JUDGMENT DAYS: LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON, MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. AND THE LAWS THAT CHANGED AMERICA
By Nick Kotz
Houghton Mifflin, $26, 522 pages
REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA
What a flood of bitter and beautiful memories this book produces. Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King were principled, passionate, and far from perfect men, but when they stopped pawing the ground and circling one another and began to work in tandem, they brought about the passage of legislation that forced seismic shifts in the political, legal, social, and moral foundations of America.
Each in his own way had to make major concessions in order to fashion their historic compromise: King had to get over his natural disinclination to believe that a Southerner was going to help him lead his people to the promised land, and Johnson had to ignore the disapproval of certain life-long allies, as well as the racist disinformation being fed him by J. Edgar Hoover. But they did, as this fine book lays out in chapter and verse, and the result was the most far-reaching and forthcoming civil rights laws since Reconstruction.
“They were unlikely partners,” writes Nick Kotz on page one, “the master politician who became president and the eloquent minister who led a revolution … . Yet they came to work together … . When it happened, with the passage of the 1964 and 1965 civil rights acts, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. told the president of the United States, ‘You have created a second Emancipation.’ ‘The real hero is the American Negro,’ replied Lyndon Baines Johnson.”
Writing “Judgment Days” was clearly a labor of love for Nick Kotz, veteran journalist and author whose previous books include, among others, “The Unions,” written with Haynes Johnson, and “A Passion for Equality: George Wiley and the Movement,” co-authored with his wife, writer Mary Lynn Kotz. He spent five years on this book and his attention to and respect for detail shows, no, shines, throughout.
In 1964, LBJ was the reluctant, if thrilled, successor to the fallen hero John F. Kennedy. But his feel for the plight of the “American Negro,” to use his term, far surpassed that of the assassinated president from New England. Lyndon Johnson may have risen to heights that even he, with his colossal ego, had not envisioned, but he never forgot his humble origins, and what it felt like to be on the bottom of the pile in the land of plenty. As this very readable book makes clear, however, when it came to doing right, unlike so many other gifted Southern politicians, he saw his duty and did it.
“A new kind of civil rights activism had first caught fire — and gained national attention — in Montgomery, Alabama, in December, 1955,” Mr. Kotz writes early on, “when Rosa Parks, a black seamstress and civil rights activist, weary after a long work day, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger and move to the back of the city bus.”
That was, as we all know, the beginning. But what we don’t all know, or have forgotten, are the milestones, of both decency and terror, that marked the following decade that culminated in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But it’s all here, neatly and effectively laid out for us, whether we need a primer or just a series of reminders, by the author in prose that is also neat and effective. No New (or New New) Journalism for Mr. Kotz, who has wisely chosen to present the inherent drama of these events simply by retelling them.
A personal note: Some years ago, when I wrote a magazine piece on the passage of the 1964 act, I was struck not just by the power of the story, but by the fact that many of the participants were still living, and made a mental note to consider writing a book on the topic. So I’m pleased (if terribly envious) to report that it has been done and done well as part of the larger story contained here.
I do have a few minor caveats. For one, I wish the author had done more with the beautiful end run the 11 female members of the House made around both Manny Celler and Howard Smith in getting Title VII to ban sex discrimination as well as race, religion, and national origin. And for another I actually wish the book had been somewhat longer as certain key events in 1968 are treated too quickly. Over all, though, “Judgment Days” is a very powerful addition to the history of the period.
As so often happens, it’s the small details that tell so much. For example, it turns out that LBJ and J. Edgar were neighbors in not one but two Washington neighborhoods, even joining forces on occasion to search for the Johnsons’ run-away beagle.
Then of course there’s the language. We’ve become familiar with MLK’s soaring rhetoric, but I’d bet a lot of people have forgotten how magnificent were some of Johnson’s speeches and statements (thanks, more often than not, as Mr. Kotz points out, to Richard Goodwin, Bill Moyers, or Harry McPherson).
All Americans alive and sentient at the time these historic events unfolded probably remember the television and newspaper pictures of demonstrators being hosed and beaten and set upon by dogs, but there’s something almost worse about reading the build-up to such police riots as those that took place during the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. in March of 1965, and knowing what is about to happen.
“Judgment Days” alternates between peaks of joy as well as tragedy, and one of the saddest is the account of the eventual split between King and Johnson over Vietnam, which, as Mr. Kotz points out, influenced the president’s decision to announce that he would to stop the bombing — and not run for re-election.
Years ago there was a very good book by Eric Redmond called “The Dance of Legislation” which dealt with the complicated route to passage of the National Health Service Bill. There’s most definitely a dance presented here, but it is one of immense human drama, featuring a cast that remains imprinted on the national memory four decades later.
John Greenya is a Washington writer and author of “Silent Justice, The Clarence Thomas Story.”