The Great American Partnership
by Joseph A. Califano, Jr.
Certainly one of the most important partnerships in the history of the nation is the one between President Lyndon B. Johnson and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. It started right after LBJ assumed office in the wake of the Kennedy assassination and continued through King's tragic murder and LBJ's final public appearance when he released his civil rights papers shortly before he died in 1972. As President Johnson's top domestic policy aide from 1965 to 1969 I was privileged to witness much of the work of this remarkable pair of leaders in real time, up close and personal.
What made this alliance so fruitful for our nation was that both men were extraordinarily courageous, committed and canny--and they knew they could achieve together what neither could achieve alone.
The current celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and the Selma to Montgomery march are vivid and enduring reminders of the power of this partnership: King leading the march in Alabama, and LBJ telling King how important it would be if he were able to convince Congress to pass the law for the great civil rights leader to find and dramatize for all Americans the worst place where African-Americans were denied the right to vote.
These unique collaborators actually cut their teeth a year earlier with the Civil Rights Act, prohibiting discrimination in employment and public accommodations. That January, in 1964, LBJ famously snapped to aides who urged him to wait until after the November presidential election to press for enactment, "What the hell's the presidency for?" and told King that with the help of the civil rights leaders he would push for its enactment immediately. When Johnson signed the law, he gave a pen to King and later said to an aide, "We're turning the South over to the Republican Party for my lifetime and yours."
Nevertheless the courageous colleagues kept pushing. Voting rights followed the next year. In 1966, Johnson proposed his Fair Housing bill. King dramatized in the northern city of Chicago the rank discrimination to prevent blacks from buying or renting homes in white neighborhoods. For more than two years, LBJ was unable to move the Fair Housing bill forward. Then he got it through the Senate amidst the Tet turmoil in Vietnam. But House Judiciary Committee Chair Emmanuel Cellar, from the Brooklyn district of Crown Heights, where Jewish residents resented African-Americans moving into their neighborhoods, would not let the Fair Housing bill out of his committee.
Then, in the worst week of the LBJ presidency, on the day after King was assassinated, in 1968, the President said to me, "At least we will get one thing out of this awful tragedy, the Fair Housing bill." He sent letters to House Speaker John McCormack and Republican Minority Leader Gerald Ford and pressed both to pass the Senate bill. He convinced the Congressional leaders to take it directly to the House floor, thus avoiding Chairman Cellar (who feared defeat in his district if he reported the bill out). Once again, these partners--the white southern President and the black civil rights leader--achieved a major milestone that neither could have achieved alone.
In the last public speech of his life, when his civil rights papers were opened to the public, Lyndon Johnson said, "Well, this cry of 'never' I've heard since I was a little boy, all my life. And what we commemorate this great day is some of the work which has helped...to make 'never' now."
We all hope for situations in life where one plus one can make three instead of just two. Well this one plus one--the white President and the black preacher--adds up to priceless for all our people, especially our most vulnerable citizens.
Join Joseph A. Califano for a special book signing and discussion of his book at The Jimmy Carter Presidential Museum and Library on Tuesday, March 17th. Registration begins at 6:15 p.m. The event is in partnership with the Center for Civil and Human Rights, The Coca-Cola Company, and the World Affairs Council of Atlanta.
Joseph A. Califano, Jr. is author of the widely acclaimed book, "The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson: The White House Years." He was President Lyndon B. Johnson's chief assistant for domestic affairs from 1965 to 1969 and US Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in the Carter Administration from 1977 to 1979. He is Founder of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASAColumbia).