Bench Bar Breakfast speakers remember LBJ's instrumental role in the Civil Rights Act of 1964

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.

Education: 'The Ultimate Civil Right'

A conversation on education wrapped up the panel sessions Thursday during the LBJ Presidential Library Civil Rights Summit in Austin.

U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Margaret Spellings, former U.S. education secretary and president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, answered questions on the state and potential future of the American education system from CBS News reporter Bob Schieffer.

A clip of former President Lyndon B. Johnson, once a Texas teacher, discussing his views on education opened the conversation, much of which focused on policies related to education reform. Both Miller and Spellings assisted with the national implementation of No Child Left Behind, a reauthorization and revision of Johnson’s 1965 Elementary and Secondary Act, under the George W. Bush administration.

 

“This is a bill that passed because it was cooperation between Republicans and Democrats,” said Schieffer, referring to the difference in political leanings of those involved in No Child Left Behind.

“It was a common cause,” Spellings said. “We shared a belief that we could and should do this work.”

The Common Core and Race to the Top initiatives soon came into the discussion.

“The Common Core, I think, takes us to a new iteration,” Miller said. “We recognize that students in America are not going to thrive in an advanced economy if they’re just filling in bubbles, if they can’t explain the concepts that they learned in class or they learned in a particular course. That analytical thinking is part of education.”

Spellings said she has no quarrel with the Common Core, but is concerned about its application and accountability.

“It’s the standard,” she said. “But equally important is how many students can meet that standard?”

“Just because you’ve developed a new assessment, a new test, you cannot forget the accountability pieces,” agreed Miller.

Schieffer also read statistics comparing students in the U.S. with students of other nations, which largely implied that the U.S. education system is falling behind. Miller said the U.S. evaluates a broader range of students than other countries, while Spellings argued “the rest of the world is leaping ahead” while the U.S. stands still.

Both parties agreed that equal access to excellent teachers and resources is essential to closing the nation’s education gap and shared excitement for successful charter schools. The pair also stressed the importance of using technology in classrooms to customize teaching plans and make test results immediate for quicker adjustments to learning needs. Miller said he has witnessed many young educators who are working to be innovative in their teaching.

“We need an effective teacher with all of our children, not some of our children. That’s part of the civil rights legacy,” Miller said.

Footage of the “Education: The Ultimate Civil Right” conversation and other panels from the Civil Rights Summit can be found at civilrightssummit.org. The three-day summit, which ended Thursday, celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Find links to other Texas Bar Blog coverage below.

Making America better: a look back at the movement that resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Clinton praises 'political genius,' 'martyrs' who made civil rights laws a reality

Former President Jimmy Carter discusses civil rights at summit 

LBJ, MLK, and the push for civil rights

Immigration reform discussed during LBJ Civil Rights Summit

Boies & Olson: Gay marriage latest fight in civil rights movement

Photo credit: Margaret Spellings, center, president of the George W. Bush Center and former education secretary, and U.S. Rep. George Miller, right, discuss the state of education with Bob Schieffer, CBS News reporter. Photo by Lauren Gerson, courtesy of the LBJ Foundation.

Clinton praises 'political genius,' 'martyrs' who made civil rights laws a reality

Former President Bill Clinton took the stage Wednesday during the second evening of the LBJ Presidential Library Civil Rights Summit in Austin, which commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Following a series of inspiring readings on civil rights presented in part by the families of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon B. Johnson, Clinton reflected on the accomplishments of civil rights leaders in the 1960s and how the nation should work to honor and continue their efforts.

“These laws were bargained for shrewdly by a political genius,” Clinton said in reference to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. “They were championed with great purpose by distinguished citizens. But they were also paid for with the blood of martyrs.”

Citizens owe it to them to continue to move forward together, Clinton said, noting that there are “no final victories in politics” and that “thank you is not good enough.”

After referencing the leadership style of Nelson Mandela, Clinton stressed the importance of practicing the “politics of inclusion.” He also touched on the current state of the Voting Rights Act and voter ID issues from state to state, specifically criticizing Texas for its laws.

“We’re laughing, but it’s dead serious,” Clinton said after making a comment that he was at one point considering coming to Texas for additional schooling, but can’t because he doesn’t have the proper ID. “This is a way of restricting the franchise after 50 years of expanding it.”

He further emphasized the importance of disagreements, so long as the purpose is to move forward, not paralyze and divide the country.

“We have too many current challenges to waste today trying to recreate a yesterday that we’re better off done with,” he said. “We have too many challenges to waste any opportunity to work together to deal with them.”

The three-day summit concludes today following conversations with President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush. Former President Jimmy Carter spoke at the event on Tuesday. 

Live stream the summit here

LBJ, MLK, and the push for civil rights

President Lyndon B. Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shared a deep, personal, and practical relationship that helped in passing 1960s civil rights legislation, panelists said Wednesday as part of the LBJ Presidential Library Civil Rights Summit.

“I think it was very warm and personal,” said former Rep. Andrew Young, a close King aide, describing the relationship between King and Johnson. “Whenever I was with them there was never an argument or tension; there was gentlemen’s disagreement. Dr. King saw himself as having to keep the pressure on.”

Pressure created by the March on Washington and nonviolent civil rights demonstrations in the South—and authorities’ often brutal crackdowns on them—began to open the door to major civil rights legislation in 1963, but it took leadership from Johnson and congressional leaders to push it through the following year, speakers said.

That legislation, the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, is the focus of the three-day summit, which is bringing four of the five living U.S. presidents and numerous other leaders to Austin to discuss past and current civil rights issues.

The “LBJ and MLK” panel featured speakers who either worked with or extensively studied Johnson, including historian Taylor Branch; author Doris Kearns Goodwin, a former LBJ aide; Joseph Califano Jr., former U.S. Army general counsel who was Johnson’s top domestic aide; and moderator Todd Purdum, a journalist and author of “An Idea Whose Time Has Come,” a new book about the Civil Rights Act. Young, who went on to serve as a United Nations ambassador and Atlanta mayor, offered perspective from the movement’s front lines.

The speakers agreed that although Johnson initially called for passage of the Civil Rights Act in honor of the recently slain President John F. Kennedy, he quickly made the issue his own and did everything in his power to see it through Congress, even at the risk of alienating fellow Southern Democrats.

“Within a month after Johnson became president, the government changed,” Califano said. “The pressure to do civil rights…it was in his gut.”

Johnson’s later civil rights achievements, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, were his proudest, Goodwin said.

“And he knew it would stand the test of time,” she said.

The session began with the playing of a recorded phone conversation between King and Johnson in which they pledged cooperation, although their relationship was not without conflict. Goodwin said tension is inevitable when an outside movement is pushing a president to act more quickly than the government is prepared to act.

“The same tension existed between Lincoln and Frederick Douglass,” said Goodwin, author of the 2005 Lincoln biography "Team of Rivals." “Douglass was constantly telling him, ‘You’re not doing everything I want you to do,’ and eventually they became really good friends. And Lincoln understood he needed Frederick Douglass and the abolitionists, just as LBJ needed the civil rights movement. And together Martin Luther King and LBJ produced something—thank God they were there at that moment of history—that changed our country forever.”

The Civil Rights Act was the gateway to broader freedoms for many other Americans, including women and the disabled, Branch said.

“All those doors opened in the wake of going through the gate of race,” Branch said, adding that he viewed civil rights leaders as akin to founding fathers. “They were confronting subjugation and they were setting in motion equal citizenship.”