On August 7, 1957, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson voted yea on the first civil rights bill passed by Congress in 82 years. He was joined by 71 of his Senate colleagues, including 43 Republicans and 28 Democrats, 4 of them liberals from the South like Johnson himself. One month later, on September 9, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 into law.
As majority leader, Johnson arguably did more than anyone else to ensure the passage of a civil rights act in 1957. He cajoled skittish progressives, most of them Northerners, into compromising with the Democratic Party’s powerful Southern voting bloc. Then, over bourbon and cigars, he convinced the Old Guard Democratic Southerners that they ought to give a bit on civil rights while one of their own was in charge, as legislative action on race relations could not be postponed indefinitely.
Limited in its scope and effectiveness, particularly when compared with legislation passed in the 1960s, the 1957 bill walked a treacherous tightrope that “was going to disappoint both the opponents of civil rights and the proponents of civil rights,” says Bruce Schulman, a historian at Boston University. The future president’s efforts were “totally based in the calculation of what was achievable” rather than ideal.
When defending his choice to support the bill on the Senate floor, Johnson admitted that it did “not pretend to solve all the problems of human relations.” Still, he said, “I cannot follow the logic of those who say that because we cannot solve all the problems, we should not try to solve any of them.” Instead, the majority leader stalwartly held the middle, resolute in his conviction that a symbolic victory, however weak, was superior to a total ideological defeat.
This political pragmatism defined Johnson’s lengthy career. As a sectional politician with national ambitions, he was a virtuoso of the art of the possible. Johnson considered the preservation of his political future the best opportunity to help the greatest number of people. By doing only what was feasible and, above all else, looking out for himself, he would make a better future for his “fellow Americans.”
The 1957 bill created the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ) and a federal Commission on Civil Rights tasked with investigating racial discrimination. The new law also nominally permitted federal prosecutors to request court injunctions against interference with voting rights. This protection, however, was saddled with a burdensome compromise—an amendment that ensured a jury trial for all individuals accused of violating federal voting rights protections. Given that disenfranchisement measures effectively barred Black Americans from serving on juries across the South, jury trials ensured that white registrars would not be convicted of violating the new law.
Orchestrated by Johnson, this compromise enraged the Republican Eisenhower, angered congressional liberals and functionally destroyed the bill’s enforceability in the South. Vice President Richard Nixon called the jury trial addendum “a vote against the right to vote,” and Senator Paul Douglas, a liberal firebrand, denounced the law as “a soup made from the shadow of a crow which had starved to death.” The 1957 act, says Nancy Beck Young, a historian at the University of Houston, “meant nothing in terms of changing how Black people lived their lives in the United States of America.”
At the same time, the jury trial amendment staved off the Southern filibuster that had crushed all previous attempts to pass civil rights legislation. Senator Strom Thurmond cemented his reputation as a wily political maverick during this debate by delivering the longest individual filibuster in American history, clocking in at over 24 hours. But most of the Senate’s Southern coalition fell in line with Senator Richard Russell, who agreed to let the bill come to a vote after negotiating with Johnson and Republican Minority Leader William Knowland to make it as “mild” as possible.
Despite its glaring limitations, the 1957 law was a useful tool for proponents of civil rights. As Patricia Sullivan, a historian at the University of South Carolina, writes in Justice Rising: Robert Kennedy’s America in Black and White, the Civil Rights Commission and the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division “expanded the institutional apparatus available to expose injustices, command national attention and seek remedies.” Martin Luther King Jr., one of the only civil rights leaders to support the bill, advised Vice President Nixon that “the full effect of the civil rights bill will depend in large degree upon the program of a sustained mass movement on the part of Negroes.”
By the early 1960s, events had borne King’s prediction out, as civil rights activists, with the support of sympathetic forces in the DOJ, mounted increasingly visible challenges to the blatant denial of voting rights. These efforts, in turn, laid the groundwork for the Voting Rights Act that Johnson would sign as president in 1965.
Born near Stonewall, Texas, in 1908, Johnson was a product of the state’s Hill Country. His father, Sam Ealy Johnson Jr., lost money when the cotton market fell apart in 1905 and again in 1920. Facing financial ruin, Sam declined to seek renomination for his seat in the Texas House of Representatives twice, in 1909 and 1924.
As biographer Robert Caro told NPR in 2014, the young Johnson “lived in a home that they were literally afraid every month that the bank might take away. … There were constant moments of humiliation for him.” Exposed to his father’s fluctuating fortunes at a young age, Johnson developed an unrelenting obsession with power and personal stability.
Johnson’s early adulthood was dominated by the Great Depression. After graduating from high school in 1924, he briefly enrolled in a “subcollege” for students from unaccredited high schools before setting out on his own for Southern California. While clerking in his cousin’s San Bernardino law office, Johnson realized that not obtaining a college degree had drastically limited his future opportunities. He returned home in 1926 with a newfound resolve and enrolled at Southwest Texas State Teachers College.
Unable to consistently pay his bills, Johnson paused his studies in 1928 and accepted a job at the segregated Welhausen School in Cotulla, Texas. There, he taught impoverished Mexican American children, who “often came to class without breakfast, hungry,” as he recalled in a 1965 speech. Johnson added in 1966 that working in Cotulla offered his “first lessons in the high price we pay for poverty and prejudice.”
These two experiences—youthful economic instability and teaching at the Welhausen School—shaped Johnson’s worldview as he entered the political arena. He never escaped the shadow of his modest upbringing, and he incessantly craved power and, more importantly, approval. Johnson, says Young, “was never happy with 50 percent, or 60 percent, or 70 percent, or even 80 or 90 percent. He wanted everyone in his camp.”
Once Johnson possessed power, he readily wielded it to alleviate the effects of poverty that he’d witnessed in his early life. As he remarked a few months after his landslide election as president in 1964, “it never even occurred to me … that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students [from the Welhausen School] and to help people like them all over this country. But now I do have that chance, and I’ll let you in on a secret: I mean to use it.”
From his first moments on Capitol Hill as a young man, Johnson’s ambition was insatiable and his political ascent meteoric. He “had ambitions, national ambitions, from the start,” says Schulman. “[He] wanted to be president from the start.”
Johnson first traveled to Washington, D.C. in 1931 to serve as Representative Richard Kleberg’s legislative secretary. By 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt had appointed him head of the Texas branch of the National Youth Administration; in 1937, he was elected to Congress in his own right.
Johnson was a devotee of the expansive government promoted by Roosevelt, both as a matter of principle and as a means of advancing his career. As the youngest member of a crowded 1937 primary in what was then a solidly Democratic district around Austin, he cinched the nomination to the House of Representatives—and thus the election—by out-New Dealing his competitors. He even endorsed Roosevelt’s controversial and ultimately unsuccessful plan to pack the Supreme Court. As historian Robert Dallek wrote in his 1991 biography of Johnson, the aspiring congressman’s campaign “became a celebration of FDR and an appeal to the idea that Lyndon Johnson was the single candidate in the race who would give the president unqualified support.”
At this early stage of his career, Johnson faithfully toed the Southern line on civil rights. Between the 1930s and the early 1950s, he voted against anti-lynching legislation, opposed efforts to abolish the poll tax, gave white supremacist speeches and denounced President Harry S. Truman’s civil rights program. As Johnson said to aide Bobby Baker after narrowly defeating Governor Coke Stevenson for a Texas Senate seat in 1948, “I cannot always vote with President Truman if I’m going to stay a senator. … I’m going to be more conservative than you would like me to be.”
Johnson also espoused racist views throughout his life. Robert Parker, Johnson’s Black chauffeur and the first maître d’ of the Senate dining room, remembered the politician telling him, “I can’t be too easy with you. I don’t want to be called a nigger lover.” One time, Johnson asked Parker if he would prefer to be called by his name instead of “boy,” “nigger” or “chief.” When Parker answered in the affirmative, however, Johnson raged, “as long as you are Black, and you’re gonna be Black till the day you die, no one’s gonna call you by your goddamn name. So no matter what you are called, nigger, you just let it roll of your back like water, and you’ll make it. Just pretend you’re a goddam piece of furniture.” When the president appointed Thurgood Marshall, who had argued the Brown v. Board of Education case, to the Supreme Court in 1967, he remarked, “when I appoint a nigger to the bench, I want everybody to know he’s a nigger.”
Still, Johnson was never a race baiter or a Southern demagogue in the style of Alabama’s George Wallace and Mississippi’s Theodore Bilbo. Whenever possible, he used his position to alleviate the suffering of all his constituents. While directing Texas’ National Youth Administration, he ensured that employment programs provided opportunities for white and Black Texans, albeit on a segregated basis. In 1954, while serving as Senate minority leader, he refused to sign the Southern Manifesto, which declared the Southern congressional bloc’s opposition to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board ruling.
Reflecting on Johnson’s congressional career, journalist Leonard Baker wrote that “except for his nay votes, the [civil rights] issue might not have existed” for the politician. As Johnson wrote in his 1971 memoir, The Vantage Point, his Texas constituents would only permit him “one heroic stand,” at which point, he’d “be back home, defeated, unable to do any good for anyone, much less the Blacks and the underprivileged.” So he remained quiet on the race question and waited for a more advantageous moment—a moment when he was not beholden to the South.
That moment came when Johnson ascended to a higher office. His able leadership in the Senate and, more importantly, his crucial role in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1957 distanced him from his Southern roots and made him a viable national candidate. After a bitterly contested campaign for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination, Johnson agreed to serve as the running mate of former rival John F. Kennedy. His presence on the ticket helped Kennedy carry Texas and other Southern states in a razor-thin victory over Nixon.
Johnson’s time as vice president was short, ending with Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, just five months after he’d called for an expansive civil rights law. Newly sworn in as president, Johnson inherited a contentious political moment. Instead of moderating Kennedy’s proposals, he fully endorsed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited segregation in public accommodations and employment. Calling upon the legacy of the martyred Kennedy, Johnson boldly told Congress to stop talking about equal rights. Instead, he said, it was “time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law.”
In addition to appealing directly to his old friends in Congress, Johnson also turned to the Justice Department, headed by Kennedy’s brother Robert, whose lawyers continued “doing the work to orchestrate a bipartisan coalition,” according to Sullivan. With Johnson’s backing, Senate liberals and the DOJ courted enough Midwestern moderates to defeat the Southern filibuster and pass an enforceable civil rights bill.
Johnson’s defense of Black Americans and other minority groups didn’t end with desegregated accommodations. He also signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, in addition to overseeing major reforms in education, health care and immigration. In sum, Johnson sought to build a Great Society by declaring a “War on Poverty”; providing legal protections for the rights of all Americans; and developing numerous youth and employment programs, including Head Start and Model Cities.
This isn’t to say that Johnson’s presidential record was spotless. His administration fell short of eradicating racial strife and failed to meaningfully understand or grapple with the urban crisis that erupted in the mid-1960s. As Elizabeth Hinton, a historian at Yale University, explains in From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime, the well-meaning “policies of the 1960s … left open the possibility that the only way to manage the problems facing urban centers was to aid law enforcement authorities who were charged with the task of keeping segregated urban communities under control.” As a political junkie who spent most of his life in Congress, Johnson struggled to conceptualize any problem that could not be solved with a legislative solution, foremost among them the deep-rooted cultural and historical bases of racism and poverty.
To some extent, Johnson also traded the War on Poverty for the War in Vietnam. According to Fredrik Logevall’s Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam, “Johnson deceived the nation and the Congress about the state of the war and about his plans for it. … [He] ensured that all [alternative] options to an escalated U.S. involvement were squeezed out of the picture.”
Nonetheless, Johnson never squandered his national office. The young man from Texas who grew up poor, grieved over the suffering of his Mexican American students and came of age with the New Deal never faltered in his conviction that the federal government could solve America’s racial and economic problems. He battled to consolidate his power as a means of protecting himself and helping the poor and marginalized citizens of the United States. Throughout his career, Johnson tried to do what was right—but he always settled for what was possible. The 36th president never considered jeopardizing his position in defense of civil rights, but he energetically seized the moment when it was thrust upon him.