Covering the three-day celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act at the University of Texas last week brought back a string of memories – some fond, some bitter. As a son of the South –Tuscaloosa, Ala., to be specific – I saw first-hand how the region was transformed from America’s version of apartheid to one that is perhaps more genuinely accepting of African Americans than any other geographical section of the country.
Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton – all White Southerners who grew up in the Jim Crow South – played a significant role in the region’s transformation. But that didn’t happen in a vacuum. Each was pushed and challenged by the modern Civil Rights Movement, a multi-racial movement, with Blacks serving as chief architects that prodded the U.S. to have its deeds mirror its professed ideals. (George W. Bush, a wealthy Texan, is omitted from this discussion because he did nothing significant to advance civil rights. In fact, his appointment of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court represented a setback to the cause of civil rights.)
While Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); Whitney Young of the National Urban League; NAACP Executive Director Roy Wilkins; John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Roy Innis of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) receive the lion’s share of publicity about the movement, the true heroes were the everyday men and women of the South who risked their jobs and lives to be treated as equals.
As a senior at Druid High School, I participated in the last leg of the Selma-to-Montgomery March. A group of us skipped school one day and went to Birmingham to protest the killing of the four little girls at 16th Street Baptist Church. And when we boycotted the segregated buses in my hometown, I borrowed Uncle Percy’s car and joined dozens of others who retraced the bus routes through our community, picking up people and giving them a free ride to their destination.
A few Alabama-born Whites took a principled stand for civil rights. Bill Shamblin and Bill Plott, editors of the Crimson White, the University of Alabama newspaper, were among the most memorable. They supported desegregation in the face of death threats. That took a lot of courage, especially in a city that was also home of Robert Shelton, the head of the Ku Klux Klan.
Neither LBJ, Carter nor Bill Clinton demonstrated that level of courage and commitment to civil rights in their youth. Yet, they, too, are sons of the South and though they grew up on the other side of the tracks, they carried a special sensitivity to race – some say guilt – with them to the White House. Of the three, Lyndon Johnson was by far the best. His signature legislation – the Civil Rights Act of 1965, the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 – forever changed America, particularly the South.
But Johnson didn’t start out as a progressive. As President Obama said of Johnson in his speech in Austin, Texas, “During his first 20 years in Congress, he opposed every civil rights bill that came up for a vote, once calling the push for federal legislation ‘a farce and a sham.’”
But stepping into the Oval Office upon the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Johnson was able to rise above his past.
Unlike Johnson or Clinton, Jimmy Carter had a close relationship with African Americans growing up in Georgia.
“I grew up in a little village, unincorporated named Archery, Ga., just a few miles west of Plains,” Carter recounted. “…We were surrounded by 55 other families who were African American. All of my playmates, all of my companions in the field – the ones I hunted with, fished with, wrestled with, fought with – were Black people,” Carter said in his speech.
He explained, “I learned to appreciate, you might say, Black culture. When I wrote a book called Hours Before Daylight, at the end of the book, I tried to think of five people other than my parents who had shaped my life and only two of those five were White.”
Bill Clinton was a good president but was probably the most overrated of the three Southerners. When looking at permanent cabinet positions, he appointed more Black cabinet members than Barack Obama, he was a firm supporter of affirmative action and appointed two liberals to the Supreme Court – Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. But he also was part of the successful movement to shift the Democratic Party to the right and signed into law a regressive welfare reform measure.
Last week’s summit at the University of Texas celebrated the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It could have also been a celebration of three Southern-born presidents who managed to overcome the rampant discrimination of their youth.