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Published: Friday, 7/2/2004

LBJ's civil rights legacy

BY GERALD BAZER

ONCE AGAIN on July 4 we will celebrate the birth of our country, our 228th birthday since that historic July of 1776. And while we have much to celebrate, our celebrations will be marked, as they should be, with reminders of our freedom, our liberty, and our equality.

Across the land the words of Thomas Jefferson, one of our most highly acclaimed Founding Fathers, will be heard, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

This July, however, we should also recall a date closer to our own time: 40 years ago today, July 2, 1964. It was on that date that many of Jefferson's and our other Founding Fathers' strongest wishes for freedom, liberty, equality, and unalienable rights came closer to being fulfilled for all Americans.

The action whose 40th anniversary we should acclaim was not the efforts of a Jefferson, but of a President not normally considered in the pantheon of our most revered: Lyndon Baines Johnson.

On July 2, 40 years ago, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. With the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, racial discrimination in public accommodations was outlawed, minority voting rights protected, and discrimination by employers and unions forbidden.

To ensure that the provisions were enforced, legislation established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and other legislation allowed the United States attorney general to bring school discrimination practices to court.

Under President Johnson's leadership, civil rights, arguably the one critical issue affecting our nation since its very founding, would be extended to those who had faced a history of discrimination.

Mr. Johnson further demonstrated his commitment to civil rights and equal opportunity by appointing the first African-American, Robert Weaver, to a Cabinet post as secretary of Housing and Urban Development and the first African-American, Thurgood Marshall, to the United States Supreme Court as associate justice.

For Lyndon Johnson to have been a champion of civil rights may be lost on most Americans. When we remember Mr. Johnson at all, he is forever linked with Vietnam, the antithesis of just causes.

Perhaps even more surprising is that a product of the South, Mr. Johnson of Texas, the first southern president since 1848, reared in an atmosphere of discrimination, would be the instrument for ending discrimination. Ironically, it was southerner Lyndon Johnson, unlike his more popular and northern predecessor, John F. Kennedy, who had only spoken with some reluctance about the 1960s civil rights movement, who transformed the spirit, words, and hopes of the movement into the laws of the land.

Remarkably, Mr. Johnson, in espousing the cause of civil rights, abandoned his revered southern mentors, including his most trusted, the powerful segregationist senator from Georgia, Richard B. Russell, whom Mr. Johnson had used to climb his political ladder.

Despite Mr. Johnson's intimate knowledge of southern resistance and knowing that his actions would have a deleterious affect on his 1964 presidential campaign, President Johnson called upon his renowned persuasive powers and cajolery honed as a legislator and Senate majority leader to fight for the 1964 act. To enact it Mr. Johnson had to overcome a southern-led filibuster that went on for more than 80 days.

For Mr. Johnson his courageous stance was a decided contrast to other of his actions which many attributed to political expediency and personal advantage.

President Johnson's civil rights advocacy stemmed from an early concern for society's less fortunate. His own upbringing instilled a strong empathy for the downtrodden and disadvantaged. To opponents, more than once he had screamed, "Do you know what it is to be black?"

Thus, at this celebratory time in American history, perhaps it is right to link July 2 with July 4, to link our third President with our 36th.

Our founding way back 228 years ago was but a promise and a dream of what America could become. Actions throughout our history would be required to make the promise and dream a reality. The law of July 2, 1964, would be one such action. Thomas Jefferson would have approved.

Marilou Johanek is a retired dean at Owens Community College.



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