Justice  /  Longread

How LBJ Saved the Civil Rights Act

Fifty years later, new accounts of its fraught passage reveal the era's real hero—and it isn’t the Supreme Court.
Warren K. Leffler/Library of Congress

In the popular imagination, the Supreme Court is the governmental hero of the civil-rights era. The period conjures images of strong white pillars, Earl Warren’s horn-rims, and the almost holy words Brown v. Board of Education. But in Bell, the Court vindicated civil rights by stepping aside. As Bruce Ackerman observes in The Civil Rights Revolution, Brennan realized that a law passed by democratically elected officials would bear greater legitimacy in the South than a Supreme Court decision. He also doubtless anticipated that the act would be challenged in court, and that he would eventually have his say. The moment demonstrated not merely cooperation among the three branches of government, but a confluence of personalities: Brennan slowing down the Court, President Johnson leaning on Congress to hurry up, and the grandstanders and speechmakers of the Senate making their deals, Everett Dirksen and Hubert Humphrey foremost among them. In this age of obstruction and delay, it is heartening to recall that when the government decides to act, it can be a mighty force.

But three equal branches rarely means three equal burdens, and the civil-rights era was no exception. Although the Court-centered narrative undervalues the two political branches, of those two branches it was the executive that provided decisive leadership in the 1960s. Just as the intragovernmental cooperation of 1964 is striking in light of today’s partisan gridlock, the presidential initiative displayed during the mid-’60s is worth considering in light of Barack Obama’s perceived hands-off approach to lawmaking. Of course, no discussion of civil-rights leadership is complete without including Martin Luther King Jr., who provided moral and spiritual focus, infusing the movement with resolution and dignity. But the times also called for a leader who could subdue the vast political and administrative forces arrayed against change—for someone with the strategic and tactical instincts to overcome the most-entrenched opponents, and the courage to decide instantly, in a moment of great uncertainty and doubt, to throw his full weight behind progress. The civil-rights movement had the extraordinary figure of Lyndon Johnson

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