” The persuasion would begin, and it might go on for quite some time. Finally, the call would be over. The senator would go back to bed, to sleep if he could. And on another street, in another senator’s home, the phone would ring.

Try though he did, however, it appeared, as July drew to a close, that he wasn’t going to win. On Friday, July 26, the lines had stiffened dramatically. That morning, there had been a meeting of the Southern Caucus in Georgia Senator Richard Russell’s office, and around the huge mahogany table that morning there weren’t many smiles. Emerging from the meeting, Russell told Bill White of the New York Times that the Caucus had decided to support the jury trial amendment “to the end.” If the amendment was defeated, Russell said, the southerners would fight the complete bill “with every resource open to us.” In his article the next day, White explained the meaning of Russell’s phrases. “He meant that [if the amendment was defeated] the southerners would put in the most implacable filibuster of which they were capable.”

Johnson flew to Texas late that Friday, but during his weekend on the ranch, he received another blow: proof that he had underestimated the depth of organized labor’s commitment to civil rights. He had been hoping that labor would be enticed into support of the amendment by the extension of its jury trial guarantee to unions, but on Saturday, July 27, labor began to be heard from, in the form of a letter to Johnson from James B. Carey, president of the International Union of Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers. The amendment, Carey wrote, “would prevent effective enforcement of the right to vote.

“The issue must be faced squarely,” Carey said. “We can have either the right to vote or trial by jury for contempt. We cannot have both.” And he said, “Labor will not barter away effective protection of the right of a Negro to register and vote” just to obtain gains for itself.

The only news Johnson received that weekend was bad news. He had waged a spectacular fight, but he was going to lose. All his work, it seemed, had been for nothing.

On Monday and Tuesday, developments appeared to confirm that appraisal. Monday, when Johnson returned from Texas, was bad, with Carey’s letter being read into the record by Pennsylvania Senator Joe Clark, who jeered at Johnson’s attempt to get labor support, with New York Senator Jacob Javits holding the floor for hours, further antagonizing southerners by his manner, and with increasingly bitter squabbling between liberals and southerners.

Tuesday was worse. The day began for Johnson when, still in bed that morning, he came upon a large advertisement in the WashingtonPost. It was “An Open Letter” to “the Senate of the United States,” but it might have been addressed to him personally, so directly did it attack what he had been doing: “It would be better not to pass any civil rights legislation at all than to pass [this] bill. . . . We are in a better position to get justice in civil rights cases under existing laws than we would be if you pass the proposed ‘jury trial’ amendment.” The letter was signed by eighty-one southern liberal leaders.

A column by Murray Kempton published that Tuesday in the New York Post described Lyndon Johnson as “almost the prisoner of the South,” and “with the 20-year dominant coalition between Southern Democrats and Midwestern Republicans in ruins, Lyndon Johnson’s cupboard is bare. The politicians who count in the Senate today are [California Senator and Minority Leader] William F. Knowland and [Vice President] Richard M. Nixon; and Lyndon Johnson is a state of things whose time is past.”

Late Tuesday afternoon, however, things began to improve. While Lyndon Johnson had been in Texas the previous weekend, the telephone calls from George Reedy had told him that his attempt to woo leaders of organized labor like Carey and Walter Reuther and AFL-CIO President George Meany with a jury trial amendment had apparently failed. That Sunday, however, a dissenting if informal, even offhand, remark had been made by Cyrus Tyree (Cy) Anderson, the rough-spoken, incisive chief Washington lobbyist for the Railway Labor Association—a loose central committee representing twelve railroad unions—to a casual Capitol Hill acquaintance: “Any labor guy who is against jury trials ought to have his head examined.” The acquaintance happened to repeat it to George Reedy Monday morning, and Reedy quoted it in a memorandum he gave to Johnson sometime after Johnson arrived back on Capitol Hill on Monday afternoon. And Johnson acted on it.

No one had thought of the railroad brotherhoods as potential allies—for a very obvious reason: for almost a century they had been fighting against equal rights for black Americans. But Johnson saw why the brotherhoods might be turned into supporters. On Tuesday morning, he telephoned Cy Anderson and asked for support for the jury trial amendment from the twelve brotherhoods— including a formal statement he could use to counter Carey’s.

With his eyes focused on organized labor as a source of support for a jury trial amendment, suddenly Johnson saw more. There was one union to whom the memory of the power of federal court injunctions was especially fresh and bitter: the United Mine Workers. The UMW’s chief counsel was Johnson’s friend Welly Hopkins, and Johnson now telephoned Welly and asked him for a formal statement of support from UMW head John L. Lewis.

Sometime after Johnson had returned to his office from the Senate floor, Lewis’ telegram was shown to him. He returned to the floor. The time was about 5:40. Olin Johnston was droning on. Asking the South Carolinian to yield, Johnson read the telegram, maximizing the impact by implying that it was an unsolicited bolt from the blue. “John L. Lewis had never communicated with me directly or indirectly until 2:48 p.m. today, when he sent me the following telegram,” he said. And even before he came to the floor, Johnson had used the telegram; he “saw to it,” as New York Timeswriter James Reston commented dryly, that it “was brought to [West Virginia Republican Senator Chapman] Revercomb’s attention.” On Lyndon Johnson’s smudged tally sheet, a number was erased from the right side of Revercomb’s name, and a number was written on the left side.

And Matthew Neely’s staff had been contacted, and a message had been sent to Bethesda. The dying West Virginia liberal had promised that he would leave the hospital and come to the Chamber in a wheelchair to cast his vote against the amendment if it was needed. Now that promise was withdrawn. Neely could not bring himself to vote for the amendment, but he said he would not leave the hospital to cast a vote at all. Although only one West Virginia vote would be added to the votes for the amendment, therefore, two were subtracted from the votes against it. The count had been perhaps 53–42 against Johnson before, but it was 51–43 now. He was only eight behind.

The other development that came to fruition that Tuesday was the result of another talent Lyndon Johnson had been displaying during the civil rights fight. It was a talent not merely for persuading men, but for inspiring them.

Frank Church had had six months now to learn the cost of crossing Lyndon Johnson. Young as he was, the tall, slender senator looked even younger with his big, toothy grin, shiny black hair, and cheeks so pink that he seemed to be perpetually blushing. Wags in the Press Gallery, amused by Church’s naïveté as much as by his youthfulness, mockingly called him Senator Sunday School. But he was already making a mark in Washington.

Although Church was in favor of civil rights legislation, his interest in the subject was, according to his legislative aide, Ward Hower, “only intellectual,” not “a visceral thing.” The plight of black Americans “was not a big issue to Frank Church,” perhaps because out of the six hundred thousand persons who lived in Idaho in 1957, only about one thousand were black. In 1957, Idaho had only two representatives in the House, “so,” Hower explains, “the Senate was the key for Idaho, like it was for the southerners. In the Senate, Idaho is equal to New York. For all the western senators, the Senate is their states’ protection. The right to filibuster is important to them.” He felt an identity with the southern senators’ need to preserve the Senate’s rules. But, Hower says, Church also knew that a reconciliation with Johnson was essential for his career, and “he was looking for a way to do something major for Johnson”—and “he understood that the civil rights bill was a key to Johnson’s strong ambition to be President.” And it was this understanding that, in mid-July, first got Church involved more deeply in the civil rights fight. In January, on the vote that had angered Johnson, Church had voted against the South; on July 24, Church voted with it. Johnson’s attitude toward him became noticeably warmer.

Johnson had appealed to Church partly on pragmatic grounds; Hower, for one, believes that Church’s desire for a seat on the Foreign Relations Committee was the key: “I don’t think anything explicit was ever said—you didn’t deal with Lyndon Johnson that way. But you knew that if you did him a favor, when the time came, if he could do you a favor. . . . This w as the w ay Lyndon Johnson operated. There was a tacit quid pro quo.” But Johnson had also appealed to elements in the young senator’s character that were not pragmatic. “You’re a senator of the United States,” he told Church. “You have to function as a senator of the United States. This is your national duty.” Says Frank Church’s wife, BethineChurch: “He made Frank realize that they needed him. Lyndon said: ‘If you don’t help with this, there’s not going to be a civil rights bill.’ It was a tremendous challenge, and Frank never loved anything as much as a challenge.”

Knowing that Johnson needed “something more” to attract new liberal and Republican votes for the jury trial amendment while not making it totally unacceptable to the South, Church, “being a lawyer,” tried to “think about the amendment” as a lawyer. Liberal antipathy to the amendment centered on the impossibility of getting a just verdict from the South’s all-white juries. “All right,” Bethine recalls Frank saying, “how about this?”—What if the juries weren’t all-white? “If the juries couldn’t be segregated, we could get the jury trial amendment through.”

Church’s addendum said that with the exception of illiterates, mental incompetents and convicted criminals, “any citizen” twenty-one years old “is competent to serve as a juror.” With the new paragraph added, the civil rights bill would not only reinforce an existing civil right, the right to vote, but would also confer on southern Negroes “a new civil right”: the right to sit on juries.

Church wanted to introduce his addendum immediately, but Johnson told him to wait. To minimize scrutiny of this proposed change, Johnson wanted it introduced only at the last possible moment, so that, as George Reedy explains, “there would be no chance for opposition to be mobilized.” Lyndon Johnson, master of so many aspects of the legislative art, was about to demonstrate his mastery of one final aspect: the floor debate. If Frank Church’s addendum was introduced at the right moment, and if the debate on the addendum was properly orchestrated for maximum effect, it might change a few votes—and a few was all Lyndon Johnson needed.

On the morning of Wednesday, July 31, Johnson still had only about forty-three votes. Knowland had about fifty-one. That morning, the Republican Leader repeated his earlier flat refusals to compromise—to accept a jury trial amendment in any form whatsoever. With the amendment included, he said, the bill simply “would not be a workable piece of legislation.” And he sent to the desk three unanimous consent agreements to set a definite hour for a vote on the complete bill. Each would allow six hours for debate prior to the vote. It quickly became apparent, however, that to the South the details of such agreements were irrelevant; no agreement was going to pass. The South was not going to be forced. Russell rose to speak, and senators waited to hear what the South was going to do. “I have no desire to unduly prolong the debate but I shall insist that it be carried on so long as the representative of a single sovereign state . . . desires to address himself to it,” he said. The escalation of debate into open filibuster was very near. it was almost time for the curtain to rise—for the drama that Lyndon Johnson was staging for the Church Addendum to begin. Johnson had assembled an all-star cast of orators—fiery old Wyoming Senator Joseph O’Mahoney, fiery young Church, fiery little Rhode Island Senator John Pastore— and even the minor roles had been filled with care: a slow-talking, fastthinking southerner with great presence, Georgia Senator Herman Talmadge, was playing “the presiding officer.” Johnson had given all of them their cues, and Church could hardly wait for his moment, but it was dinnertime, and many senators had left the floor to eat. Johnson told him to wait a little longer. He wanted a full house, and at about eight o’clock, when most senators had finished dinner, he asked for a quorum call. And when the floor was again full of senators—almost every desk occupied—the curtain went up.

O’Mahoney had the opening lines: “Mr. President, it is my purpose tonight . . . to explain to the Senate, and to those who may be listening in the galleries, the reasons why I believe, from the depth of my soul, that the trial-byjury amendment” should pass. Defeating it won’t help Negroes to vote, O’Mahoney said. “Denial of trial by jury will not hasten a wise and permanent solution of the grave social problem of racial discrimination that is before us. . . . It w ill only make matters worse than they are, for trial by jury for criminal offenses is itself a civil right guaranteed to every citizen.”

Standing up at his desk in the back row, Church shouted, “Mr. President, will the Senator yield?” and O’Mahoney acted surprised at the interruption, and pretended reluctance. “I yield only with the understanding that I shall not lose the right to the floor,” he said. Johnson, playing himself as Majority Leader, delivered his line in the charade. “Mr. President,” he said, “I ask unanimous consent that the Senator from Wyoming may yield for not to exceed two minutes, with the understanding that he shall not lose the floor.” Presiding Officer Talmadge intoned, “Without objection, so ordered,” and Church introduced his addendum, saying it “is designed to eliminate whatever basis there may be for the charge that the efficacy of trial by jury in the Federal courts is weakened by the fact that, in some areas, colored citizens, because of the operation of State laws, are prevented from serving as jurors.” Standing tall and straight among the freshmen in the back row, he said, “We believe the amendment constitutes a great step forward in the field of civil rights. We believe also that it can contribute significantly in forwarding the cause to which most of us are dedicated— the cause of enacting a civil rights bill in this session of the Congress.” Then, as if he was unsure of the answer, he asked if O’Mahoney “would be agreeable to modifying [his] amendment to include the addendum I have before me.” It turned out that O’Mahoney was indeed agreeable. “It was perfectly appropriate for the Senator from Idaho to offer this amendment, which I [am] so happy to accept,” O’Mahoney assured him with a straight face. Ardent Johnson supporter that he was, Oregon Senator Richard Neuberger could barely contain himself. In a reference to a hokey stage melodrama of the nineteenth century, he muttered: “What’s next week? East Lynne?”

Stilted though it may have been, the opening scene captured the critics. Daughter of a governor, niece of a senator, born to politics, BethineClarkChurch glanced over at the Press Gallery when O’Mahoney agreed to accept the addendum, and what she saw was rows of reporters jumping up “like a wave” and running up the stairs to the telephones in the Press Room.

Then the rest of Johnson’s scenario unfolded. The Rhode Island bantam with the nimble mind asked for recognition from the chair. No one—not even Johnson’s staff—knew “what John Pastore was going to do,” says Democratic lawyer Solis Horwitz, who had been invited to sit, on a folding chair, next to Johnson to watch the show. “[Lyndon] did, because he said, ‘Now you just watch the little Italian dancing master and see what happens here.’”

Johnson had cast Pastore in a demanding role: that of a skeptic and doubter who, by giving voice to his doubts, convinces himself that they are groundless and is converted into a true believer. The subject of his doubts, of course, was the jury trial amendment; Johnson had arranged with Pastore to, in historian Robert Mann’s words, “feign skepticism” about the amendment, to raise questions that many senators were asking and then to think through the answers out loud—and finally, seeing the validity of the answers, to be convinced by them, to “almost imperceptibly dissolve his skepticism into outright support” for the amendment. The Rhode Islander began to ask questions of O’Mahoney—the questions that many senators, uncertain about the amendment, were asking themselves: Would the amendment, for example, permit a southern registrar who had been jailed by a judge for civil contempt and then freed when he promised to register Negroes then be able to violate his promise? Would he, in effect, be immune from punishment because his violation was criminal contempt, thereby making him eligible for trial before a sympathetic jury that would not convict him? When O’Mahoney replied that there was no danger of this, because the judge would have ordered the registrar to register Negroes, and any violation of this order would still be civil, not criminal, contempt, Pastore said, “I think the Senator from Wyoming is moving a little too quickly. I think I know what he means, but I do not believe the Record is abundantly clear”— and led O’Mahoney through the reasoning again step by step until the densest senator could grasp it. And with each question that he asked, Pastore reiterated that he was asking it only to try to resolve his own doubts, that he still had “an open mind. . . . I have not as yet definitely resolved the matter in my own mind.” As he assured himself on point after point—after saying, on point after point, “I have not been able to make up my mind”—his “misgivings” about the amendment faded, to be replaced by support.

“All of this had been preplanned,” lawyer Horwitz was to realize, “and [Pastore] did one of the most effective jobs that was ever done.” His colloquy with O’Mahoney riveted the attention of both sides of the aisle. By the time Pastore finished “resolving” his doubts, he had convinced others. The show Johnson had staged produced the result he wanted. “The impact of Pastore’s performance was profound,” Mann writes. “He played the role of an earnest, undecided senator. But he had actually led his colleagues through a crafty, subtle argument for the amendment.” All through Senate history, there had been speeches that made senators rethink their views. This was one of them. And the next morning— Thursday, August 1—brought to Lyndon Johnson’s office the telegram he had been waiting for: a statement signed by the presidents of the twelve railroad brotherhoods. It was much shorter than John L. Lewis’ and quite straightforward: “We favor the enactment of an amendment to the civilrights bill that would preserve or extend the right to trial by jury.” Now Johnson had the ammunition he needed. That morning, Welly Hopkins called to ask how things were going. They were going just fine, Johnson said. Hopkins recalls that Johnson mentioned “certain senators. . . . He said, ‘I’ve got them. I’m just going to pick my time to call them. That’s when I’m going to put it to a vote.’” And that day, August 1, Johnson sprang his trap.

William Knowland walked straight into it—blind till the last. That very morning, at about the same time that Johnson was telling Hopkins that everything was going fine, Knowland was telling reporters—and the White House and Vice President Nixon—that everything was going fine and reiterating his confidence that “at least thirty-nine or forty” Republican senators would join at least a dozen Democratic liberals in voting against the jury trial amendment. Asked by a reporter whether Church’s addendum would strip away any Republican votes, the Republican Leader said he thought not. That morning, copies of the brotherhoods’ telegram were delivered to the offices of individual senators, to be followed by visits from Cy Anderson and other union lobbyists. Pastore’s logic had had time to sink in. And that morning, Lyndon Johnson made his calls—and after several of them, erased the number that he had placed next to senators’ names in one column on his tally sheet and wrote a number in the other column. Richard Russell was also keeping his own very careful tally sheet, and early that afternoon he told Johnson, “I’m ready to vote. I’ve got fifty votes.”

Knowland, however, still believed his own vote count. At any time he might realize the truth, and if he did, he would naturally change tactics: stop pressing for an early vote, and instead try to delay one. Votes had been changing back and forth for days and White House pressure might well change some back again; a delay would afford time for that pressure to do its work. So Johnson made it very difficult for Knowland to change tactics. In a private talk now, he said he assumed that Knowland still wanted to vote as soon as possible. Knowland said he did, and Johnson quickly made those feelings public. Interrupting an exchange about the bill, he said, “I have conferred with the Minority Leader. I know how anxious he is for an early vote. I . . . am equally anxious to vote [and] I express the hope that we may be able to call the roll before the evening is over.” Turning to Knowland, standing next to him, he said, “I would assume that meets with the pleasure of my friend from California.” His friend from California said, “Yes . . . I wish to say that I am encouraged by the remarks of my good friend, the Senator from Texas, that he feels we may be approaching a time when we can get a vote.”

But while Knowland couldn’t count, Nixon could, and coming to the Capitol, he did so—and promptly launched a frantic Republican lobbying campaign. One after another, GOP senators were summoned to the Vice President’s Room, for, in reporter Douglas Cater’s words, “the kind of subtle persuasion an administration in office can exert.” But at 5:40 p.m., Johnson asked for recognition from the chair to propose a unanimous consent agreement to set a time for the vote on the jury trial amendment. And the Majority Leader didn’t propose his own agreement, but rather the very same agreement that had been proposed three times on Wednesday by the Minority Leader. “Mr. President,” Lyndon Johnson said, “yesterday the distinguished Minority Leader offered a unanimous consent agreement. I wish to offer the same agreement today with two modifications.” The modifications would bring on the vote even faster than the distinguished Minority Leader had wanted; Knowland had, for example, allowed six hours for debate on the amendment. “In view of the fact that we have spent a good deal of time today on the bill, I am reducing the . . . hours from six to four,” Johnson said. Knowland, aware now that the vote would be, at the least, very close, said he still preferred six, and Johnson suavely said that that was fine with him. Knowland could offer no other objection—he could hardly object to an agreement he himself had proposed over and over, telling the Senate each time how vital its passage was. As they realized the significance of Johnson’s proposal, and the reason why he had made it, liberal senators from both sides of the aisle gathered in little groups on the floor, trying to think what they could do about it. But they could do no more than Knowland had. If Knowland had proposed the agreement yesterday, they had supported it with equal vehemence; they were hardly in a position to object to it now. Florida Senator Spessard Holland, in the chair, asked, “Is there objection to the unanimous consent request?” There was only silence. “The Chair hears none, and it is so ordered,” Holland said.

Johnson then addressed the chair again. The vote on the jury trial amendment would probably take place that very evening, he said. “It is the intention of the leadership to remain here until a vote is had.”

New York Senator Irving Ives asked: “When does the debate start? Does it start right now?”

“Right now,” Lyndon Johnson said. Checkmate.

As the hands on the clock neared midnight, and Nixon came in to take the presiding officer’s chair, a page placed a lectern on the Majority Leader’s desk, and Johnson himself rose to give the last speech. “Mr. President, sometimes in the course of debate we use loose language. But it is not speaking loosely to say that the Senate is approaching a truly historic vote. By adopting this amendment, we can strengthen and preserve two important rights. One is the right to a trial by jury. The other is the right of all Americans to serve on juries, regardless of race, creed or color.” And his last line was the perfect climax, the most fitting last line, the only last line, really, for a legislative drama.

“Mr. President,” Lyndon Johnson said, “I ask for the yeas and nays.”

For a time, to those in the galleries, the vote may have seemed to be going against the Leader. The first two senators called—Aiken and Allott—responded “Nay,” and at the end of twenty- five names, with the roll just finishing the Ds, the tally was 16 to 9 against the amendment. But Johnson, sitting at his desk with the smudged tally sheet in front of him, wasn’t worried. He knew what was coming—and, with the start of the Es, it came. “Eastland?” Aye. “Ellender?” Aye. “Ervin?” Aye. By the time the clerk reached the Ms, the ayes were ahead—and so many of the Ms were from the MountainStates and the Northwest. “Magnuson?” Aye. “Malone?” Aye. “Mansfield?” Aye. “Murray?” Aye. Shortly after midnight—at 12:19 a.m. on August 2—Nixon announced that the amendment was approved, by 51 votes to 42.

On August 29, the Senate passed the 1957 Civil Rights Act. The vote was 60 for and 15 against. President Dwight Eisenhower signed the historic bill into law on September 9.

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.