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My Search For Lyndon Johnson
September 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 5
He is also a wonderful starting point for understanding the transformation and integration of the South into the mainstream of American economic and political life. Johnson was more concerned about larger national issues than people have generally appreciated. It is accepted wisdom that Johnson deserves credit for advancing civil rights and the cause of economic and social justice during his Presidency. But few have understood that Johnson was a man of considerable vision who from his earliest days in government supported programs that could have a redefining influence on the country in general and the South in particular. The psychiatrist Robert Coles had it right when he wrote in 1976 that Johnson was “a restless, extravagantly self-centered, brutishly expansive, manipulative, teasing and sly man, but he was also genuinely passionately interested in making life easier and more honorable for millions of terribly hardpressed working class men and women. His almost manic vitality was purposefully, intelligently, compassionately used. He could turn mean and sour, but … he had a lot more than himself and his place in history on his mind.”
Desegregation is a fine example. Johnson was a Southerner who could talk comfortably to other Southerners in the vernacular. “Sam, why don’t you-all let this nigger bill pass?” he asked Sam Rayburn during the congressional debate on the 1957 civil rights bill. Even as late as 1965, when, as President, he appointed the first black associate justice to the United States Supreme Court, he privately used the same pejorative term to describe his appointee. When a young Texas attorney joining his staff suggested a fine but obscure black federal judge for the position, Johnson said, “Son, when I appoint a nigger to the Court, I want everyone to know he’s a nigger.” The attorney never heard him speak about blacks that way again and believed that Johnson was playing a part and trying to create a kind of rapport between two “good old Southern boys” at their first meeting.
This posturing aside, Johnson, according to the White House aide Harry McPherson, was “your typical Southern liberal who would have done a lot more in the field of civil rights early in his career had it been possible; but the very naked reality was that if you did take a position … it was almost certain that you would be defeated … by a bigot.… But Johnson was one of those men early on who disbelieved in the Southern racial system and who thought that the salvation for the South lay through economic progress for everybody.”
Johnson had given expression to this view in the 1930s, when he had served as the Texas director of the National Youth Administration. His efforts to help black youngsters —28 percent of the young people in the state—were similar to those he made for whites, though most of them were made behind the scenes. In fact, the impact of the NYA college-aid program Johnson put in place was proportionately much greater on blacks than on whites: Whereas 24.2 percent of all eligible black college students received help, only 12 to 14 percent of whites did. The plight of black youngsters moved LBJ to special efforts in their behalf. When white colleges got donations of equipment that freed some of their NYA funds, Johnson would pass the savings along to blacks. In an era of strict segregation he would occasionally spend a night at a black college to see how the NYA programs were working. More than thirty years later “a venerable and distinguished Negro leader” told Doris Kearns how “we began to get word up here that there was one NYA director who wasn’t like the others. He was looking after Negroes and poor folks and most NYA people weren’t doing that.”
After Johnson became a congressman in 1937, he kept on making special efforts to help blacks. When he learned that black farmers in his district were not getting the same small loans given to white farmers for seed and equipment, he raised “unshirted hell” with the Farm Security Administration, and applications from blacks began to be approved. MiIo Perkins, a top official in the FSA, recalled that Johnson “was the first man in Congress from the South ever to go to bat for the Negro farmer.” Johnson also worked quietly to ensure that blacks were included within the provisions of the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 and to bar school lunch grants to any state with separate school systems for blacks that did not make an equitable distribution of school lunch funds. Likewise, in 1937 and 1938, after Roosevelt signed the Wagner-Steagall Act creating the United States Housing Authority and making available five hundred million dollars in loans for low-cost housing, Johnson arranged for Austin to be one of the first three cities in the country to receive a loan. Johnson persuaded city leaders “to stand up for the Negroes and the Mexicans” and designate 100 of the 186 housing units built under the program for them.