When Lyndon Johnson goes before a joint session of Congress and proclaims that “We Shall Overcome,” how is the civil-rights movement to react? And when, in the same speech, he pays homage to demonstrations as a wellspring of legislative progress, what is the civil-rights movement to say? Ironically, a movement whose only hope is political power is deeply discomfited when power speaks in its name.
It is not hard to understand why. “We Shall Overcome” has been rendered almost sacred by the hostile and perilous circumstances in which thousands have had to sing it. Thus a nervous tremor passes through militant sections of the movement when these words are uttered by the President of the United States, and its salient feature is fear of “pre-emption.” As a generation, we of the movement are sophisticated in the means employed by “power structures” to manipulate consent and deflate dissent. Sometimes, however, we become too sophisticated, and our sophistication gets in the way of serious analysis. Beginning with a recognition of the cynical abuse of slogans, we end up acquiescing in the separation of language from reality; we fail to understand that abuse has directions and words have actual consequences in the real world. Those civil-rights militants who are suspicious of Lyndon Johnson's new identification with the movement because they doubt his sincerity are being irrelevant. Of the President's personal qualities which are relevant to his role in the civil-rights struggle, the aspiration to historical greatness is probably paramount. By all accounts, Lyndon Johnson wants to go down as a great President. The question is, what serves this aspiration?
The opportunities for greatness are limited in any President's tenure. Given the broad forces at work on the international scene, it is unlikely that Johnson can make himself known to history as the President who brought about world peace. This is not to say that the administration's foreign policies could not be drastically improved (witness Vietnam and the Dominican Republic), only that the decisions relating to war and peace are not in the hands of one government, let alone one administration. But there are two other paths to greatness that lie open before the President: civil rights and the abolition of poverty. The two are, of course, one—not only in the sense that Negroes cannot be free if they remain poor, but also in the practical sense that both objectives face the same line-up of political forces.
Greatness comes to statesmen from the way in which they respond to the issues forced upon them. Rarely, if ever, do they themselves create the genuinely momentous questions of their times. The momentous domestic question of our time has been created by the civil-rights movement. Johnson's critics on the Left who begrudge him the esteem of historians must therefore accept the fact that we have constructed his launching-pad to greatness; it is rather too late to do anything but hope and urge that he use it. The more effective the pressure brought to bear on him for change, the higher he will rise. Certainly the same process operating on President Kennedy had this result. Although he opposed the Freedom Rides, they eventually led him to enforce the ban on discrimination in interstate travel, a decision which contributed greatly to his stature. Similarly, the demonstrations in Birmingham prompted Kennedy's introduction of what became the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the March on Washington, the need for which he had initially questioned, assisted in the passage of that Act, assuring his place in history.
Precisely because Johnson is a consummate politician and acutely sensitive to pressures, he mirrors the civil-rights movement's real strength at any given time. No independent idealism colors his language and actions; no heavy philosophical biases cloud the image of us which he reflects back. Men weighted with such biases can create illusions. But the mirror-politician furnishes a valuable service. He lets us know that what we have won is what our relative power has entitled us to; no more, no less.
Thus the President's speech on voting rights mirrored the impact of the Selma-Montgomery march, whose political potency can be ascribed to the broad coalition of forces—including SNCC and other civil-rights groups, labor unions, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, students, and intellectuals—assembled under the leadership of Martin Luther King. What difference did it make that, in chiding Congress for delay and compromise in legislating earlier civil-rights bills, he neglected to indicate that he, as Senate Majority Leader, had been a chief engineer of the compromises in 1957? There is no point in dwelling on the convert's past sins; the point is to mount more potent coalitions of power to induce further conversions.
Johnson's voting speech alone was enough to secure his place in the history books. Not only is it the most radical statement ever made by a President on civil rights; it is one of the two or three most important Presidential pronouncements ever on the nature of social change. Indeed, one has to go back to Jefferson's defense of the right to revolution to find a comparably radical view of extra-parliamentary activity. While drawing distinctions among kinds of demonstrations, Johnson essentially admitted that Congress would not have acted to guarantee civil rights if Negroes had not taken to the streets. In addition to offering this defense of one of the movement's most vital weapons, Johnson warned Congress that even the enactment of his voting legislation would not bring an end to demonstrations, because deep-seated social and economic inequities would persist. This official declaration that the government is an ally of the Negro struggle, even when that struggle assumes unconventional or extra-legal forms, cannot but have a profound effect on the public mind.
The full psychological significance of the President's declaration can only be appreciated from the perspective of the last ten years. After all, it was not so very long ago that the advocates of direct action were waging an uphill battle for acceptance in the Negro community itself. (Of course, even now only a minority of the community is involved in direct action, but the majority no longer doubts its efficacy.) Such sweeping vindication customarily comes from historians; rarely does it come so swiftly. It should be fully exploited by the civil-rights movement to spur confidence and motion in the Negro community.
In challenging the Ku Klux Klan, Johnson also becomes the first President since Reconstruction to strike at a major cause of the exodus of Negroes from the South—racist brutality. Simultaneously the President is striking at a force which has combined terrorism and economic intimidation to suppress dissent within the white South. If the power of the Klan (and related groups) can be shaken, more white moderates should rise to the surface. While the outcome of this challenge to the Klan is still uncertain—surely a HUAC investigation into anything should inspire some trepidation in civil libertarians—the challenge has nevertheless been offered. Moreover, the federal presence in Alabama during the great march established an important precedent. Granted such a presence will not be mobilized every time there is a march; but history was made, and it is harder to repudiate precedent than to make it. In any case, a new federal commitment has been enunciated, and that commitment lays the basis for new demands by the movement.
Again, Johnson's administration may be credited with having closed the gap between the executive and legislative branches on the one hand, and the judicial on the other. With the 1954 school desegregation decision, the Supreme Court became the target of right-wing attack. The courts are no less political than other institutions (though they may take longer to respond to pressures), and without executive and legislative backing it is doubtful that they could have continued to sustain a vanguard position. Only those unfamiliar with the history of the counter-revolution that overthrew Reconstruction will be unimpressed with the importance of consolidating civil-rights gains at all levels of the federal government.
As of early May, the administration's voting bill is in the Congressional hopper. Liberals are seeking to strengthen it, conservatives to dilute it. Not knowing which version will be passed, it is difficult to predict its impact. Chances are, however, that unless the conservatives have their way, the final legislation will be a major stride toward the “one man, one vote” principle. The effect of the bill will not be limited to the approximately one-hundred counties where federal procedures will be automatically triggered by virtue of fewer than 50 per cent of the eligible population having voted in 1964. Federal registrars will in time be sent into other counties as well, when this proves necessary. Furthermore, the new legislation will have a spillover effect on the attitudes of local politicians and of Negroes who thought they could not vote and will now discover that they can. In places like Tuskegee and Bogalusa, politicians have already begun to see the handwriting on the wall.
The urgent importance of the voting bill is not reduced by the fact that legislation alone will not register Negroes. To register Negroes is the job of the movement, not of the government. But it is a job that can be vastly facilitated and accelerated by legislation. To be sure, in Fayette County, Tennessee, where disfranchisement of Negroes was so notoriously maintained by economic intimidation, some 3,400 Negroes (only 200 below the white figure) have been registered even without legislation. But this is not an argument against passage of the voting bill. In Fayette County the problem has mainly been one of intimidation. In a state like Alabama, however, built-in procedural obstacles such as the literacy test have been the main weapon employed to prevent Negroes from registering, and it is these obstacles that the new legislation will go far toward removing. The bill does not deal adequately with the problem of brutality, but this shortcoming should act as a challenge to the movement to find new means—including legislative means—to deal with that problem. The random acts of brutality committed by individual racists are ultimately less significant than the agonized violence which is part of the political institutions of the South. Our attitude toward the voting bill must be based on the recognition that the Al Lingoes and George Wallaces are more dangerous enemies of freedom than the Collie Wilkinses. In short, civil-rights supporters would be very much mistaken to adopt an all-or-nothing stance with regard to the current bill: still more legislation will inevitably be required as loopholes, shortcomings, and evasions become evident. Our ultimate goal, as Andrew Hacker argues so persuasively,1 must be complete universal suffrage—the obliteration of all voting qualifications except age and sanity.
The value of the new legislation will consist primarily in providing the movement with a new framework and a more favorable climate in which to mount a massive registration campaign—as the Wagner Act provided an umbrella under which the CIO could organize workers. The movement must make its own political revolution (there being no other term to describe the consequences of enfranchising the Negro South). Governments as a rule do not engineer revolutions on home soil.
Assuming, perhaps too sanguinely, that the effort to subvert reapportionment fails, and that a strong voting bill passes, history will record that Lyndon Johnson presided over important shifts in the distribution of political power. The shifts could be purely mechanical and inconsequential in themselves. If the urban vote gains in relative weight but the ghettos remain unmobilized, and if Southern Negroes are registered but are divided or confused over strategy, then the potential for fundamental change will not be realized. In Selma and Montgomery the nation saw a magnificent example of the kind of mass action that can give flesh and substance to the skeleton of legislative reform. A movement capable of energizing such action need have no fear of “pre-emption”; only an impotent movement can be pre-empted. Those preoccupied by such fears must either view the felt needs of the Negro community as quite superficial or conceive of the movement as far separated from those needs. If the latter conception is accurate, then the only safeguard against preemption is a mass movement which responds to the real needs of the community and seeks to involve large numbers of people at varying levels of activity and commitment. By definition it is not a movement restricted to full-timers and true believers; it does not demand of every participant a drastic personal transformation; it welcomes and utilizes ordinary people who go on living ordinary lives.
Lyndon Johnson had the good fortune to reach the White House in the midst of a civil-rights revolution which would necessarily elevate anyone in power who responded positively to it. His response so far assures him a permanent place in history. But what of his future? Up until now, he has had to cope with the civil-rights movement's most simple and elementary demands. The right to vote and to have equal access to public accommodations is, after all, long overdue. This is the 20th century.
Beneath those elementary demands are the fundamental social and economic needs of the Negro community, without whose fulfillment civil rights are empty formalities. So enmeshed are these needs with the nation's basic ills that it becomes impossible to label them “Negro” or “civil rights.” They are tied in with the emergence of a new socio-economic order to which the administration has not yet responded with any comprehensive programs. Having described this problem elsewhere in greater detail,2 we can be brief here: the fact that two-thirds of all Negro families live in poverty or deprivation is a consequence not only of the racist heritage but of trends in the national economy. The technological revolution—through the direct displacement of unskilled and semi-skilled workers and by creating a socio-economic order in which efficiency, education, and skill are paramount—is working to the disproportionate detriment of the Negro community. These economic trends underlie population movements which intensify the concentration of Negroes in central-city ghettos and subvert efforts toward de facto school integration. Fair employment is unrealizable in the absence of full employment, because Negroes are concentrated in the unskilled and semi-skilled jobs where the general unemployment rates are highest.
Our current levels of unemployment result both from “structural” changes and from inadequate consumer demand, but these two factors are really obverse faces of the same coin. The fruits of the rising productivity which our technology makes possible have not been evenly distributed; rather they have exacerbated the imbalances in our economy. The cash flow to corporations in the period 1953-1963 rose by 103 per cent, while wages and salaries rose by only 71 per cent. No wonder consumer demand falls behind our capacity to produce. No wonder that some 12 per cent of our plant capacity is idle and 8 per cent of our human resources waste away in unemployment.3 Meanwhile, there are cities to be rebuilt, and crying needs for schools, hospitals, rapid transit systems, and the like.
Here we are dealing with underlying problems and processes that do not manifest themselves in sudden dramatic events (except in riots, perhaps), but have an erosive effect on the struggle for racial equality. They cannot be separated out of the civil-rights picture. For if they are so separated, the years ahead could conceivably bring steady progress toward legal and political equality for Negroes and, simultaneously, an intensification of racial violence, urban riots, and social disorder.
It has been said that Lyndon Johnson's historic mission will be the completion of the New Deal. Already he has established new federal commitments in many areas—poverty, health, education; indeed his State of the Union message was a lengthy catalogue of federal concerns. It has also been said that his chances of success are better than Roosevelt's because he has rallied a broader coalition, including elements of the business world, which was hostile to Roosevelt. There can be no question that much of Johnson's civil-rights record was made possible by his ability to maintain the confidence of businessmen in the midst of the racial revolution. (That the Community Relations Service should be located in the Department of Commerce is surely symbolic.) This confidence has been effectively utilized at the local and national levels.
It would be foolish, too, to overlook the change in racial attitudes in the business world in general. In numerous Southern communities, it is the businessmen who have initiated the organization of moderate sentiment. Not that this has more than a limited applicability to other problems. The dominant reason for the shift in business sentiment on race is that violence and social dislocation are not conducive to the smooth and profitable operation of a business enterprise, as a number of Southern communities (Little Rock and Birmingham, for example) have discovered to their economic detriment. Moreover, discrimination and segregation are rooted in an economic order which has restricted the development of potentially significant markets, and which it is therefore in the interests of business to change.
But other business and corporate attitudes remain unchanged. One may be permitted to doubt whether the kind of national economic planning and public works required to attain full employment and reverse the trend toward economic inequality will win the assent of all the elements in the Johnson coalition. Past experience suggests that this is not possible, that rougher political terrain is ahead. There is no path to social justice except through that terrain, however. The fundamental character of the President's performance in the field of civil rights will be determined by the character of the whole country when the journey is over.
The civil-rights movement also has a rougher terrain to travel through. Its own destiny cannot be divorced from that of the total society. Its ultimate character, too, will be judged by the degree to which it succeeds in prodding and mobilizing the forces for change in America, in compelling positive responses not merely from individual whites of good will, but from organized power groups. In sustaining motion, demonstrations will continue to be useful tools, as the Selma-Montgomery march illustrated anew. That the march was led by Dr. King, a signer of the by-now-famous moratorium statement, is the only necessary reply to those who, during the 1964 campaign, accused the Negro leadership of abandoning a proven weapon. What those critics may now come to understand is that in order to move both the President and the political institutions of the country, we need more than a single weapon. We need an arsenal. Lydon B. Johnson's success in the fight for civil rights and against poverty will in part depend on how relevant the strategy and tactics of the movement prove to be. For the civil-rights movement is one of the few forces in American society today capable of acting as an effective social catalyst.
1 New York Times Magazine, April 23, 1965.
2 See Bayard Rustin, “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement,” COMMENTARY, Feb. 1965; and Tom Kahn, The Economics of Equality, League for Industrial Democracy, 1964.
3 This figure is, of course, higher than official government estimates. It includes the full-time equivalent of part-time unemployment and those excluded from the labor force because they have become too discouraged to look for work.