This week (June 19) in 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which President Lyndon Johnson signed into law two weeks later. This law finally ended the pernicious “separate but equal” doctrine that had been ruled unconstitutional in the famous Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision 10 years earlier, but had been routinely ignored by much of the country, especially the South. Passage of the Civil Rights Act meant blacks were no longer segregated in the use of restaurants, hotels, schools, public transportation, and even public drinking fountains and rest rooms.
It should be noted that President Johnson, a southerner from Texas who, like most southern Democrats, spent much of his congressional career voting against civil rights legislation, was indispensable to passage of this legislation. It was first formulated under his predecessor, John F. Kennedy, who, being a northerner from Massachusetts, was viewed with suspicion by many southern members of Congress, and therefore the legislation stood little chance of passage in a Congress in which most congressional committees dealing with civil rights were chaired by southerners.
But being a southerner, Johnson had a chance, slim as it seemed, to convince his fellow southerners to pass this bill, and having been one of the most powerful Senate majority leaders in congressional history – which made him among the most effective legislators to serve as president – Johnson knew what it took to get bills passed, and on this one he staged a full-court press.
So, what made Johnson go from voting against civil rights legislation to leading the charge for its passage? Several things, but one experience stands out.
While in the Senate Johnson commuted from Washington to his home in Texas by plane, so he had three of his black employees – his housemaid and butler, Helen and Gene Williams, and his cook, Zephyr Wright – drive his extra car from Washington to Texas. On one occasion he asked the butler, Gene Williams, to take the Johnson family dog with them on their journey to Texas, but Williams was hesitant. Surprised, Johnson asked him why and Williams replied by describing their drive to Texas in the so-called “separate but equal” America. Along the drive they get hungry but can’t find places to eat; they get dirty but can’t find places to wash up; they get tired but must drive hours in search of places to sleep.
“You see, what I’m saying is that a colored man’s got enough trouble getting across the South on his own,” Williams told Johnson, “without having a dog along.”
Johnson later confessed, “There was nothing I could say to Gene.”
But, it turned out, there was something he could do for him.
Bruce G. Kauffmann’s email address is email@example.com.