Winston Churchill famously said “history is written by the victors,” and truth is often the first casualty in the aftermath of conflict.
Last week, “historian” Mark Updegrove, who doubles as a paid employee of the taxpayer-financed Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, stretched the envelop in a Politico article in which he claimed that the new movie “Selma,” (starring Giovanni Ribisi, Oprah Winfrey, and David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King), distorts the relationship between President Lyndon Baines Johnson and the civil rights leader. Ironically, Updegrove claims that the movie misrepresents historical truth when it is Updegrove’s narrative that repeats the sanitized “history” of the poisoned relationship between LBJ and MLK.
Next, former LBJ associate Joseph Califano jumped into the fray in the Washington Post, claiming that the “Selma” movie doesn’t properly reflect the productive relationship between Johnson and King.
Of course, both Updegrove and Califano failed to even mention Dr. King’s pivotal opposition to the Vietnam War, which would win the enmity of LBJ. Updegrove and Califano are both trying to truncate history with this omission.
The truth is that Lyndon Baines Johnson was a life-long segregationist who resisted numerous attempts to eliminate the poll tax and literacy tests during his twenty-three year career in the House and Senate. He blocked every major and minor piece of meaningful civil rights legislation as the leader of the Southern block in the US Senate, and as its powerful Majority Leader.
It was Lyndon Johnson who neutered the 1957 Civil Rights Act with a poison pill amendment that required violators of the Act be tried before state (all-white), not federal juries. Many contemporary liberals including Joseph Rauh, the president of Americans for Democratic Action, and A. Philip Randolph, a vice president of the AFL-CIO, called the bill worthless, and “worse than no bill at all.”
As Vice President, Lyndon Johnson orchestrated southern congressional opposition to JFK’s civil rights agenda and repeatedly warned JFK to go slow on the civil rights, voting rights, and open housing legislation that Kennedy had promised in his 1960 campaign.
LBJ, it seems, was reserving these initiatives for himself. He repeatedly cautioned President Kennedy to wait “until the time is right.” On Capitol Hill, Johnson simultaneously lobbied his “establishment” friends to stall that same legislation.
Johnson would do an about-face on civil rights immediately upon becoming president, apparently now that the “time was right.” He did so to begin the creation of a grand legacy for himself through the passage of the same legislation that he had previously impeded, and to fend-off a challenge from Robert F. Kennedy at the 1964 Democratic convention.
His maneuvering also gave him currency in the left wing of his party so that he could escalate the Vietnam War unimpeded, having won its support. He had also promised his longtime supporters in the defense contracting business, as well as the Pentagon, that after he was reelected “you’ll get your war.”
LBJ would quickly repeal executive orders by JFK aimed at beginning the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam that would have been completed by 1965. Instead, by that year, hundreds of thousands of young draftees were sent to Americanize that civil war.
Johnson’s complete turnabout on civil rights was also timed to silence those on the left who were suspicious about the fact that their hero, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was gunned down in Lyndon Johnson’s home state.
In his Politico piece, Updegrove points out that King can’t resist telling Johnson that “if Negros had been registered to vote in the southern states that voted for Goldwater, LBJ would have carried every state in 1964.” Yet somehow Updegrove fails to tell us that Johnson would boast that “I’ll have those niggers voting Democratic for 200 years” in his banter with a group of southern governors.
Johnson’s embrace of civil rights is apparently not based on a moral principle; even when LBJ does the right thing, he does it for self-interest, as part of his plan to create a grand legacy for himself.
In fact, LBJ did none of the arm-twisting for the 1964 Civil Rights Act himself. He left that to Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Neither Johnson nor Humphrey could deliver all Democrats, though, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act only passed with the support of Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen and 27 Senate Republicans. LBJ did strip the voting rights section out of the 1964 bill, saving it for still another bill in 1965 so it would add another “bullet” for his legacy.
Johnson was perfectly happy to threaten Dr. King. It was under the administration of President Lyndon Johnson that the FBI heavily wiretapped Dr. King and the FBI sent an anonymous letter to King threatening to expose his sexual infidelity and taste for white women unless he committed suicide. Johnson’s neighbor and longtime political ally, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, obtained Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s authority to wiretap King’s bedroom by invoking the authority of the President – Lyndon Johnson. Hoover liked to play the recordings of King’s sexual trysts at cocktail parties of his elite friends for amusement.
In his strange effort to recast the enmity that LBJ held for King, Updegrove is quick to quote King assistant Andrew Young as claiming that LBJ needed the Selma march as an impetus for the 1965 Civil Rights Act. Updegrove then tries to tell us that the movie “Selma” obscures a warm and productive relationship between Johnson and King. Airbrushed out of Updegrove’s narrative is King’s speech of April 4, 1967 in which King came out strongly against the Vietnam War, causing Johnson to fly into a Texas-sized rage calling King “that nigger preacher,” according to the same Andrew Young.
With his opposition to the war, King became a moral force who challenged the political establishment and the administration of Lyndon Johnson. Shortly before his death, Hoover’s FBI would overhear King on a wiretap telling a close associate that “Bobby Kennedy is my main man” and disclosing his intention to endorse Kennedy in his fledging bid to win the White House in 1968. One can imagine the speed with which J. Edgar Hoover would have made President Johnson aware of King’s comments. Three weeks later King would be dead. Nine weeks later Robert Kennedy would be dead.
Lyndon Johnson should be remembered not for the myths about his “greatness,” but for the damages he wrought, the most horrific being the conduct of the Vietnam war for his own pecuniary and political advantage. The myths that he created, now being perpetuated by his still-sycophantic assistants and the new director of the LBJ Library, are merely evidence that Johnson perfected the skills that Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, once asserted: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”