Editor’s note: Readers may find some language included to be offensive.
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.
Nor was it the kind of immature, frat-boy racism that Johnson eventually jettisoned. Even as president, Johnson’s interpersonal relationships with blacks were marred by his prejudice. As longtime Jet correspondent Simeon Booker wrote in his memoirShocks the Conscience, early in his presidency, Johnson once lectured Booker after he authored a critical article for Jet Magazine, telling Booker he should “thank” Johnson for all he’d done for black people. 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.”
According to Caro, Robert Parker, Johnson’s sometime chauffer, described in his memoir Capitol Hill in Black and White a moment when Johnson asked Parker whether he’d prefer to be referred to by his name rather than “boy,” “nigger” or “chief.” When Parker said he would, Johnson grew angry and said, “As long as you are black, and you’re gonna be black till the day you die, no one’s gonna call you by your goddamn name. So no matter what you are called, nigger, you just let it roll off your back like water, and you’ll make it. Just pretend you’re a goddamn piece of furniture.”
That Johnson may seem hard to square with the public Johnson, the one who devoted his presidency to tearing down the “barriers of hatred and terror” between black and white.
In conservative quarters, Johnson’s racism – and the racist show he would put on for Southern segregationists – is presented as proof of the Democratic conspiracy to somehow trap black voters with, to use Mitt Romney’s terminology, “gifts” handed out through the social safety net. But if government assistance were all it took to earn the permanent loyalty of generations of voters then old white people on Medicare would be staunch Democrats.
So at best, that assessment is short sighted and at worst, it subscribes to the idea that blacks are predisposed to government dependency. That doesn’t just predate Johnson, it predates emancipation. As Eric Foner recounts in Reconstruction, the Civil War wasn’t yet over, but some Union generals believed blacks, having existed as a coerced labor class in America for more than a century, would nevertheless need to be taught to work “for a living rather than relying upon the government for support.”
Perhaps the simple explanation, which Johnson likely understood better than most, was that there is no magic formula through which people can emancipate themselves from prejudice, no finish line that when crossed, awards a person’s soul with a shining medal of purity in matters of race. All we can offer is a commitment to justice in word and deed, that must be honored but from which we will all occasionally fall short. Maybe when Johnson said “it is not just Negroes but all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry,” he really meant all of us, including himself.
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.
But we shouldn’t forget Johnson’s racism, either. After Johnson’s death, Parker would reflect on the Johnson who championed the landmark civil rights bills that formally ended American apartheid, and write, “I loved that Lyndon Johnson.” Then he remembered the president who called him a nigger, and he wrote, “I hated that Lyndon Johnson.”
That sounds about right.