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Commentary: MLK and LBJ Still Making Their Mark

By Lee Cullum, KERA 90.1 commentator

Dallas, TX –

It's an amazing American story - the uneasy alliance between Lyndon B. Johnson, a wily wheeler-dealer president, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a scholarly, spellbinding Baptist preacher, to pass the most historic civil rights legislation since the Emancipation Proclamation of Abraham Lincoln. In his new book, "Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Laws that Changed America," Nick Kotz explores the complicated relationship between these two extraordinary leaders, both from the South, both excellent organizers, both brilliant at bridging deep divides among their followers.

But the suspicion between them was immense, and they worked together only as a matter of absolute necessity. But while it lasted, their collaboration worked miracles despite the persistent efforts of F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover to eliminate Dr. King, one way or another, and preserve the United States as a nation riddled with racism.

It was the evening of John F. Kennedy's funeral that Lyndon Johnson telephoned Martin Luther King, Jr., "reaching him at 9:40 p.m. at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, where he and other civil rights leaders had gathered to decide how they should deal with the new president." Mr. Johnson had campaigned for the Senate as a segregationist in 1948, watered down the civil rights bills of 1957 and 1960 and gained a reputation as a politician whose only allegiance was to oil and gas. Mr. King and his friends were wary.

They were not unjustified, but they had misjudged President Johnson, who right away pledged to back a bill held up in Congress that would end discrimination in "publicly owned facilities such as courthouses, parks and swimming pools" as well as "in privately owned businesses such as restaurants, hotels and motels." Already he had summoned Georgia Sen. Richard Russell to a swim at the White House and informed him that the game was up - he meant to pass that bill. As for Republicans, he let them know that "you're either for civil rights or you're not. You're either the party of Lincoln or you ain't. By God, put up or shut up."

To keep the pressure on, Dr. King revved up his Southern Christian Leadership Conference to demonstrate in St. Augustine, Florida, showing the nation what it could expect if Congress refused to act. The march attracted some bishops' wives from New England, including Mary Peabody, mother of the Massachusetts governor. At one point she telephoned her husband to tell him, "I'm sorry, dear, but I must go to jail."

Southern senators resorted to a filibuster, of course, but it was broken in a fever of drama that included the arrival in a wheelchair of Clair Engle, stricken with cancer, who pointed to his eye to indicate that his vote was "aye." With cloture invoked, the legislation quickly was enacted. The Voting Rights Act would follow, also a bill to ban discrimination in housing. It was a stunning achievement, marred, of course, by Vietnam, which ruptured the Johnson-King relationship when MLK opposed the U.S. military action, believing it was draining resources from the war on poverty at home. An angry LBJ then allowed J. Edgar Hoover far more running room for his accusations that Dr. King was a Communist, which he wasn't, and a womanizer which he was. Each by then was trying to destroy the other.

It ended in the shooting of Dr. King in Memphis and the withdrawal of Lyndon Johnson from the 1968 race for president - a tragedy for both of them. But before it was over, together, they made their mark on American life in a way few ever have done before.


Lee Cullum is a contributor to the Dallas Morning News and to KERA. If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.