Last week, Lyndon Johnson’s clan drew four presidents to the Johnson Library for a three-day fête on the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act—what Martin Luther King Jr. is said to have called the “second Emancipation Proclamation.” The Johnsons are often concerned about control at the expense of others’ independence, as was also usually the way of their patriarch. For this anniversary, the plan “to protect the legacy,” a term used during an insiders’ session, was to control the agenda by explicitly putting aside Vietnam—which was mentioned only rarely, a passing rhetorical trip-up, a furrowing of a forehead.
But that is quite a lot to rule out of order: the presence of 550,000 American troops at the high point of the war; more bombs dropped on North Vietnam than were dropped on Japan in World War II; Agent Orange; the Tet offensive; the My Lai massacre; millions of North and South Vietnamese dead; more than 58,000 Americans dead; uncountable wounded throughout the peninsula; the movement at home against the war, with about half a million draft evaders, 200,000 of whom were charged with draft evasion and 8,000 of whom were convicted; Johnson’s decision not to run for re-election.
The Johnson Foundation has nevertheless aimed the historical limelight—now and for the next five years, as foundation chair Larry Temple announced—on LBJ’s many triumphs in passing laws to reform American society. On that basis, Johnson was the greatest president since Roosevelt and the most effective presidential enemy of racism since Lincoln. As Jesse Jackson, who with originality framed those reforms as the “King-Johnson movement,” said during the event, “Lyndon Johnson is a legend who deserves to live on.”
Three surviving leaders of the black uprising of the ’60s—Congressman John Lewis, a hero of the movement who stands in its history alongside Reverend King; Julian Bond, the SNCC press officer and former NAACP chairman; and Andrew Young, an activist in Atlanta and Carter’s UN ambassador—participated in a moderated dialogue that was the vibrant center of the civil rights summit. Bond asked Lewis about the historic “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, when he was one of those leading a column of 600 people across the Pettus Bridge where Bull Connor’s police were lined up on the other side, waiting with clubs to beat them to the ground. Bond asked, “Why didn’t you turn around?”
Lewis answered, “You come to that position in your life where you have an executive session with yourself, and you’re saying to yourself I’m not afraid. I am not afraid. We were prepared to die. Some of us signed notes and wills. I thought I was going to die on that bridge. But I’m not afraid. You have to continue to move on.”
The presidential guest on the first day was 89-year-old Jimmy Carter, answering questions put to him by Mark Updegrove, the director of the library. Carter, having jetted around the world for decades working for peace and democracy, calmly related what he has learned about the mass murdering of girls, the grossly underreported and unpunished rapes, genital mutilation and the enslaving and underpaying of women. He was, in effect, arguing for a new civil rights movement for women everywhere, including the United States, which, he said, should set an example for the world.