Spencer Rendahl: Obama, MLK And LBJ

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(Host) When former journalist and commentator Suzanne Spencer Rendahl
realized that Barack Obama, the first African-American President of the
United States, will be inaugurated for his second term on Martin Luther
King Day, she immediately thought of the civil rights leader’s ally,
President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

(Spencer Rendahl) Vice President Johnson did not, of course, become president in the manner he or the nation would have chosen.

was sworn into office on Air Force One in his home state of Texas fifty
years ago this coming November. He stood between his wife Lady Bird and
the assassinated President John F. Kennedy’s widow Jackie, her pink
suit spattered with her murdered husband’s blood.

could not have been more different. The urbane, Harvard-educated JFK
grew up wealthY. LBJ grew up poor, picking cotton as a child and working
on a highway crew after graduating from high school. He attended a
local teaching college and instructed children he described as
"brown-skinned" who lived in poverty that he found familiar. Pulitzer
Prize-winning biographer Robert Caro wrote that LBJ’s birth into poverty
helped him identify with his students’ plights, that of being, he said,
"denied respect for a reason, the color of their skin, over which they
had no control."

Any semblance of an inaugural address would come
after Kennedy’s funeral in Johnson’s speech to the joint session of
Congress, televised for the nation. He had to assure the grieving nation
that he could fill the shoes of its beloved former president.

LBJ had to give the country his agenda. When he shared plans to
advocate for JFK’s Civil Rights bill, an advisor urged him not to devote
his first speech to a lost cause.

Johnson famously replied "Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?"

his historic address, LBJ referred to his students as he announced to
the nation, "I never thought that I might have the chance to help the
sons and daughters of those students … and people like them all over the
country. But now I do have that chance. And I’ll let you in on a
secret. I mean to use it."

Afterwards, LBJ met individually with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders to strategize.

told two of his aides after his meeting that "LBJ … is a pragmatist and
a man of pragmatic compassion. It just may be that he’s going to go
where John Kennedy couldn’t."

And he did. He signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which desegregated schools and public facilities, with King at his side.

fought on for the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which outlawed poll taxes and
literacy tests. He went before Congress and declared "We Shall
Overcome," the rallying cry of men and women who marched in places like
Selma, Alabama. King’s assistants recounted that when he saw LBJ utter
those words on television, he cried.

Now, I’m no LBJ idealist.
He could be ruthless and self-serving. And my family still bears the
scars of his escalation of the Vietnam War. But arguably, LBJ
accomplished more for Civil Rights than any president since Abraham
Lincoln ended slavery. And President Barak Obama’s second inauguration
will be part of that legacy.

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