A landmark era for civil rights

At symposium in 1972, LBJ used his power of persuasion one more time

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Carroll McKibbin, guest columnist

May 17 marks the anniversary of one of the most historic decisions in the annals of the Supreme Court. “Brown v. Board of Education” ended the “separate but equal” constitutionality of racially segregated schools when Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in his 1954 opinion: “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

Senator Lyndon Johnson (D-Texas), unlike most Southern politicians of the time, most assuredly approved of the Brown decision as indicated by his support for civil rights legislation when he became majority leader and later as president.

An Iowa high schoolboy also approved of the integration decision and benefited from it. I was that boy, a senior from Guthrie Center invited to Grinnell College to compete for a scholarship. The two-day process of exams and interviews concluded with an essay question: “What implications do you foresee in the recent Brown v. Board of Education decision?”

“We might have a Negro (the politically correct term at the time) as president of the United States by the turn of the century,” I concluded. As it turned out, my conjecture, an outlandish thought in those days, only missed the mark by eight years.

I do not know what impact my essay on the Brown case had on my successful application for a scholarship.

I do know I never dreamed of one day meeting Earl Warren, the chief justice who wrote the opinion that forever changed American society. Nor did I conceive of talking with a president, Lyndon Johnson, whose civil rights record while in the White House is widely acknowledged as the greatest since Abraham Lincoln. Nor could I have imagined I would witness the legendary persuasive abilities of President Johnson, commonly known as the “Johnson Treatment.”

All those unimaginable opportunities took place on a memorable and solemn occasion in December of 1972.

As Director of the Mount Rushmore Presidential Institute, I received an invitation to a national symposium on civil rights at the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas. The two-day meeting was memorable as a celebration of the former president’s many contributions to the advancement of minorities that included the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, and 1964; the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The symposium also became memorable as an assembly of perhaps the largest group of civil rights leaders in American history.

Lyndon Johnson spoke at the symposium, and with his wife, Lady Bird, hosted a dinner for attendees. Earl Warren, who had retired as chief justice three years before, paid homage to the former president in his keynote address. Others who spoke or were in attendance represented a veritable Who’s Who in the civil rights movement: Hubert Humphrey, Vernon Jordan, Roy Wilkins, Julian Bond, Barbara Jordan, Roy Innis, Burke Marshall, Clarence Mitchell, John Lewis, Henry Gonzalez, Whitney Young’s widow, Margaret; and many others.

The occasion became especially solemn because of the obvious failing health of the slow moving, slightly stooped Johnson. The ex-president acknowledged such when he told the audience in his opening remarks, “I don’t speak very often or very long. My doctor admonished me not to speak at all this morning, but I’m going to because I have some things I want to say to you.”

Johnson went on to speak slowly and softly about the Civil Rights Movement, pausing sometimes to catch his breath, and other times to slip a nitroglycerin pill into his mouth to relieve the pain of his failing heart.

Other speakers took their turns, including Clarence Mitchell, the longtime Washington lobbyist for the NAACP. Mitchell, then 61, spoke with pride of his role in the passage of a number of civil rights laws from the Civil Rights Act of 1957 to the Fair Housing Act of 1968. “Quit making speeches about how awful things are and start getting votes to get legislation passed,” Mitchell advised in obvious reference to comments by some of the younger speakers.

“Uncle Tom!” someone shouted. “You’re nothing but an Uncle Tom.”

I looked across the aisle to my left and saw an angry Roy Innis, Chair of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), standing and raising a fist. The startled Mitchell hesitated a moment, then shouted back, “I’ve put up with white bigots all my life. I’ll be damned if I’ll put up with a black one.”

A silent tension gripped the audience. Then Lyndon Johnson slowly rose to his feet, turned toward Innis, and beckoned him with the wave of an arm. “Come on up here, Roy,” he called in as much voice as he could muster.

Innis strode to the low stage. Johnson placed one arm around Innis’ shoulder, the other around Mitchell’s, and talked to each one, back and forth, nearly nose-to-nose. A few minutes later he shook hands with the two calmed men and returned to his seat. Innis did likewise and Mitchell continued his speech.

The audience could not hear what LBJ said to persuade Innis and Mitchell to hold their fire, but the results were obvious. Even in his ailing, precarious state, Johnson gathered enough strength to again, and perhaps for the last time, work his special “treatment.”

A month later Lyndon Johnson died, as did Earl Warren the following year. Two icons of the Civil Rights Movement were gone, the chief justice who moved the nation toward racial equality with Brown v. Board of Education and a president who followed through with passion and persistence.

• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who now lives in San Luis Obispo, California, as a retired Cal Poly dean. Comments: cmckibbi@calpoly.edu

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