As panelists for the Bench Bar Breakfast readied for a discussion on Lyndon Baines Johnson’s role in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Lynda Johnson Robb, eldest daughter of the former president, reminded the audience of Texas lawyers that “nobody can understand Lyndon Johnson’s mind.” Then she and fellow panelists, in commemoration of the act’s 50th anniversary, set out to analyze LBJ’s strategies and actions that led to passing the monumental bill that forever changed American society and race relations. The talk took place at the State Bar of Texas’s Annual Meeting in Austin on June 27, 2014. Robb, who was 20 years old when her father signed the Civil Rights Act, was joined by Austin lawyer Larry Temple, who served as special counsel to LBJ, and panel moderator Talmage Boston, an author and shareholder in Winstead.
The panel started by discussing Johnson’s desire to pass a civil rights bill. Temple told the audience that Johnson’s thoughts on civil rights originated in Cotulla, Texas, “where he taught in a one-room school to a group of Mexican-American children, and he saw in their eyes, the hunger they came to school with and the deprivation they came to school with.” When analyzing why Johnson hadn’t voted for civil rights legislation during his early years in Congress, Boston said, “He had a famous saying that ‘you don’t try to kill the snake until you have the hoe in your hands.’” Temple said that Johnson knew he didn’t have the political clout back then but that once he had more power as president, he was steadfast and believed strongly in the cause even though it might risk losing the South in the next election. “We’re going to pass it and we’re going to pass all of it,” Temple recalled LBJ saying to Richard Russell, a senator and longtime Johnson family friend who disagreed with the civil rights bill.
Robb said that Johnson’s success in passing several pieces of civil rights legislation—which additionally included the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968—was partly due to his ability to know when things could be done. Even though some in Congress wanted to wait to vote on the civil rights bill until after the 1965 elections, Robb said that her father knew they needed to do it before a “window of opportunity” was missed. “He really wanted to seize the moment and the hearts of the people in this country.”
No doubt a factor in the act’s success was that LBJ was a unique man with traits conducive to getting things done in Washington. Boston noted that at the time of the Kennedy assassination, every civil rights bill before Congress had been stalled. “President Kennedy’s eloquence made people think; President Johnson’s hammer-blows made people act,” Boston said, quoting a 1964 New Yorker article. Temple noted that when LBJ talked with somebody, he got “this close” to their face, holding his hands up about a foot apart from one another.
Additionally, Temple said, LBJ “grew up in” and understood Congress and was a friend to many senators—on both sides of the political spectrum—and took the time to do things such as being the only member of Congress who showed up for the funeral of a colleague’s niece. Temple recollected that sometimes LBJ persuaded members of Congress by saying if you don’t vote yes, I won’t help you on such-and-such—and other times he used a softer approach. All panelists commented nostalgically on the rarity of such bipartisan teamwork in today’s political environment.
“There was a time when people actually talked to each other in Congress, across party lines,” said Robb, noting that her father knew everybody in Congress and was friends with most of them, to which the audience applauded.
But LBJ also realized his limitations. He knew that he had to have help in order to have success, and Robb took time to recognize others who played instrumental roles, including African-American activists and republicans who risked their own political futures to vote for the bill. “As great as Daddy was,” she said, “there were a lot of people out in the hinterland who were really putting their lives on the line.”
Closing the panel, which maintained the focused attention of the audience of hundreds, Robb read a quote of her father’s:
We know how much still remains to be done; and if our efforts continue, and if our will is strong, and if our hearts are right, and if courage remains our constant companion, then, my fellow Americans, I am confident we shall overcome.