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LBJ signs ‘bill of the century’
Fifty years ago on July 2, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act which was sometimes called the “bill of the century” and a continuation of President John Kennedy’s initiative.
I was in college at the time, but I remember hearing about the race riots and Martin Luther King’s march on Washington that preceded Kennedy’s initiative to end discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion or national origin. After Kennedy’s assassination, LBJ took over and with his experience in both the U.S. Senate and House, he pushed the Civil Rights Bill through Congress and into law.
Told he would lose the South to the Republicans by signing this bill, Johnson, replied, “If that’s the price I’ve got to pay, I’ll pay it gladly.”
So when I recently visited LBJ Ranch in Texas Hill Country between Fredericksburg and Austin, I thought about those times.
What I most remember is how dangerous the South was perceived to be even after the bill became law. I had applied for and received a summer job teaching English at the all-black Tougaloo College near Jackson, Mississippi. When I told friends who had visited or lived in the South, they told me it was no place for a white woman from the North because of all the racial tension, Klu Klux Klan activity and lynchings going on. Partly out of prudence and partly because I had met the man I was to marry, I instead came to the Twin Cities that summer.
Texas White House
But back to LBJ. On the very day I was at his ranch, thinking about his life and legacy, President Obama, along with former presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, were visiting the LBJ Presidential Library in nearby Austin for a civil rights summit to mark the 50-year anniversary of this bill. Obama said his own presidency is a result of this equal opportunity bill that advanced school desegregation, ended nearly all segregation in public places and unequal voter registration requirements. But the bill didn’t have enough teeth, so LBJ got the Voting Rights Act passed a year later.
Visiting LBJ’s ranch was like stepping back in time. The sprawling white home was called the “Texas White House” because LBJ spent 16 months there altogether during his five years as the nation’s 36th president. It lies along the Pedernales River where Texas blue bonnets grow on the roadsides and in the fields, and cattle can be turned loose to eat the native grasses.
LBJ loved this land where three generations of his family before him lived and where he was born and grew up. We saw Hereford cattle roaming on the ranch just as they did during LBJ’s life. Next to his house is a hangar with his Air Force One jet sitting under a canopy. It was about a 3-Ω hour flight from the ranch to Washington, D.C.
LBJ often invited members of Congress and world leaders to his ranch, and because he enjoyed playing tricks on his guests, he had a road built under the river. He would speed into the water to the shock of his guests, who had no idea there was a road underneath, said Park Ranger Russ Whitlock.
We stopped at the one-room schoolhouse LBJ attended for a few years as a young child, and at the fenced-in Johnson family cemetery where LBJ and other family members are buried under a big live oak tree. Across the road is a small log cabin, a reconstruction of LBJ’s birthplace.
LBJ wanted to be known as a man of the people. His roots were deep in Texas where his family lived for three generations before him.
After Lady Bird died, the family left the ranch to the National Park Service for the public to visit. Now it’s the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park. Park service guides in each room point out noteworthy things like a set of three side-by-side TVs for viewing the three networks back then. LBJ liked to keep up to the minute on what the news media said about him, and there were lots of telephones, including one at the dining room table.
I bumped into friends Shelly and Dan Edwardson of Shoreview while I was there. Shelly said, “We both found the Texas White House tour interesting and informative. I had forgotten how many important pieces of legislation were passed during LBJ’s administration. He had flaws, but I have a better understanding of the man and respect for his accomplishments.”
“It was also nostalgic. The turquoise leather chairs in his office and other furnishings remind me of the home my parents built in the ‘60’s,” she said.
Added Whitlock, “As a five-year president, LBJ accomplished more than any other president in history--Medicare, labels on food, clear air and water, voting rights, immigration acts. He said he would use all his political might to get things right after he was elected on his own...We don’t glorify LBJ there but tell his history.”
I wonder what LBJ would think now of his equal opportunity bill that advanced school desegregation, ended nearly all segregation in public places and unequal voter registration requirements. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 definitely improved the lives of Obama’s generation, but it seems there’s been some chipping away at the guarantees against racial discrimination. I often think about the re-segregation of some cities and long voting lines in poor neighborhoods, and wonder what LBJ would think about that.
Pamela O’Meara can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org†or at 651-748-7818.