King, Johnson Recalled: History in the Making

By Feuerherd, Joe | National Catholic Reporter, January 21, 2005 | Go to article overview
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King, Johnson Recalled: History in the Making

Feuerherd, Joe, National Catholic Reporter

In 1965 Harry McPherson, then a young aide to Lyndon Johnson and now a Washington elder statesman, was on the floor of the House of Representatives when the president addressed a joint session of Congress. The topic was voting rights. The scene is recalled by Nick Kotz in his new book, Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Laws that Changed America.

"Pausing for several seconds, Lyndon Baines Johnson continued slowly in a powerful, determined voice, with a distinct emphasis on each word. 'And --we--shall--overcome.' "The president of the United States--a Southerner with a mixed record on racial issues during his tenure as Senate majority leader--had just made the rallying cry of the civil rights movement his own. The crowd cheered uproariously, writes Kotz, while "Mike Mansfield, the laconic, dry-witted exemplar of fairness in the Senate, sat with tears running down his face."

Forty years later, McPherson, waiting in line to get Kotz's signature at a Jan. 12 book signing at a hotel just blocks from his old White House office, recalled that he was seated next to a Southern congressman during the presidential address. Mimicking a drawl, McPherson, a Texan, recalled the segregationist lawmaker's dumbstruck response. "Gawwd damn," was all he could say. Change was coming quickly.

History doesn't just happen. It is made, created, shaped. And it helps if somebody writes it down--candidly, factually and with a bit of flair. Which is exactly what Kotz, a Pulitzer Prizewinning journalist who had a front row seat to the civil rights dramas as a correspondent with The Des Moines Register, has done. Washington's Great Society glitterati--Ben Bradlee, Julian Bond, Elizabeth Drew, Haynes Johnson, Frank Mankiewicz, Roger Mudd, Sally Quinn, Daniel Shorr, Roger Wilkins and many others--were among those who came to the St. Regis Hotel to celebrate not only Kotz's latest, but an era when it wasn't unheard of for politicians, presidents and activists to combine political skill with moral courage.

What everyone at the Crystal Ball Room book signing knew is that the great achievements of that era might never have happened. "Without the synergy they created together," Kotz writes of King and Johnson, "the outcome of the civil rights revolution would have been very different."

Kotz on Johnson, the master legislative strategist: "While he fought to pass a strong civil rights bill in the Senate, President Johnson nimbly worked behind the scenes with the segregationist Southerners, supporting their issues when he could. ... He had maintained the goodwill of his former Southern colleagues, especially opposition leader Richard Russell.

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