Hillary Clinton got some deserved criticism for her lecture about how “it took a President” to pass the Civil Rights Act (didn’t Obama prove he values the role of the President when he started running to be the next one?). But Robert Caro’s op-ed today reminds us she could have said something worse:
“Abraham Lincoln struck off the chains of black Americans,” I have written, “but it was Lyndon Johnson who led them into voting booths, closed democracy’s sacred curtain behind them, placed their hands upon the lever that gave them a hold on their own destiny, made them, at last and forever, a true part of American political life.”
This isn’t poetic – it’s just offensive. Did LBJ tie African-Americans’ shoes before they left the house to vote? It should go without saying that African-Americans have been a “true part of American political life” since before the birth of the United States. Among other things, they led a movement which seized the franchise by shifting public opinion and transforming the political landscape. That movement made the difference between the days when LBJ was strategizing against Civil Rights legislation to the days when Jesse Helms must claim to support it.
Caro seems smug towards Civil Rights activists who didn’t trust Johnson’s support until they got it. No doubt which bills Johnson supported, and when he came around to support them, is indeed, as Caro says, some combination of “ambition and compassion.” It’s short-sighted for historians to lionize Johnson’s choices while disparaging the people whose vision, tactics, and courage made it possible for him to wed the two. Of course it makes a huge difference who the President is. But the Great Man Theory that tells us Lincoln freed the slaves and then Johnson gave their descendants the vote is a theory that should be in the dustbin of history by now.
Let’s remember that as we consider the progress Barack Obama’s nomination represents as well as the struggles ahead should there be an Obama presidency.