Living in LBJ’s America
“Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act,” Hillary Clinton claimed during her 2008 campaign against Senator Barack Obama, before adding, “it took a president to get it done.”
Mrs. Clinton got considerable flak for this remark from Mr. Obama, who called it “ill advised.” But Mrs. Clinton was right, and it is instructive to note how much of a role two of L.B.J.’s least remembered accomplishments — the Johnson Amendment of 1954, which banned overt political activity by churches and other tax-exempt institutions; and his revision of our immigration laws — have already played in this year’s presidential race.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign for civil rights was the proudest moment in our country’s history, and attaining at least some level of racial justice was achieved first and foremost by what generations of black people did for themselves. But overturning Jim Crow required the reception of their appeal. It meant winning elections and changing laws in what was still an overwhelmingly white country.
The man who finally got it done, of course, was Lyndon Baines Johnson, and in this time of gridlock and division, Johnson has come to be seen more and more as a protean figure, a man who, for all of his faults and grotesqueries, could make things happen. L.B.J. was born 108 years ago on Aug. 27, but his Great Society programs — Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, extensive federal aid for higher education; the Civil Rights, Voting Rights and Fair Housing acts, which barred most forms of public discrimination — still define what we think of as the rights and privileges of modern America. And yet, his influence does not stop there.
For those puzzled about why so many evangelical leaders were willing to endorse Donald J. Trump, the most openly irreligious major-party presidential candidate in our history, Jerry Falwell Jr. provided the answer in his singularly graceless speech at the Republican National Convention: “Mr. Trump has added a plank to this party’s platform to repeal I.R.S. rules sponsored by Lyndon Johnson in 1954 barring churches and nonprofits from expressing political free speech.” Mr. Falwell assured his audience, “Trust me, the repeal of the Johnson Amendment will create a huge revolution for conservative Christians and for free speech.” ...