Who is your favorite American First Lady? I have a few. There is the groundbreaking, intellectually astute, and politically courageous Eleanor Roosevelt. I’m also a big fan of the fiercely independent Betty Ford. I have great respect for Hillary Clinton, who crafted an independent political career of her own. And I am enthralled with our current First Lady, Michelle Obama. But no one holds quite the place in my heart that Lady Bird Johnson commands.
In 1964, Lady Bird Johnson initiated a whistle-stop tour through the American South in advance of her husband’s campaign. She endured jeers, criticisms, and daily rants that she, her husband, and her children were “n*gger lovers.” It is important to remember that these were not anonymous and annoying criticisms hurled across cyberspace in 140 characters. These were personal attacks lobbed at her as she stood addressing a crowd.
It is also important to remember that she was the First Lady only because the previous president, John F. Kennedy, had been assassinated – in the U.S. South, no less. Her decision to travel through the South, to address interracial crowds, to argue for equal rights, and to express the vision of more equitable American landscape is an incredibly brave choice. She knew the dangers were real and the stakes were high, but Bill Moyers, a Johnson aide, said of this of Lady Bird partisan lines. I am stunned by the continuing fear so many Americans have of undocumented immigrants. I am gripped by the continuing attempts to use religion as a weapon to divide Americans and strip some of their rights.
At this moment, I can’t help wonder what the world would be like if we bothered to follow Lady Bird’s advice.