LATER, WHEN HE WANTED his presidency to be remembered in history for its great civil rights legislation, Lyndon Johnson would often declare that he had, during his entire life, been free from racial prejudice. “I’m not prejudiced nor ever was,” he told one biographer. “I never had any bigotry in me. My daddy wouldn’t let me.” His biographers took him at his word, and so did his assistants. In a typical comment—one of a hundred (one of hundreds, really) of similar comments from Johnson’s aides—George Reedy says, “The man had less bigotry in him than anybody else I have ever met… Johnson had none in him…not racial, ethnic, or religious prejudices.” So did his friends, or, to be more precise, those of his friends to whom he “talked liberal.” “I’m telling you this man does not have prejudice,” Helen Gahagan Douglas was to insist.
Like everything else about Lyndon Johnson, however, the question of his prejudice wasn’t so simple. While in Georgetown he talked one way to men and women of liberal views, of tolerance toward human beings of other colors and persuasions, talked to them so passionately that they believed he was tolerant toward minorities, anxious to help them, waiting only for the right moment; talked so passionately that even civil rights crusader Virginia Durr accepted his response to her reproaches about his long silence on civil rights (a comradely hug and an assurance that “Honey, you’re dead right! I’m all for you, but we ain’t got the votes. Let’s wait till we get the votes”), he talked quite another way in Suite 8-F of the Lamar Hotel in Houston to men of intolerance, to men who felt that Negroes and Mexican-Americans were inherently dumb, dirty, lazy, stupid, looking only for handouts (“gimmes,” as 8-F’s presiding spirit, Herman Brown, called black Americans) and talked to them, too, so passionately that they believed he sharedthose feelings, shared them fully.
Their beliefs about Lyndon Johnson, their descriptions of the way he talked to them, were not made a part of the journalism of the time, or of the history that has been written about it, because these men, unlike the Georgetown liberals, did not talk to journalists or historians—for more than twenty years after they became legendary figures in Texas, Herman and George Brown tried to avoid giving interviews, and every time an historian proposed writing a history of Brown & Root, they blocked the attempt. But their opinion of Johnson’s attitudes is just as strong as the liberals’ opinion; and what they felt was that, while he had to be diplomatic and not express them publicly, his attitudes were the same as theirs. And although their names are not known to history as are those of the Washington liberals, they were just as close to Lyndon Johnson as the liberals were: Herman and George were the major financiers of his rise; Ed Clark, who “bought a ticket” on him in 1937, was his principal lawyer, and the man who kept Texas in line for him, for thirty years; when Johnson left Washington at the end of each congressional session, it was to the watering holes of these men—Falfurrias, St. Joe, Fort Clark—that he repaired, for the week-long, whiskey-soaked hunting trips that played so crucial a role in his political career. His rise was financed by men so bigoted that to talk to them when their guard was down was to encounter a racism whose viciousness had no limit; sitting in his apartment on Austin’s Nineteenth Street on the day that signs went up with the new name the Austin City Council had given the street—“Martin Luther King Boulevard”—Clark was so filled with rage that as soon as the author of this book walked in, Clark told a “joke”: “Did you hear about how the Reverend King went to Africa to look for his roots, but as he were climbing the tree, a baboon shat in his face?” During an earlier interview, Clark had been asked if Lyndon Johnson’s views about Negroes and Mexican-Americans were any different from his own. Smiling a slow, amused smile, he replied in his East Texas twang, “If there were any difference at all, it were not apparent to me.”
To take Lyndon Johnson at his word—his word that “I never had any bigotry in me”—it is necessary to ignore other words of Lyndon Johnson’s: his own words, written, in his handwriting, in a private diary he kept (the only time he kept a diary) during the month he spent in the Pacific during the Second World War. To take him at his word, it is necessary to ignore still other words—words spoken in his own voice, and preserved on a tape recording made not in the Oval Office with an eye on posterity but by a Lyndon Johnson who thought no one was listening, not knowing that while he was talking to employees on his ranch over a radio telephone in 1967 and 1968, an Associated Press photographer, Steve Stibbens, assigned to take photographs for a feature story on Johnson, had found himself, by accident, listening to the conversations, and had decided to record them because, as he recalls, “I was so shocked—I couldn’t believe what I was hearing—I mean, this was the great civil rights President.”
Crossing the Pacific in May, 1942, the big four-engine Coronado flying boat on which Lyndon Johnson was traveling would put down for refueling at small islands, and Johnson would observe the natives’ behavior. On May 17, on the island of Nouméa, he wrote in his diary, in a neat, cramped script: “Natives very much like Negroes. Work only enough to eat.” After he reached Australia, he was at an air base in Brisbane on June 4 when a violent incident involving black servicemen occurred. John Connally, with whom Johnson later discussed the incident, explained that it reinforced Johnson’s belief that Negroes had a predilection toward drunkenness and violence. “Negro problem—no hard liquor as order Lieutenant,” Johnson wrote in the diary. “Negroes and constables knife threat.” The tape made during Johnson’s presidency a quarter of a century later shows that he subscribed to some of the stereotypes about Mexican-Americans, too. Complaining about the laziness of Mexican-American workers on his ranch to Dale Malechek, his ranch foreman, he said, “I don’t think Mexicans do much work unless there’s a white man with them, so from now on I want a white man with every group.”
A firm hand was necessary with Mexicans, Johnson felt. “I know these Latin Americans,” he told the journalist Tom Wicker in 1964. “I grew up with Mexicans. They’ll come right into your back yard and take it over if you let them. And the next day they’ll be right up on your porch, barefoot and weighing one hundred and thirty pounds and they’ll take that, too. But if you say to ’em right at the start, ‘Hold on, just wait a minute,’ they’ll know they’re dealing with somebody who’ll stand up. And after that you can get along fine.”
To accept Lyndon Johnson’s contention, it is necessary to ignore notes taken by reporters on statements he made in off-the-record conversations—statements that never made their way into print at the time Johnson made them or during the more than three decades that have passed since, but that are available in the Lyndon Johnson Library yet are never included in any of the now-numerous biographies of Lyndon Johnson—statements that further document his acceptance of stereotypes: a belief, for example, that blacks are aggressive motorists. In a conversation with a correspondent for Time magazine on January 29, 1968, he explained why he didn’t want to dispatch gunboats to protect vessels like the U.S.S. Pueblo. “If we started sending gunboats out to protect everybody gathering information we’d have a budget of five hundred billion dollars every year,” Lyndon Johnson said. “That harassment is part of the job. It is just like you driving home at night and you come up to a stop light, and there’s some nigger there bumping you and scraping you.”
To accept Lyndon Johnson’s contention that “I never had any bigotry in me,” it is necessary to ignore certain phrases in his early speeches which revealed his attitude toward people whose skins were not black or brown but yellow. During the late 1940s, his public rhetoric was filled with references to “the menace of Eurasia.” America must not surrender to “the barbaric hordes of godless men in Eurasia,” he said during a speech in 1947. “Without superior airpower America is a bound and throttled giant; impotent and easy prey to any yellow dwarf with a pocketknife,” he said during another speech the same year. These were prepared addresses; his off-the-cuff speeches were not recorded, but persons who followed his campaigns say the speeches were filled with references to “yellow dwarves,” “hordes of barbaric yellow dwarves,” “sneaky yellow dwarves,” and “godless yellow dwarves.”
His remarks about African-Americans and Mexican-Americans before he was President were not isolated remarks. In conversations with friends, Johnson constantly employed the caricature shorthand for people of color—that they were dumb, that they were lazy, that they were prone to drunkenness and violence—to make points in casual conversation, as when, to show, as one man put it, “that he had no particular respect” for Lady Bird’s opinion, he said “I have a nigger maid, and I talk my problems over with her, too.” On other occasions, he made the same point by saying, “I talk my problems over with my nigger chauffeur, too.”
Despite what he claimed, then, Lyndon Johnson was not without prejudice. Like millions of other Americans, he held stereotypes, and sometimes the stereotypes were expressed in racial terms. When, moreoever, Johnson was speaking to a Negro, he often used racial pejoratives. If Negroes were sufficiently subservient to him, he was kind and rather gentle with them, and used these words in a somewhat friendly manner. One afternoon in the mid-1930s, during Johnson’s tenure as Texas director of the National Youth Administration, his old friend State Senator Welly K. Hopkins was talking with Johnson in his NYA office in Austin when a black employee came in. Hopkins was to tell an interviewer for an oral history that Lyndon asked the man what he wanted. “He said, ‘Boy, what do you want?’ Well, he said he wanted to borrow five dollars. ‘Well, what do you want it for, boy?’” Hopkins said that “I could tell the President was going to let him have it”—and after the employee said he needed it so that he could get married, Johnson gave him the money. But sometimes those terms were not used in a friendly way. Lyndon Johnson possessed not only a lash for a tongue, but a rare talent for aiming the lash, for finding a person’s most sensitive point, the rawest of his wounds, and striking it, over and over again, without mercy. With a black American, of course, the rawest point was likely to be the color of his skin, and the names by which he was addressed because of it: “nigger,” for example, or “boy.” And when Lyndon Johnson wanted to hurt a Negro, that was often where he aimed the lash. When the author asked Hopkins if Johnson always used the word “boy” in a joking or paternalistic way, Hopkins shook his head to say no, and related an incident that occurred in the NYA office, on another occasion when he was visiting Johnson. An employee, not of the NYA but of the office building—a middle-aged black man, “a porter or something, I think”—had done something that angered Johnson. “My God, I will never forget how he talked to that man,” Hopkins said. “He would just rip him up and down, and the man would just have to stand there and take it. Lyndon would just keep calling him ‘boy,’ ‘boy.’ ‘You understand that, boy! You got it now, boy! Do this, boy. Do that, boy.’”
Racial stereotypes sometimes governed Johnson’s actions as well as his words. A stereotype that had currency in the Hill Country was that Negroes were terrified of all snakes. Sometimes Johnson or one of his Hill Country friends would catch a snake, sometimes a harmless snake, sometimes a rattlesnake. Johnson would put it in the trunk of his car, and drive to a gas station at which a Negro was working as the gas pump attendant. Pulling up to the pump to get gas, he would tell the attendant that he thought the spare tire in his trunk might need air, and would ask him to take a look at it. Often this practical joke was successful; relating this story, he said, about one Negro attendant, “Boy, you should have seen that big buck jump!” He went on playing this joke not only when he was in college, but when he was a congressional assistant—when he was a congressman, in fact. Once, when he played it while he was a congressman—in 1945 or 1946 at a service station at the corner of First Street and Congress Avenue in Austin—the joke had a different denouement. While Lyndon was “standing there laughing” at the attendant’s shock, the black man picked up a tire iron and, threatening to wrap it around Johnson’s neck, shouted, “I’ll make you a bow tie out of this!” The manager of the service station had to hustle Johnson out a back door to get him away.
BUT THERE WAS A DIFFERENCE between Lyndon Johnson and all the other Americans who held racial stereotypes—and between Lyndon Johnson and all the presidents, save only Abraham Lincoln, who came before him and who came after him. Lincoln freed black men and women from slavery, but almost a century after Lincoln, black men and women—and Mexican-American men and women, and indeed most Americans of color—still did not enjoy many of the rights which America supposedly guaranteed its citizens; they did not—millions of them, at least—enjoy even the most basic right, the right to vote, and thereby choose the officials who governed them. It was Lyndon Johnson who gave them those rights. It was the civil rights laws passed during his presidency—passed because of the inspiring words with which he presented them “We shall overcome,” he said once as a Congress came cheering to its feet, and in front of television sets all over America, men and women of good will began to cry), and because of the savage determination with which he drove them to passage—that gave them the vote, and that made great strides toward ending discrimination in public accommodations, in education, in employment, even in private housing. Lincoln, of course, was President during the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, with its eighteen American presidents, Lyndon Baines Johnson was the greatest champion that black Americans and Mexican-Americans and indeed all Americans of color had in the White House, the greatest champion they had in all the halls of government. With the single exception of Lincoln, he was the greatest champion with a white skin that they had in the history of the Republic. He was to become the lawmaker for the poor and the downtrodden and the oppressed. He was to be the bearer of at least a measure of social justice to those to whom social justice had so long been denied, the restorer of at least a measure of dignity to those who so desperately needed to be given some dignity, the redeemer of the promises made to them by America. He was to be the President who, above all Presidents save Lincoln, codified compassion, the President who wrote mercy and justice into the statute books by which America was governed.
LYNDON JOHNSON WAS ABLE to win these victories, to become this champion, in part because of where he came from.
Texas was in the South—one of the eleven Confederate states—but in a crucial respect, the Texas Hill Country wasn’t southern. Because rainfall sufficient to grow cotton petered out just before its eastern edge, little cotton was grown there, and there were very few Negroes there—none at all in Johnson City. “There were no ‘darkies’ or plantations in the arid Hill Country where I grew up,” Johnson was to recall. “I never sat on my parents’ or grandparents’ knees listening to nostalgic tales of the antebellum South.” This was not to say that the Hill Country wasn’t part of the South. “In Stonewall and Johnson City I never was a part of the Old Confederacy,” he was to say. “But I was part of Texas…. And Texas is a part of the South…. That Southern heritage meant a great deal to me.” Southern racial attitudes existed in the Hill Country—the word “nigger” was in common use—but with few Negroes to focus on, or to pose a threat, the attitudes were more casual than in the rest of the South; the atmosphere in which Lyndon Johnson was raised was not steeped in racism, and neither was he. He never exhibited, in word or deed, the visceral revulsion that southern racists like Bilbo and Eastland displayed at the very thought of Negroes and whites mingling together in social situations, or at work, or at the thought of them having sexual intercourse together or of racial intermarriage; never exhibited the conviction of a Richard Russell that “mongrelization” would lead to the end of civilization. Lyndon Johnson’s use of words like “nigger” and “boy” to hurt or intimidate was primarily an example of the way the lash that was his tongue sought out the most vulnerable spot in everyone, not just blacks: in using those words, Lyndon Johnson was guilty less of racism than of cruelty. At least once, in fact, dealing with an African-American employee, he used these epithets, and the pain they caused, in a different way, to teach the employee the lesson Johnson felt everyone had to learn, a lesson Johnson felt would lead to an improvement in the employee’s life: that it was necessary to accept reality, to face harsh facts and push beyond them, to be pragmatic, which in the employee’s case meant to accept that he would always be the target of these epithets, would always be the target of prejudice, and that he had to accept that fact—because only by accepting it could he move beyond prejudice and achieve his ambitions.
The employee, a native of Wichita Falls, Texas, Robert Parker, was, indeed, ambitious. He would, during the 1960s, become maitre d’ of the Senate Dining Room. During the 1940s and 1950s he was one of Johnson’s “patronage” employees, holding down a Johnson-arranged job as a District of Columbia postman and being paid by the Post Office Department while earning his patronage by serving without pay as bartender and waiter at Johnson’s parties, and, after Johnson acquired the use of the Democratic Leader’s limousine, filling in as his chauffeur when Johnson’s regular driver, Norman Edwards, had a day off.
“Yet for years,” Parker would write in his autobiography, Capitol Hill in Black and White, Johnson “called me ‘boy,’ ‘nigger,’ or ‘chief,’ never by my name….” Parker felt there were political reasons that could explain Johnson’s use of these terms in public. “He especially liked to call me nigger in front of southerners and racists like Richard Russell,” he was to write. “It was … LBJ’s way of being one of the boys,” and once, when “we were alone,” Johnson “softened a bit” and said, “I can’t be too easy with you. I don’t want to be called a nigger-lover.” But Johnson also used those terms in private. “Whenever I was late, no matter what the reason, Johnson called me a lazy, good-for-nothing nigger,” Parker wrote. And there was an incident that occurred one morning in Johnson’s limousine while Parker was driving him from his Thirtieth Place house to the Capitol. Johnson, who had been reading a newspaper in the back seat, “suddenly…lowered the newspaper and leaned forward,” and said, “‘Chief, does it bother you when people don’t call you by name?’”
Parker was to recall that “I answered cautiously but honestly, ‘Well, sir, I do wonder. My name is Robert Parker.’” And that was evidently not an answer acceptable to Johnson. “Johnson slammed the paper onto the seat as if he was slapping my face. He leaned close to my ear. ‘Let me tell you one thing, nigger,’ he shouted. ‘As long as you are black, and you’re gonna be black till the day you die, no one’s gonna call you by your goddamn name. So no matter what you are called, nigger, you just let it roll off your back like water, and you’ll make it. Just pretend you’re a goddamn piece of furniture.’”
Parker found that incident in Johnson’s limousine difficult to explain—or forgive. Years later, as he stood beside Lyndon Johnson’s grave thinking of all Johnson had done for his people, Parker would say he was “swirling with mixed emotions.” Lyndon Johnson, he would write, had rammed through Congress “the most important civil rights laws this country has ever seen or dreamed possible.” Because of those laws, Parker would write, he felt, at last, like a free man. “I owed that freedom to him…. I loved the Lyndon Johnson who made them possible.” But remembering the scene in the limousine—and many other scenes—Parker was to write that on the whole working for Johnson was “a painful experience. Although I was grateful to him for getting me a job … I was afraid of him because of the pain and humiliation he could inflict at a moment’s notice. I thought I had learned to fight my bitterness and anger inside…. But Johnson made it hard to keep the waves of bitterness inside…. But I had to swallow or quit. If I quit, how would I support my family? I chose survival and learned to swallow with a smile.” And, Parker would write, “I hated that Lyndon Johnson.” The words Johnson shouted from the back seat in the limousine that day—“As long as you are black, and you’re gonna be black till the day you die, no one’s gonna call you by your goddamn name”—those words, Parker was to write, “stuck in my belly like a fishhook for thirty years until I almost believed them.” Yet that lesson Parker learned—that he had “to swallow” in order to get ahead—was taught to him in part by the man who shouted in his ear, “Let it roll off your back like water, and you’ll make it. Just pretend you’re a goddamn piece of furniture.”
Lyndon Johnson was able to win these victories in part because of empathy—a deep sense of identification with the poor, including the dark-skinned poor; he understood their thoughts and emotions said felt their thoughts and emotions as if they were his own. And this was not surprising, for in a way they were his own. His empathy was deeply rooted in his personal experience, in blisters and sunburn and windburn and humiliation.
This empathy was also a product of the place from which he came. Because there were so few Negroes or Mexicans in the Hill Country and no money in that impoverished land to import Negroes or Mexicans to work the crops, when one of the few farmers who grew cotton needed it chopped or picked, “there wasn’t any Mexicans or niggers to do it,” as Lyndon’s friend Otto Crider was to recall, “so everybody, including the kids, went out to do it,” and one of the kids doing this work they called “nigger work” was young Lyndon Johnson.
One Texas chronicler was to call cotton “a man-killing crop.” Chopping it—thinning out the rows by hacking out every other plant with a hoe—is hard, and when picking time comes, the pickers strap on kneepads and hang long burlap sacks around their necks, and all day long, from before daybreak until dark, under that broiling Hill Country sun, they stoop and crawl along the cotton rows, dragging after them the sacks that grow heavier and heavier as they are filled with the cotton bolls. After just one day of this work, even a young man, even a boy, has trouble straightening his back at night, and even work-hardened hands are raw and bleeding from the sharp-pointed cotton hulls. Lyndon Johnson’s hands never became hardened; his soft white Bunton skin refused to callus but only blistered, one blister forming on top of another. Nonetheless, at the age of nine and ten, Lyndon Johnson was doing this work, out in the stony Hill Country cotton fields on his hands and knees, dragging the sack behind him. His older cousin Ava, who often worked beside him, remembers him whispering to her, “Boy, there’s got to be a better way to make a living than this. There’s got to be a better way.”
When he was seventeen or eighteen, moreover, Lyndon Johnson worked on a Texas State Highway Department “road gang,” gravel-topping stretches of the road between Johnson City and Austin. The workers on most such road gangs were Negroes or Mexicans; the work was brutally hard and the pay was only two dollars a day. This particular gang was all white, but the work it was doing was nonetheless “nigger work.” At times, he would be half of a pick-and-shovel team, working with Otto Crider’s brawny brother Ben. “He’d use the shovel and scoop the dirt up”—that hard Hill Country limestone caliche—“and I’d use the pick[ax] and pick it up, or vice versa,” Ben recalls, and, he recalls, that work was “too heavy” for the skinny, ungainly teenager. At other times, Lyndon “drove” a “fresno,” a heavy, two-handled iron scoop pulled by two mules. “Driving” a fresno meant standing behind the scoop, between its handles, with a hand on each handle. Since the driver didn’t have a hand free, the reins were tied together and wrapped around his back, so that he and the mules were, really, in harness together. Lyndon would have to lift the handles of the heavy scoop, jam its front edge into the hard ground, and push hard to force the scoop through the rocky soil, as the mules pulled. When the scoop was filled with earth and stones, he would have to press down on the handles, straining with the effort, until the scoop rose off the ground. Then, still pressing on the handles as hard as he could, the reins still cutting into his back, he would have to drive the mules to the spot where he could dump the heavy load. “This, for a boy of…seventeen, was backbreaking labor,” Crider says. In summer, working in the unshaded hills under that merciless Hill Country sun was almost unbearable, and the laborers worked with their noses and mouths filled with the dried soil the wind whipped into their faces. Winters could be so cold that the men had to thaw out their hands around a fire before they could handle their picks and shovels. Lyndon Johnson worked on that road gang for almost a year. All his life, he would hate the very thought of physical labor, and he never forgot what cotton picking and road-gang work—that “nigger work”—was like. Harry McPherson, who went to work for Lyndon Johnson in 1956, would comment that his new boss “did not pretend, as many Southerners did, that Negroes ‘really enjoyed’ the southern way of life,” and that he didn’t “romanticize” that life, including the menial work that was part of it. How could Lyndon Johnson have romanticized that work? He had done it.
But Lyndon Johnson’s empathy for the poor and the dark-skinned came not from experience alone but also from insight. It was rare insight, provided by rare ability: his ability to read people so deeply, to look so deeply into their hearts and see so truly what they were feeling that he could feel what they were feeling—and could therefore put himself in their place.
During the first twenty years of his life, he had little contact with people whose skins were not white, but he spent his twenty-first year—from September, 1928, through June, 1929—teaching them, at the “Mexican school” in the little town of Cotulla on the flat, barren plains of the South Texas brush country.
There he saw into his pupils’ lives. When “lunch hour” came, he saw that the children had no lunch, and were hungry. He went to visit their homes—on the “wrong” side of the tracks of the Missouri-Pacific Railroad that divided Cotulla into Anglo and Mexican sections—and saw the tiny, unpainted, tin-roofed, crumbling hovels, with neither electricity nor running water, in which they lived. (Lyndon himself lived that year on the “Anglo” side of the tracks but in accommodations only marginally better: a room he shared with another, older boarder, in a small, shabby house on stilts next to the railroad tracks; at night he would be kept awake by the rumble of the long trains that passed endlessly, carrying bawling cattle up from Laredo.) He learned the slave wages that his pupils’ fathers were being paid by Anglo farmers.
And he saw into his pupils’ hearts. “I saw hunger in their eyes and pain in their bodies,” Lyndon Johnson would say years later. “Those little brown bodies had so little and needed so much.” He saw hunger and pain—and he saw more. “I could never forget seeing the disappointment in their eyes and seeing the quizzical expression on their faces—all the time they seemed to be asking me, ‘Why don’t people like me? Why do they hate me because I am brown?’”
And his own heart went out to them. Out of the insight came indignation—Cotulla’s Anglos treated the Mexicans “just worse than you’d treat a dog,” he was to say, and he was snarling as he said it. After the cotton fields, after the road gang, after Cotulla, there would be present amid the violently contrasting and clashing elements of Lyndon Johnson’s personality one element that was as vivid and as deep as the cruelty, no matter how opposite it might be—an understanding of and sympathy for the poor, particularly for the poor whose skins were dark; a tenderness for them, a compassion for the very people to whom at other times he could be so callous.
Understanding the conditions of the children’s lives, he understood the impact of those conditions. Even his most diligent students were often absent, and he knew why; all his life, he would recall lying in his room before daylight and hearing truck motors and knowing that the trucks were “hauling the kids off … to a beet patch or a cotton patch in the middle of the school year, and give them only two or three months schooling.”
And because he understood that, the prejudices he had against Mexican-Americans, as with the prejudices he held against black Americans, while he expressed them in racial terms, were stereotypes less of race than of culture and class. His view of the characteristics that he thought he saw in blacks and Mexican-Americans—laziness and a predisposition to violence, for example—was very different from the view of southern racists, for unlike them, Lyndon Johnson did not feel that these characteristics were due to some innate, ineradicable defects in their genes expressed in the color of their skin. He believed that they were a product of the lack of education and opportunity with which America had shackled them, and that if that situation were changed, they would be changed: that if people of color were freed from these shackles, they would, in every way, be fundamentally the same as people whose skins were white. He often expressed this belief, often with his customary coarseness. In 1964, he told a Texas friend: “I’m gonna try to teach these Nigras that don’t know anything how to work for themselves instead of just breedin’; I’m gonna try to teach these Mexicans who can’t talk English to learn it so they can work for themselves…and get off of our taxpayers’ back.” The racists in 8-F were wrong about Lyndon Johnson, as wrong as the southern racists whose support he needed on Capitol Hill.
The clearest proof of the genuineness of his feeling that the stereotypical view of minorities would be changed if the circumstances of their lives were changed was how hard he tried, as a twenty-one-year-old schoolteacher, to change the circumstances of those Mexican-American children with whom he came in contact. He tried very hard. He was filled with a need to help. He had taken the teaching job only as a means of earning enough money to finish college, but he became a teacher such as Cotulla had never seen, not only arguing the school board into providing equipment so that his pupils could play games during recess but arranging for games with other schools—baseball games and track meets like the white kids had—and since the board declined to pay for buses to transport his kids to the meets, climbing hovels’ rickety porches to persuade men to whom every day’s work was precious to drive the children in their cars.
As I wrote in The Path to Power, “No teacher had ever really cared if the Mexicans learned or not. This teacher cared.” He arrived at school early and stayed late. “If we hadn’t done our homework, we had to stay after school,” one of his students was to recall—and no matter how long that took, their teacher stayed with them. Insisting that they speak English, he not only handed out spankings to boys who lapsed into Spanish but, to give boys and girls practice in speaking English in front of audiences, he formed the school’s first debating team.
He tried to inspire them. “I was determined to spark something inside them, to fill their souls with ambition and interest and belief in the future,” he was to say. Recalls another student: “He used to tell us this country was so free that anyone could become President who was willing to work hard enough.” He told them a story—“the little baby in the cradle,” as a student would call it. “He would tell us that one day we might say the baby would be a teacher. Maybe the next day we’d say the baby would be a doctor. And one day we might say the baby—any baby—might grow up to be President of the United States.”
And the passion of Lyndon Johnson was not limited by the job. Telling the school janitor, Thomas Coronado, that he should learn English, he bought Coronado a textbook to learn it from; before school opened and after it closed, he sat on the steps outside the school with him, tutoring him. “After I had learned the letters, I would spell a word in English. Johnson would then pronounce it, and I would repeat.” The tutoring, Johnson made clear, must not interfere with Coronado’s responsibilities. “He made it very clear to me that he wanted the school building to be clean at all times…. He seemed to have a passion to see that everything was done that should be done—and that it was done right.”
The circumstances of the children’s lives interfered with everything he was trying to do, and he saw that, saw that their lives were permeated with injustice.
“I swore then and there,” Lyndon Johnson was to say, “that if I ever had a chance to help those underprivileged kids I was going to do it.” It was at Cotulla, Lyndon Johnson was to say, “that my dream began of an America…where race, religion, language and color didn’t count against you.”
And Lyndon Johnson won these victories for America’s downtrodden because he possessed not only the quality of compassion, but a rare gift for translating compassion into the only kind of accomplishment that would be meaningful.
As was shown in The Path to Power, that gift first became apparent in Lyndon Johnson’s first governmental job—as a twenty-four-year-old assistant to a do-nothing Texas congressman from a district on the Gulf of Mexico, even further south than Cotulla. At a time when no one (certainly not the congressman) could think of a way to save from imminent foreclosure the district’s hundreds of Depression-wracked farms which were so far behind in their tax and mortgage payments that they seemed hopelessly beyond the reach of the newly elected President Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson thought of a way—a unique and complex refinancing plan—and persuaded banks, mortgage companies, and two federal agencies to implement it fast enough so that the farms were saved, sometimes only hours before the foreclosure sale began. And, as was also shown in the opening volume, the gift came to flower in Johnson’s first elective office, after that victory he won as a twenty-eight-year-old congressman, when he brought electricity to thousands of lonely farms and ranches in the Hill Country—a victory, against seemingly impossible odds, that displayed not only a remarkable determination to mobilize the powers of government to help the downtrodden but a remarkable ingenuity in expanding and using those powers, in transmuting sympathy into action: governmental action. If Lyndon Johnson wanted to hurt, he also wanted to help—and no one could help like Lyndon Johnson.
LYNDON JOHNSON was not to become the champion of the poor, particularly the poor of color, solely because of his compassion or his governmental genius, however. Indeed, had his accomplishments on their behalf depended solely on those traits, they might never have become reality.
As his life proved.
Strong as was the compassion, the need to help, it was not the strongest force in Lyndon Johnson’s life. His character had been molded by his youth in a tiny, isolated Hill Country town: by the interaction there of humiliation with heredity, by the impact of insecurity and shame on that potent inherited strain that gave him not only a huge nose and ears but also a huge need to be “in the forefront,” to “advance and keep advancing.” It was the fires of that youth that had made his needs, the imperatives of his nature, drive him with the feverish, almost frantic, intensity that journalists called “energy” when it was really desperation and fear, the fear of a man fleeing something terrible. And those fires had hardened the clay of his character, a clay hard in its very nature, into something much harder—into a shape that would never change. Compassion, sympathy—the desire to help, impulses that might be called noble—constituted one of those imperatives, a strong one. But during his youth, he had seen, and felt, the result of noble impulses; it was such impulses—his father’s idealism—that had played such a large role in his family’s fall “from the A’s to the F’s.” It was therefore not compassion that most fully satisfied his needs, but rather power. It was not the desire to “help somebody” but to “be somebody” that drove him most strongly—that is the motivation mentioned most prominently not only by the companions of his youth (“If he couldn’t lead, he didn’t care much about playing”) but of his more mature years as well. Unrelenting ambition—the need not merely to advance but to “keep advancing”—had been the trademark of generations of Buntons. And it was the strongest driving force of the man who had inherited—so clearly in the opinion of the Hill Country—the “Bunton strain.” Sometimes the two forces—compassion and ambition—ran on parallel paths, but sometimes they didn’t. And whenever those two forces collided, it was the ambition that won, as had been demonstrated at half a dozen turning points in his early career, even within his congressional district. “The best congressman for a district there ever was” lost much of his interest in helping his constituents when, following his defeat in the 1941 senatorial campaign, it appeared that he would never reach the Senate, and that his work for his district might not lead to political advancement but would have to be an end in itself.
When the element of race had been added to the collisions between the two forces—compassion and ambition—the collisions became more dramatic; the result was unvaryingly the same.
The foreclosure and electricity accomplishments had been achieved largely on behalf of white farmers. There had, however, been a period in Lyndon Johnson’s early life—between July 26, 1935, when he left the congressional assistantship, and February 23,1937, when he began running for a congressional seat of his own—during which his career had been intimately involved with blacks and Mexican-Americans, for during this period he was the director for the state of Texas of the New Deal’s National Youth Administration, an agency whose goal was to extend a helping hand to young people of all races and colors.
The NYA had been created, in June, 1935, to help students stay in high school or college by providing them with part-time campus jobs that would allow them to earn enough—fifteen or twenty dollars per week—to continue their education, and to help young people who were not in school by creating small-scale public works projects on which they could be employed and thus earn some income while improving the civic estate.
Lyndon Johnson, at twenty-six the youngest of the NYA’s forty-eight state directors (he may, in fact, have been the youngest person to be entrusted with statewide authority for any major New Deal program) and one, besides, who had absolutely no administrative experience and now was suddenly administering a multimillion-dollar statewide program, threw himself into his job with energy and passion, the passion “to see that everything was done that should be done.”*
The young people of Texas whom Lyndon Johnson wanted to help included young blacks and Mexican-Americans. He was very anxious to help them. Sometimes, indeed, his outrage at society’s indifference to their plight burst out of him, as if he could not contain it. Once, while he was waiting to explain NYA programs to a businessmen’s luncheon club in San Antonio, one of the club’s members tried to tell him that most of the programs were unnecessary. “All these kids need to do is get out and hustle,” he said. Turning on the man, Johnson said sarcastically: “Last week over here I saw a couple of your kids hustling, all right—a boy and girl, nine or ten. They were hustling through a garbage can in an alley,” looking for something to eat.
When he spoke to blacks and Mexican-Americans, he made them believe—believe completely—in his commitment to helping them. For Texas’ black colleges, financially pressed in good times and in desperate condition during the Depression, NYA assistance was a blessing, and Johnson always telephoned the administrators of those colleges personally to tell them it was coming. “You have any boys and girls out there that could use some money?” he would ask. He made them believe, as well, that he was stretching the limits of his authority to help them, that he was giving them not merely their fair share of the NYA allocation for Texas, but more than their fair share. “He’d send us our quota of money,” says O. H. Elliot, bursar of the black Sam Houston College in Huntsville. “Then, off the record, he’d say, ‘I’ve got a little extra change here. Can you find a place for it?’” (“We could always find a place for it,” Elliot adds, saying that part of the extra money was used for faculty salaries; “We couldn’t have paid our faculty except for Mr. Johnson.”) “It sorta sold us on him even before he ran for elective office,” he says. “He cared for people.” New Deal administrators from the NYA’s Washington headquarters who visited Texas were taken on elaborate, carefully choreographed tours, and were impressed, not only by Johnson’s overall accomplishment—after a trip to Texas in February, 1937, NYA Southwestern Regional Representative Garth Akridge called him “easily one of the best men directing one of the best staffs in one of the best programs with the most universal and enthusiastic support of any state in the Union”—but by his record on behalf of minorities. NYA Assistant Director Richard R. Brown, who was often in touch with Johnson (“He always called me Mr. Boss Man,” Brown recalls) and who visited Texas several times, says, “I think that Lyndon made every effort there to reach as many blacks as could be done…. I would say that for a Texan he had a rather broad tolerance for races.” (The possibility that Johnson was making a special effort to leave that impression with Brown is raised by the fact that, while during other staff meetings he occasionally referred to blacks as “niggers,” when, during a staff meeting attended by Brown, one of Johnson’s assistants made a remark that was mildly racially disparaging, Johnson said, ‘You can’t use that term here.’” Brown was indeed impressed: “I felt that he was a very tolerant, a very broad-minded young man.”)
At meetings in Washington, Johnson spoke to members of the NYA’s headquarters staff with his customary eloquence; impressed with his desire to help black youth, they spread the word among prominent black figures in New Deal circles. One such figure, Robert C. Weaver, would later recall that an NYA administrator, Frank Home, “kept talking about this guy in Texas who was really something. His name was Lyndon Johnson, and Home said Johnson didn’t think the NYA was for middle-class people; he thought it was for poor people, including Mexican-Americans and Negroes…. This guy in Texas was giving them [blacks] and Mexican-Americans a fair break. This made quite an impression on me.” Praising his “energy” and “vigorous imagination,” the NYA’s dynamic black Director for Negro Affairs, Mary McLeod Bethune, was to describe Johnson as “one who has proven himself so conscious of and sympathetic with the needs of all people.” Brown recalls that “whenever Lyndon’s name came up she would say such things as, ‘Well, he’s a very outstanding young man. He’s going to go places. He’ll be a big man in this country.’”
AFTER LYNDON JOHNSON BECAME PRESIDENT, and during the decades since his death, this impression would be resurrected, and would grow, its growth fueled in part by the oral histories assiduously collected by the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library (“He never asked whatcolor people were. If we had the money, we hired the kids. It was as simple as that”—Bill Deason), in part by Johnson’s vivid, indeed fascinating, recollections of his NYA days, and in part by the fact that as President, he had indeed won great battles by fighting with all his might on behalf of minorities, a fact which understandably increased people’s willingness to believe that he had been waging the same fight as a young man. The impression became a cornerstone of the Johnson legend. Biographers, understandably influenced by his later civil rights victories, painted a picture of a Lyndon Johnson who during his entire adult life had always battled wholeheartedly for minorities—who had done so, for example, as Texas NYA Director, fighting gallantly, in the face of southern bigotry, to give minorities more than their fair share of his resources. After her long exposure to Johnson’s eloquence, Doris Kearns Goodwin was to write that “Johnson did put together special NYA programs for the black young, often financed by secret transfers of money from other projects that had been approved at upper levels of the bureaucracy.”
In some respects, this picture is accurate, quite dramatically so. At Prairie View Normal and Industrial College, in Waller County, young black men built dormitories to house young black women. These young women worked two and a half hours a day and studied “domestic science” for four, learning how to cook, clean house, take care of children and do other household work, and this “domestic training” program was then expanded to four black colleges. A staffer from NYA national headquarters in Washington was to report back that in Texas “I have found what I have been hoping to find for colored girls…. I believe I know the Negro condition in the southern states, and no one would be more delighted to see them have the kind of training that Mr. Johnson is setting up in Texas. The Texas Director is doing what many of us are talking.” And Johnson was to tell Ms. Goodwin that only his determination to circumvent NYA regulations on behalf of black colleges made the Prairie View project possible. The NYA’s allocation for supplies and equipment, he told her, was supposed to be spent for “equipment, shovels, etc., and nothing for fancy things like dormitories…. What I did was to go around and get people to donate money for the equipment in white areas and then apply that saving to Prairie View and use it to build dorms which they so badly needed.” Some projects must have given Lyndon Johnson great personal satisfaction. One was to transform the debris-littered vacant lot in front of Cotulla’s “Mexican school” into a neat plaza; another NYA grant allowed the school to hire its first “library assistant.”
On closer inspection, however, the picture is less clear, in part because of the most important appointment Lyndon Johnson made as NYA Director: the chairmanship of the Texas NYA’s nine-member State Advisory Board.
Intent on having the NYA as decentralized as possible within the overall guidelines set up in Washington, its national director, Aubrey Williams, considered the state advisory boards “crucial.” He wanted them to have not pro forma but active involvement in tailoring NYA programs to each state’s different needs. And the chairman Johnson selected was Alvin Wirtz, whose racism was so virulent that he could not restrain himself even at a Georgetown dinner party at which Virginia Durr began advocating giving Negroes the vote. Wirtz responded, “Look, I like mules, but you don’t bring mules into the parlor.”
Having grasped, while he was still a congressional secretary, Wirtz’s carefully concealed but immense behind-the-scenes power in Austin, Johnson had begun cultivating “Senator’s” friendship at that time, with the success documented by Wirtz’s inscription that he loved Lyndon “as if he were in fact my own son.” Now, immediately after his appointment as Texas NYA Director, the cultivation was intensified. With the whole city of Austin to choose from, Johnson rented for the NYA office a suite on the sixth floor of the Littlefield Building, directly below Wirtz’s law office on the seventh floor, and constantly—“daily, several times a day,” Luther E. Jones recalls—ran up the stairs to seek the lobbyist’s advice about NYA matters. And Johnson drew Wirtz closely into the NYA’s work, not only consulting him constantly but even persuading him to accompany him on field inspection trips through the state.
And the picture is also less clear because of appointments Johnson didn’t make.
Shortly after he was appointed to his NYA post, in July, 1935, he was told by NYA administrators in Washington that in a state with as large a Negro population—approximately 855,000—as Texas, there should be at least one Negro member of the State Advisory Board. Johnson did not accept the suggestion. Instead, he created a separate five-member Negro Advisory Committee (which he said would advise him on the best methods of using the money the Texas NYA was allocating to black youth programs). This committee, he was to tell the NYA administrators, was composed of “the outstanding members of the race,” men, he said, “who enjoy the confidence of white people and who are respected by white people for their work and ideas.”
The creation of a separate Negro committee did not satisfy the NYA administrators. In only a few states did the State Advisory Boards play a role as active as Aubrey Williams had envisioned for them. In most states, they had no significant function: they were indeed only advisory. In some states, they met only infrequently—Johnson’s effort to get his board chairman to take a more active role was unusual. But the NYA headquarters staff in Washington considered the presence of a leading Negro citizen on the Advisory Board important, since it made blacks feel they had a role in the program, a voice in setting its policies, instead of merely receiving handouts from it. They pressed Johnson to appoint at least one black to the overall board, and when Johnson continued to decline to do so, the NYA’s National Deputy Administrator, John J. Corson, telephoned him in early August and discussed the matter with him “thoroughly.” On August 20, when Johnson came to Washington for a conference of all forty-eight state directors, Corson raised the matter again, telling him that the NYA administration was in agreement that the appointment should be made. When, on September 17, it still had not been made, Corson wrote Johnson, setting out formally the fact that there was a “large number of Negro youth in Texas” and that “in order that there may be just recognition of this group, we believe it would be advisable to give them the means of expression which the appointment of a Negro leader on the Advisory Committee would permit.”
To this letter, Johnson responded with one of his own—long and eloquent. In five single-spaced and emotional pages, he told Corson that such an appointment would have a “disastrous result” both for what the NYA was trying to accomplish for Negroes and in terms of race relations in Texas. “The racial question during the last one hundred years in Texas…has resolved itself into a definite system of mores and customs which cannot be upset overnight,” he said. “So long as these are observed there is harmony and peace between the races in Texas. But it is extremely difficult to step over lines so long established and to upset customs so deep-rooted, by any act which is so shockingly against precedent as the attempt to mix Negroes and whites on a common board.”
Were he to “place a Negro on this Board,” he said, “I know…and everyone acquainted with the situation in Texas knows, that… three results would be inevitable”: every one of the board’s present nine members “would resign immediately”; he himself would have to resign as state director because “my judgement would thereafter always be at a discount in Texas, and I would be convicted of making a blunder without parallel in administrative circles in the state. I might even go so far as to say that I would, in all probability, be ‘run out of Texas.’” The third “inevitable” result of the appointment, he said, would be “to cost us the cooperation of Negro leaders in Texas.” “To one unacquainted with conditions in Texas, this may seem paradoxical,” Johnson wrote, “but I sincerely believe that an investigation will reveal that Negro leaders would have no confidence in any of their number who permitted his name to be proposed as a member of the Board, because of the friction they know would certainly ensue.” The “turmoil” and “publicity” that “would inevitably follow” such an appointment “would react to the detriment of the Negroes and all their projects…. Both the whites and the Negroes would be thrust farther apart than ever by such a move.” He himself had already launched programs to help Negro youths, he said, and “I feel confident that in these ways the NYA of Texas will be able to do vastly more to benefit Negro youths than by setting them on the firing line of public opinion in Texas, to be shot at by the whites and dodged by the Negroes.”
Johnson’s response, on its face no more than a concerned statement of the results that could well be expected from placing a Negro on a predominantly white board in a southern state, was evidently convincing. Corson, forwarding it to NYA Director Aubrey Williams on September 22, attached a memo saying “Under the circumstances, I have advised him that we will not press the matter at this time.” Corson was shortly to leave the NYA, and the matter was not raised again. No Negro was ever appointed to the Texas NYA Advisory Board. In retrospect, however, the letter becomes somewhat less convincing—because of something that has gone unmentioned in any Johnson biography: at the very time he wrote the letter saying that an attempt to appoint a Negro to his state’s Advisory Board would “inevitably” result in the calamitous consequences he enumerated, seven of the ten other southern states had already appointed Negroes to their advisory boards—with no such consequences. The other three states would all follow suit—also with no consequences. Even Alabama and Mississippi had Negroes on their NYA Advisory Boards, as did Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. In not one of those ten states did the appointment cause the rest of the board—or the state director—to resign. In not one was the director run out of the state. In none of these states did the appointment result in the loss of cooperation of Negro leaders; in none of them did the appointment cause “turmoil.” Eloquent though Johnson’s reply was, the results which he said were “inevitable” hardly seem to have been inevitable at all.
IT WAS NOT JUST to his Advisory Board that the Texas NYA Director declined to appoint an African-American. The appointment of African-Americans to high-level administrative and supervisory positions in the state NYA’s was important to the Negro Affairs Director, Mrs. Bethune, who was to explain to the state directors that “It does not matter how equipped your white supervision might be, or your white leadership, it is impossible for you to enter as sympathetically and understandingly into the program of the Negro, as the Negro can do.” In February, 1936, seven months after Johnson had been appointed Texas director, a report issued by the NYA’s Washington headquarters stated that “In those states where the Negro population is large, a Negro staff member has been appointed to the state staff”—a salaried administrator, generally called “Assistant to the State Director,” who worked directly under the director at state headquarters and oversaw all Negro programs. Those states included ten of the eleven southern states—even Mississippi and Alabama. They did not include Texas. Johnson did not appoint a Negro administrator, instead using the five members of his Negro Advisory Committee as liaison with black organizations.
All five already had full-time jobs—two, Joseph J. Rhoads of Bishop College, and Mary Branch of Tillotson College in Austin, were presidents of black colleges and highly respected educators in Texas’ black community; two were principals of black high schools, and the fifth was a home demonstration agent—and their work for the NYA was not made easier by the fact that, unlike members of Johnson’s white Advisory Board, they were given little staff assistance. In March, 1936, the NYA’s newly appointed Administrative Assistant in Charge of Negro Activities, Juanita J. Saddler, took an inspection trip of Texas. She found that the members of the Negro Advisory Committee were personally very fond of Johnson, but upon her return to Washington, she reported that the committee “feels…that they have been asked to assume heavy responsibilities…responsibilities that for the white group are carried by employed persons.” She felt particularly the lack of a salaried black administrator, and wrote Johnson:
I was very much impressed with the splendid cooperation you were receiving from the Negro Advisory Committee. I feel however, as I said when I was there, that they are being asked to assume major responsibilities for the NYA program which, in view of the heavy pressures of duties involved in their own jobs, must put them under an extra burden. Whereas they are doing a very splendid job, an employed person carrying full responsibility for the program for this group would assure greater development of the work.
NYA Regional Director Garth Akridge renewed the request for a salaried Negro administrator without results, and on August 3, 1936, after receiving a report on the situation in Texas, Akridge’s supervisor, Richard Brown, the NYA’s Assistant Director, put the request in writing, telling Johnson, “We feel very much the importance of having a well trained Negro Assistant to the State Director to look particularly into the program of the Negro youths of your state. In the fourteen states where these appointments have been made, the work among the Negroes has been most productive and satisfactory.” Johnson’s response was to ask for a face-to-face meeting on the subject, and, as the most detailed study of the Texas NYA puts it: “What was said at that meeting is unknown, but Johnson did not appoint a black assistant.” He never appointed a high-level black assistant. No black administrator would be hired by the Texas NYA until Johnson had left the agency. “Apparently Johnson was not willing to take the politically damaging step of integrating his [headquarters] staff with one black member,” this study says.
Johnson’s reluctance to hire blacks may have extended further down the Texas NYA’s organization chart than the “Assistant to the State Director.” The racial background of the Texas NYA’s more than two hundred administrators and supervisors is not given in the organization’s records, and the author has found it impossible to determine—sixty years after the fact—how many were African-American, but contemporary statements hint that that reluctance may have included almost every one, if not every one, of the top administrative and supervisory jobs at his disposal. Enthusiastic though they were about the Freshman College Centers Johnson had created, at least two members of the Negro Advisory Board, Rhoads and Branch, were disturbed by the fact that although the students at the centers were overwhelmingly black, the two top supervisors of the College Centers program were white. Johnson established a Junior Employment Center in Fort Worth, at which hundreds of black youths would be interviewed by “counselors.” When Ms. Saddler arrived at the Employment Center, she appears to have found that every counselor was white. In her report, she was to say that while the Negro Advisory Committee was planning a vocational guidance program, “it will not substitute for an efficient counselor attached to the employment office…. I hope that in time it will be possible to place a Negro counselor there.” Upon her return from Texas, Saddler wrote Johnson that during her tour
I was asked on several occasions why there were so few supervisory positions available for Negroes. It was pointed out to me that even though the greater number of College Centers were for the colored group, the supervisors were white….
Being a hopeful person, not always with justification, however, I look forward to the time when Negro Counselors can be assigned to interview Negro youth in connection with the new Junior Employment Service that has been established in Fort Worth. The fact that the Government is aiding and supporting various projects in the State, seems to me to allow leeway for liberal and tolerant groups and individuals in the community to try to make the social patterns more just and equitable for all the people in the community.
THE PICTURE of a crusading young Lyndon Johnson battling to get blacks more than their fair share of NYA assistance grows even more blurred when one looks—not through the prism of the great accomplishments of his presidency—at the share of NYA assistance that blacks actually received in Texas during Johnson’s nineteen-month tenure as the agency’s Director there. Examining the extent to which the moneys allocated to the Texas NYA went to blacks—looking not at rhetoric but at the actual figures—raises, in fact, not only the question of whether, during Johnson’s tenure, blacks received, as he claimed, more than their fair share of such assistance but also the question of whether they received even their fair share.
The NYA, as the inspiration of Eleanor Roosevelt, was committed to a just and equitable distribution of its funds. Mrs. Roosevelt was insistent that it give a fair share to black youths. In the early days of the NYA, Director Aubrey Williams sought to ensure this by establishing a policy that state directors include blacks in NYA programs in percentages proportionate to the state’s total population, but it was soon felt that since the program was intended to assist not all blacks but black youths, a fairer criterion would be to include them in percentages comparable to their percentage in a state’s youth population; a 1936 bulletin from NYA headquarters declared that “Certainly the proportion of Negro youth aided should never fall below the percentage of the youth population.” In Texas, Negroes comprised 27.8 percent of the youth population and 14.7 percent of the total population. In November, 1936, the sixteenth month of Johnson’s tenure, the NYA’s Division of Negro Affairs issued a report on “school aid”—the assistance given to students in high school and college—which was the NYA’s major program. The report stated that “While in most states, Negroes have shared at least to the extent of their proportion of the total population, there are a number of notable exceptions.” Six such exceptions were listed: Arkansas, Delaware, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee—and Texas. And of those six states, the differential between a fair share for Negroes and the share they had actually been given was largest in Texas, where, the report stated, “Negroes comprise 14.7% of the total and 27.8% of the youth population, but receive only 9.8% of the school aid.” By the criterion established by the NYA then, in the agency’s major program Texas was the worst state in the country. (The report also stated that “Although accurate figures are not available, even larger discrepancies exist in the proportions of the amount of money actually expended.”)
As for the Texas NYA’s other programs—assistance to youths working on non-campus projects—determining the proportion of such assistance that went to black youths has proven difficult because racial breakdowns cannot be found in the National Archives or at the Lyndon Johnson Library, possibly because they have been lost, possibly because Johnson did not submit such breakdowns, despite repeated NYA directives to all state directors to do so each month. In January, 1936, after Johnson had been in office for seven months, National Assistant Director Brown wrote him: “In going over the report of the activities of the Texas Youth Administration, we observe that you failed to report on the plans which are in progress regarding Negro activities. I shall appreciate a statement regarding this phase of the program in Texas, inasmuch as this is a real problem in your state” (italics added). From the scattered and incomplete figures that can be found for some months, it appears that the proportion of non-school aid that went to blacks was somewhat higher than campus aid, but never high enough to raise the Texas NYA’s overall aid to blacks up even to the 14.7 figure, much less the 27.8. During the nineteen months that Lyndon Johnson was Director of the Texas NYA, the proportion of its funds that went to black youths may never—not even once—have reached even the lower of the two figures below which “the proportion of Negro youth aid should never fall.”* Lyndon Johnson may indeed, as he later claimed, have been quietly transferring funds from white schools to black schools and from white public works projects to black public works projects. But if he was doing so, he was nonetheless only shifting the funds out of allocations (allocations he himself had made) that were so inequitable—so far from the NYA purpose and guidelines as defined by its director—as to make the final allocations not fair, not nearly fair, but only somewhat less unfair.
THERE WAS IN TEXAS another racial minority almost as numerous as African-Americans and also desperately in need of the aid the NYA could offer.
Mexican-Americans did not have a separate division at NYA headquarters in Washington or a strong voice such as Mrs. Bethune’s to prod state administrators toward equal treatment, and for approximately seven hundred thousand Mexican-American citizens in Texas there was not only no seat on the Texas NYA’s Advisory Board, but no separate Advisory Committee, either. At other levels, however, their treatment within Lyndon Johnson’s organization was comparable to that afforded Negroes. There was no high-level staff member at NYA headquarters in Austin to oversee Mexican-American programs and represent their interests within the agency. There was not a single individual with a Spanish surname on a list of the top thirty-seven Texas NYA staff. As for on-site supervisors for individual projects, even projects on which every one of the youths employed was Mexican-American, the skin color of those supervisors is a reminder of Johnson’s feeling expressed three decades later on tape that “I don’t think Mexicans do much work unless there’s a white man with them.” Separate statistics on Mexican-Americans were not kept within the NYA because the agency was determinedly classifying them as “white”; President Roosevelt had ordered all federal agencies to change their designation after Congressman Maury Maverick of San Antonio told him that the “colored” classification they had previously been given was reducing the participation of this loyally Democratic group in the southern states’ white primaries. But if there were any Mexican-American supervisors, their number was very small—deliberately so. A Texas NYA directive looked for Spanish-speaking Anglo supervisors who “know how to handle men, with particular reference to Mexican boys, ages 18–25.” In her book LBJ & Mexican Americans: The Paradox of Power, the most thoroughly documented analysis of the subject, Julie Leininger Pycior concludes that Mexican-American youths were “categorized officially as white but [were] treated as racially inferior” by the Texas NYA. Although they comprised almost 12 percent of the state’s population, “they had no voice in administering the Texas NYA.”
Determining whether Mexican-Americans received an equitable share of the Texas NYA’s funds is impossible because of the failure to keep separate statistics of Mexican-heritage recruits. But Lyndon Johnson, using the NYA to set up what would be a statewide political organization—his statewide political organization—didn’t want to antagonize local officials, so in Texas, in contrast to the practice in many other states, the NYA did not itself select those high school students who would receive its grants but allowed local school officials to do so. “It was up to the [school] superintendent to determine who needed it most,” a Texas staffer was to say. And, as Dr. Pycior writes, “Thus the same people who enforced the segregation selected the trainees.” Although no precise figures are available, Dr. Pycior says, “most of the Mexican-heritage trainees in the NYA worked as common laborers” on projects like the roadside parks that required only unskilled labor. “A few learned skilled jobs…. A small number received college aid….” At the Residential Training Centers, she says, Mexican-American women were hired “in numbers far below their actual unemployment rate.” (“These residential facilities barred black women,” she adds.)
As Texas Director of the National Youth Administration, then, Lyndon Johnson set up a statewide organization in a state more than a quarter of whose population—more than a million and a half people—had skins that were not white. But no member of the organization’s Advisory Board, and, so far as can be determined, no member of its headquarters staff, had a skin that was not white. As for the deputy directors and other administrators out in the field across the huge state, “Johnson did not hire Mexican or African-American staff members,” Dr. Pycior writes. If there were any blacks or Mexican-Americans among them, their number was certainly small. And that fact calls to mind the paternalistic condescension of Johnson’s remarks about black Americans and Mexican-Americans in his diary and on the photographer’s tape, for regardless of the amount of money he was allocating to young people of these races, very few members of those races were allowed to decide how the money was spent or to supervise its expenditure.
Lyndon Johnson certainly wanted to help black and Mexican-American youths in Texas—wanted very much to help them. His spontaneous outburst of anger at the San Antonio businessman—“I saw a couple of your kids hustling, all right”—and the fact that he threw himself into the creation of public works projects that would employ black youths as eagerly as he did into the creation of “white” projects, and that he showed as much energy and ingenuity in helping black colleges and black high school students as white, demonstrates that his heart was in helping them. But again, it had not been the heart that ruled but the head. The compassion, though genuine, had taken a back seat to calculation; the Texas journalist Ronnie Dugger, who covered Johnson for many years, was to write, in an incisive phrase, of his “real, though expendable, compassion.” In Johnson’s unending, silent calculations about the best way to further his career, it was the Alvin Wirtzes and the Herman Browns who were the key figures, not some powerless black leaders, and in his direction of the NYA program, it was not the philosophy that perhaps had captured his emotions which he followed, but the diametrically opposed philosophy of the Wirtzes and Browns. And, of course, the correctness of his course—if ambition was the guiding star—was proven when, on February 23, 1937, the congressman from the Tenth District suddenly died. Lyndon Johnson was in Houston, touring NYA projects there, when he saw a newspaper headline announcing the death. He was far from a logical candidate in a district containing many experienced, well-known politicians. Not only was his age a drawback but so was the fact that many of the district’s political leaders—and most of its voters—had never even heard of him; on the day Johnson saw the headline, the Austin American-Statesman ran a list of possible candidates, a list that included not only the favorites but long shots as well, and Lyndon Johnson was not even mentioned. Speeding back to Austin, however, Johnson pulled up in front of the Littlefield Building and went not to the sixth floor but to the seventh, and asked Wirtz to give him the support he needed to enter the race. And Wirtz agreed on the spot.
• • •
THIS PATTERN WAS REPEATED after Lyndon Johnson had become a congressman—in the single instance during his early congressional career in which his work as congressman became significantly involved with constituents whose skins were brown or black. Again there was a spontaneous, emotional, passionate outpouring of indignation and outrage, of sympathy and tenderness, of ingenuity to conceive a solution to the problem, and of energy to drive the solution to reality, and again this was followed, as soon as it became apparent to him that that solution would conflict with his ambitions, by a calculated, pragmatic drawing back that left in place the appearance of the solution but not the reality.
This conflict was precipitated by the passage, in September, 1937, a few months after Lyndon Johnson’s election to Congress, of the Wagner-Steagall Housing Act, which made federal loans available for low-cost slum-clearance projects administered by local agencies.
At the moment that President Roosevelt signed the bill, Johnson was seeking every available source of funds for projects that would help his constituents, and the Housing Act seemed to provide an ideal opportunity. Some fifteen thousand Austin residents—the great majority of them Mexican-heritage or black Americans—were living in slum shanties, most of them without even electricity, running water, or indoor bathrooms. Johnson had, furthermore, won his seat in a special election in which blacks could vote, and he had carried most of the black vote, partly because of cash payments to leaders of the black community, but partly because of an emotional appeal he had made to other leaders of that community who were motivated by less selfish considerations. Meeting with them in the basement of a black Methodist church, with no reporters present—“It might have been dangerous otherwise,” one of the group was to explain—the young candidate had told them, in the recollection of another member of the group, that “I think I can help you,’ that if he got to Congress he could do such things as recognizing the Negroes for their votes, we together could recognize their voting rights…. He was very disposed toward us, and he was asking for our help.” He had made his appeal so persuasively that, a third member was to say, “I’ll never forget that meeting.” The new Housing Act seemed to provide an ideal means of providing the help Johnson had promised.
At first, Johnson was fervently caught up in the idea of providing that help. Walking around the Austin slums when he returned to the city from Washington over Congress’s Christmas recess in December, 1937, he was as filled with indignation and outrage and a desire to do something as he had been in Cotulla, and he told Austin Mayor Tom Miller, “Now look, I want us to be the first in the United States if you’re willing to do this, and you’ve got to be willing to stand up for the Negroes and the Mexicans.” When Miller agreed, Johnson gave a radio speech. Its title was “The Tarnish on the Violet Crown” (the short-story writer O. Henry had dubbed Austin “The City of the Violet Crown” because of the purplish haze which hung over the hills outside the city at dusk). And the title was no more vivid than his description, filled with heartfelt understanding, of the horror of what he had seen on a second walking tour, which he had taken on Christmas Day:
Within five blocks, a hundred families, an old man with TB, dying, a child of eleven, all of them Mexicans…. I found one family that almost might be called typical living within one dreary room, where no single window let in the sun. Here they slept, here they cooked and ate, they washed themselves in a leaky tin tub after hauling the water two hundred yards. Here they raised their children, ill-nourished and sordid. And on this Christmas morning, there was no Santa Claus for the ten children, all under sixteen, that scrambled around the feet of a wretched mother bent over her wash-tub, while in the same room her husband, the father of her brood, lay dangerously ill with an infectious disease.
He poured himself into the project with all his energy; when the new United States Housing Authority announced its first three grants in January, 1938, they were to two large cities, New York and New Orleans, and one much smaller one, Austin, Texas—“because,” Leon Keyserling, the Authority’s deputy administrator, was to explain, “there was this first-term congressman who was so on his toes and so active and so overwhelming that he was up and down our corridors all the time.”
When it came to spending the grant, however, passion ran into pragmatism—and passion lost without much of a fight. Far from being short of allies, the new congressman had solidly behind him on this issue not only the city’s mayor but its only large newspaper, Charles Marsh’s Austin American-Statesman, which ran story after story about families living in tents or in shacks made of tin cans. He even had surprisingly strong support from the community as a whole, for Austin was a very liberal city for Texas; at a public hearing before the City Council in January, 1938, every one of the 340 residents present voted to support the proposal. But it was not their views that were decisive. There was strong opposition from conservative realtors and businessmen, including Herman Brown, whose antipathy to “gimmes”—to “niggers” and “Meskins”—was intensified in this instance because he viewed federally subsidized low-cost housing as competition with private real estate enterprise (including profitable slum buildings, of which he owned more than a few in Austin). And on the other side also was Brown’s lawyer, Alvin Wirtz. Lyndon had already convinced Wirtz and the Browns that, as George Brown puts it, “Lyndon was more conservative, more practical, than people understand. You get right down to the nut-cutting, he was practical. He was for the niggers, he was for the little boys, but by God … he was as practical as anyone,” and he didn’t want that impression weakened. Johnson named the top officers of the newly created Austin Housing Authority, which would administer the grant. As chairman he named E. H. Perry, but Perry, an elderly, mild-mannered, retired cotton broker was only a figurehead; the Authority would really be run by its vice chairman. To that post Johnson named Alvin Wirtz.
In the event, therefore, the Austin low-income housing program was not quite what Negroes and Mexican-Americans—or Austin’s liberals—had hoped for. It was not only that the new housing units were segregated by race, although they were—strictly segregated; there were three separate garden-apartment developments, one for Mexicans, one for blacks, and one for whites. Some of Johnson’s critics in Austin would later call the project “Housing for the Poor, by Race,” but, given the fact that Austin was in some respects a southern city, this criticism was unfair. There was, however, another aspect of this low-income housing that was quite striking, given Johnson’s desire to help African-Americans and Mexican-Americans—particularly, in regard to housing, Mexican-Americans, since his Cotulla experience had made him so sensitive to their plight. The federal Housing Authority generally adhered to a directive handed down by Interior Secretary Harold Ickes that its housing projects reflect “the racial composition of the neighborhood where they were located.” Although the overwhelming majority—90 percent by some estimates—of the inhabitants of Austin’s slums were blacks or Mexican-Americans, almost as much of this new housing was built for whites as for blacks and Mexican-Americans combined. In his speeches and talks with Austin leaders, Johnson had emphasized housing for the Mexicans and Negroes, the people he wanted to help. When the new apartments were built, there were 40 apartments for Mexicans, 130 apartments for Negroes, and 162 units for whites. As for other low-income public housing that would be built in Austin during Johnson’s ten remaining years as the city’s congressman—there wasn’t any. Austin’s slums grew steadily larger, but not a single new unit of low-income housing was built there.*
THE PATTERN WAS REPEATED in Lyndon Johnson’s votes in the House of Representatives. Near the end of his eleven years in the House, he assured a constituent that he had “voted against all anti-poll tax, anti-lynching, and all FEPC legislation since I came to Congress.” He was not overstating the case. He routinely lined up on the southern side in votes on civil rights measures, excusing himself to liberal constituents by saying he was not “against” blacks but rather “for” states rights: he had a 100 percent record against not only legislation aimed at ending the poll tax and segregation in the armed services but even against legislation aimed at ending lynching. The votes he thus cast had little significance—none of the legislation would have passed had he voted the other way—and neither did the few speeches he made in the House, violent as was their language. In 1947, he denounced President Truman’s “Fair Deal” program as “a farce and a sham,” saying that it was “the province of the state to run its own elections,” and that “I am opposed to the anti-lynching bill because the federal government has no more business enacting a law against one form of murder than another.” What might have mattered more was not such public manifestations as votes and speeches but behind-the-scenes efforts in the House cloakroom or in the aisle at the rear of the Chamber, where members quietly buttonhole colleagues to argue for or against legislation, but the pattern held here, too. It was about civil rights measures as well as other liberal legislation that Johnson’s liberal colleagues say he wouldn’t take stands, that, as Edouard V. M. Izak of California put it, “He just simply was not interested…. He was very, very silent.”
ALTHOUGH BOTH COKE STEVENSON, Johnson’s major opponent in the 1948 race for the Senate, and the third man in the race, George E. B. Peddy, were segregationists and expressed themselves in racist terms, civil rights was not an issue in that campaign. Johnson ensured that it wouldn’t be an issue with a statement about President Truman’s civil rights program that he made in his opening rally on May 22, 1948, in Wooldridge Park in Austin. Repeating his attack on the program as “a farce and a sham,” he added that it was “an effort to set up a police state in the guise of liberty. I am opposed to that program. I have voted AGAINST the so-called poll tax repeal bill; the poll tax should be repealed by those states which enacted them. I have voted AGAINST the so-called anti-lynching bill; the state can, and DOES, enforce the law against murder. I have voted AGAINST the FEPC; if a man can tell you whom you hire, he can tell you whom you can’t hire.”
During the 1948 campaign, Johnson occasionally reiterated this unambiguous opposition to the main tenets of the civil rights movement of the 1940s, but civil rights never became an issue. A survey of 147 Texas newspapers showed that civil rights “was hardly mentioned during the 1948 campaign.”
Johnson received heavy majorities in African-American areas in Texas cities, in part because Washington figures like Mary McLeod Bethune and Robert Weaver sent word to African-Americans in Texas that Johnson was “really something,” in part because African-American college and school officials who had met him during his NYA tenure felt he “really cared about people,” in part because in meetings in small groups or one-on-one with black leaders of these areas, he convinced them that despite his public statements he was really on their side—but perhaps mostly because these leaders felt that, no matter what his true opinions, he was preferable to his two opponents. “For U.S. Senator, we have chosen Lyndon B. Johnson,” the Houston Informer declared. “Though he is no angel, he is about as good as we have seen in the race.” As one study put it, “Johnson was the best Texas minorities could get in 1948.” Ed Clark was to say, “They had no choice. Where else were they going to go?”
AFTER HE BECAME PRESIDENT, Johnson wanted his image to be that of a man who had “never had any bigotry,” who had been a longtime supporter of civil rights. The memory of the Wooldridge Park speech would blur that image, so he did his best to make sure it wouldn’t be remembered. Stapled to the text of the speech in the White House files was the following admonition:
“DO NOT RELEASE THIS SPEECH—NOT EVEN TO STAFF, WITHOUT EXPRESS PERMISSION OF BILL MOYERS. As background, both Walter Jenkins and George Reedy have instructed this is not EVER TO BE RELEASED.”
*For an account of Johnson’s work with the NYA that does not touch on its racial aspects, see Chapter 19 of The Path to Power.
*It should perhaps also be noted that those figures that were submitted by Johnson aroused skepticism at the time: in January, 1937, for example, a memorandum from the NYA’s Area Statistical Office in Washington noted a “considerable difference” between the number reported by Johnson for “youth employed on projects” and the number recorded by the statistical office. For example, the memorandum states that for July, 1936, Johnson reported 10,673 youths employed and the Statistical Office found only 7,050 employed.
*The only public housing of any type built in Austin during these years was 1,641 units, not of low-income housing but of veterans’ housing, created in 1946 and 1947 for returning World War II veterans and their families. These units were primarily barracks moved to Austin from deactivated Army camps and used to house veterans attending the all-white University of Texas. Twenty units—not barracks but trailers—were provided for a black college in Austin: Sam Houston College.