Today marks the 40th anniversary of the death of one of our most underappreciated presidents, Lyndon Baines Johnson. Other than Abraham Lincoln, no president has been a greater champion of racial equality than Johnson.
To understand Johnson, one must understand what created his conscience. As a young principal of a public school in Cotulla, Texas, with students of Mexican descent, Johnson knew the challenge of racial justice. As a New Deal congressman from Texas, Johnson championed Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal but, as his star rose as a U.S. senator, Johnson drifted from his progressive roots.
However, when he became president under tragic circumstances, and particularly with his 1964 election, Johnson became liberated.
Once, when civil rights activist James Farmer asked Johnson how he became such a liberal advocate as president after having such a muddled past, Johnson replied, "I'll answer that by quoting a good friend of yours: 'Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, I'm free at last.' "
As president, Johnson was free to champion a brand of liberalism that built on New Deal economics, and Harry Truman's commendable gestures of racial courage in his Fair Deal, to address racial inequality without apology.
To me, there was no greater moment of presidential courage than on March 15, 1965, when President Johnson addressed Congress and championed the Voting Rights Act and those civil rights activists being beaten, tortured and, quite often, murdered in the South. The emotional slogan of these activists was "We shall overcome."
That evening, Johnson proclaimed that the cause of racial justice "must be our cause, too," because it is not just African-Americans, "but all of us, who must overcome this crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice."
And then Johnson gave the historic authority of the Office of the President to the words chanted by persecuted protesters throughout the South: "And we shall overcome."
Suddenly, those activists who were risking their lives knew they had a friend in this Texan, and those cowards hiding behind hoods, carrying nooses, knew they had a sworn enemy in Lyndon Johnson. While at home watching this speech, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was so moved he cried.
As president, Johnson passed not only the Voting Rights Act but the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1968 Fair Housing Act. These laws revolutionized our nation. Additionally, laws such as Head Start, Job Corps, Medicare, Medicaid and federal aid to education improved the lives of all Americans.
Today, Johnson's domestic policy is attacked by many on the right. While his sometimes naive domestic efforts had failures, who can deny Johnson's successes in assuring dignity for our elderly and disabled or in the moral power of his civil rights laws? Though government should surely affirm the values of the taxpayers who fund it, surely the values that most Americans affirm include compassion and justice. Today, most Americans reject the worst cultural excesses of 1960s' style liberalism, while not rejecting the common sense values of community and compassion.
As president, Johnson managed to do what presidents since Andrew Johnson were unwilling or unable to do in race, while giving a voice to groups such as the poor and disabled who had no political voice. For that, Johnson deserves our appreciation.