Defenders cheapen LBJ’s accomplishments

GEORGE E. CURRY | 3/16/2015, 9:27 a.m.
Lyndon B. Johnson has done more to help African Americans and poor people than any modern president. But his defenders ...
George Curry

(NNPA) – Lyndon B. Johnson has done more to help African Americans and poor people than any modern president. But his defenders are cheapening his legacy by inflating his accomplishments, which is an insult to the people – Black and White – who lost their lives fighting for civil rights.

The first and most obnoxious example of a LBJ supporter becoming unhinged is Joseph A. Califano Jr., Johnson’s domestic policy adviser from 1965 to 1969.

In a column for The Washington Post, he wrote: “In fact, Selma was LBJ’s idea, he considered the Voting Rights Act his greatest legislative achievement, he viewed King as an essential partner in getting it enacted – and he didn’t use the FBI to disparage him.”

The idea of a Selma-to-Montgomery March actually originated in Marion, Alabama, about 30 miles northwest of Selma, with the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson. Marchers were protesting the arrest of James Orange, a key Southern Christian Leadership Conference field organizer. In fact, they were marching a short distance from Zion Chapel Methodist Church to the jail when Jackson was killed by an Alabama State Trooper, James Bonard Fowler. At the time, he was trying to defend his 82-year-old grandfather, a scene vividly captured in the movie, Selma. The account is also recounted in Selma 1965: The March That Changed the South, by Charles E. Fager.

Instead of a traditional funeral, the idea was proposed to march to Montgomery and present Jackson’s body to Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace at the state capitol. Wiser minds prevailed and the idea was refined to hold a traditional funeral for Jackson and march 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery to demand full voting rights for Blacks.

It was the death of 26-year-old Jackson that inspired the Selma to Montgomery March, not an “idea” floating around in LBJ’s head. Neither Califano nor anyone else is entitled to use the blood of the Civil Rights Movement to create a myth that is contrary to history and common sense.

The most recent attempt to super-size LBJ’s legacy is the assertion that it was the former president’s idea to include Latinos in the Civil Rights Movement.

An Associated Press story noted, “While this week’s commemorations of the 50th anniversary of ‘Bloody Sunday’ may invoke memories of historic events in which the ‘real hero,’ as Johnson said, was ‘the American Negro,’ little is said about Johnson’s call in that speech to include Mexican-Americans in the struggle for equality.”

The story added, “Appalled by the brutality in Selma, Johnson viewed it as an opportunity to ‘liberate himself’ by linking the voting rights struggle with the struggles, 37 years earlier, of his poorest [Latino] students in Cotulla …”

Dr. King worked hard to build coalitions with other groups, including Latinos. In fact, many were in attendance in great numbers at the 1963 March on Washington.

Former New York City Councilman Gerena Valentín said, “Martin Luther King Jr. invited me to Atlanta, Gergia, to discuss the march that was being organized, and I went there with a strong team. He personally invited me to organize the Latinos in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts, and so I did.”