Lyndon Johnson Was a Civil Rights Hero. But Also a Racist

Adam Serwer, MSNBC, April 12, 2014

Lyndon Johnson said the word “nigger” a lot.

In Senate cloakrooms and staff meetings, Johnson was practically a connoisseur of the word. According to Johnson biographer Robert Caro, Johnson would calibrate his pronunciations by region, using “nigra” with some southern legislators and “negra” with others. Discussing civil rights legislation with men like Mississippi Democrat James Eastland, who committed most of his life to defending white supremacy, he’d simply call it “the nigger bill.”

Then in 1957, Johnson would help get the “nigger bill” passed, known to most as the Civil Rights Act of 1957. With the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the segregationists would go to their graves knowing the cause they’d given their lives to had been betrayed, Frank Underwood style, by a man they believed to be one of their own. When Caro asked segregationist Georgia Democrat Herman Talmadge how he felt when Johnson, signing the Civil Rights Act, said ”we shall overcome,” Talmadge said “sick.”

The Civil Rights Act made it possible for Johnson to smash Jim Crow. The Voting Rights Act made the U.S. government accountable to its black citizens and a true democracy for the first time. Johnson lifted racist immigration restrictions designed to preserve a white majority–and by extension white supremacy. He forced FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, then more concerned with “communists” and civil rights activists, to turn his attention to crushing the Ku Klux Klan. Though the Fair Housing Act never fulfilled its promise to end residential segregation, it was another part of a massive effort to live up to the ideals America’s founders only halfheartedly believed in–a record surpassed only by Abraham Lincoln.

So it would be tempting, on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, as Johnson is being celebrated by no less than four living presidents, to dismiss Johnson’s racism as mere code-switching–a clever ploy from an uncompromising racial egalitarian whose idealism was matched only by his political ruthlessness.

But that wouldn’t be true. Johnson was a man of his time, and bore those flaws as surely as he sought to lead the country past them. For two decades in Congress he was a reliable member of the Southern bloc, helping to stonewall civil rights legislation. As Caro recalls, Johnson spent the late 1940s railing against the “hordes of barbaric yellow dwarves” in East Asia. Buying into the stereotype that blacks were afraid of snakes (who isn’t afraid of snakes?) he’d drive to gas stations with one in his trunk and try to trick black attendants into opening it. Once, Caro writes, the stunt nearly ended with him being beaten with a tire iron.

{snip} In Flawed Giant, Johnson biographer Robert Dallek writes that Johnson explained his decision to nominate Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court rather than a less famous black judge by saying, “when I appoint a nigger to the bench, I want everybody to know he’s a nigger.”


Nor should Johnson’s racism overshadow what he did to push America toward the unfulfilled promise of its founding. When Republicans say they’re the Party of Lincoln, they don’t mean they’re the party of deporting black people to West Africa, or the party of opposing black suffrage, or the party of allowing states the authority to bar freedmen from migrating there, all options Lincoln considered. They mean they’re the party that crushed the slave empire of the Confederacy and helped free black Americans from bondage.


Topics: , ,

Share This

We welcome comments that add information or perspective, and we encourage polite debate. If you log in with a social media account, your comment should appear immediately. If you prefer to remain anonymous, you may comment as a guest, using a name and an e-mail address of convenience. Your comment will be moderated.