Does LBJ get too much credit for the Civil Rights bill?

President Lyndon Johnson
Arnold Newman, White House Press OfficePresident Lyndon Johnson

This year is the 50th anniversary of the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. In the most recent installment of his exhaustive multi-volume biography of LBJ, Robert Caro portrays LBJ’s role in the passage as a central event in the larger narrative of man who was ruthless and relentless in acquiring power, but who used the ultimate power to do great things.

Now comes Clay Risen, an editor at the New York Times and author of a forthcoming book on the Civil Rights Act, to challenge Caro’s account and argue that LBJ is far from the central hero in the story of the bill’s passage.

Risen’s argument is summarized in a piece just out from The New Republic.

Caro, Risen asserts,

largely parrots Johnson’s own account of the period: “It was a struggle,” [Caro] writes, “whose strategy and day-by-day tactics were laid out and directed by him.” And the play All the Way, which opened last fall with “Breaking Bad’s” Bryan Cranston in the role of Johnson, likewise portrays the president as the omniscient political manipulator.

But this is mostly myth. Johnson had many legislative achievements during his pres­idency, but on the Civil Rights Act, he was largely ignored by his Senate allies and rebuffed by the recipients of his bear-hugging affection. The real work was performed by a long list of senators and representatives, their staffers, and a dream team of Department of Justice men who included Robert Kennedy, Nicholas Katzenbach, and Burke Marshall — not to mention civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., who built immense moral momentum behind the bill.

Risen, by the way, gives significant credit to Hubert Humphrey, who was still in the Senate but later in 1964 would be chosen by LBJ as his running-mate. Risen takes on specific pieces of the evidence on which Caro had relied in emphasizing LBJ’s role.

We have a tendency, Risen argues, to assign landmark legislation mostly to the credit of the president who signs it.:

We recall that it was Abraham Lincoln who freed the slaves, even though dozens of congressmen wrote and supported the laws that pushed him to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. The Affordable Care Act is labeled “Obamacare” by its detractors and supporters, even though Obama consciously let Congress take the lead on crafting the bill.

Risen doesn’t argue that LBJ played no role in pushing through the 1964 law. Just that it’s often overstated, and specifically by Caro.

This year we will hear a lot about the Civil Rights Act as one of Johnson’s signature accomplishments. If we leave it at that, we will miss much of what the bill’s story has to tell us — about how to achieve bipartisan cooperation, about the role of social activism in policy-making, and about the limits of the executive branch when it comes to crafting landmark legislation.

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Comments (28)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 02/10/2014 - 01:02 pm.

    Three legged stool….Only

    Three legged stool….

    Only one of the legs’ strength is determined by one, and only one, person.

    But for all the current talk of executive “lawlessness”, nothing happens without the other 2 assistance and acquiescence.

    Of course it was a group effort.

    • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 02/10/2014 - 03:58 pm.


      Hey, quick question, if Romney had won, would it have been lawful for him to unilaterally delay the entirety of Obamacare until 2020 or so? Why or why not?

      • Submitted by Pat Berg on 02/10/2014 - 10:40 pm.

        Hijack attempt

        What does a theoretical question about Romney and the ACA have to do with an article about LBJ and the Civil Rights Act?

        Please don’t try to hijack the thread.

        • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 02/11/2014 - 07:43 am.

          Natural Progression

          I thought that my question sprung fairly naturally from the previous comment. I wasn’t trying to hijack anything. I can see why this is an uncomfortable question to answer though…

          • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 02/11/2014 - 03:33 pm.

            First of all

            one would have to read the actual legislation to see whether Congress specified when all or parts of the ACA took effect. We know that it did not all take effect immediately.
            If Congress said that the Act must take effect over X number of years, then it is within the province of the Chief Executive to decide when to implement different parts of the Act.
            It is not within his/her province to decide NOT to implement the act; the implementation has been required by an act of Congress.

            • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 02/11/2014 - 04:22 pm.

              Implementation Dates

              The date for the employee mandate was Dec 31, 2013. Obama’s executive orders are in conflict with that already. Don’t take my word on it, here is an actual legal scholar:

              My question still stands.

              • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 02/11/2014 - 05:34 pm.

                This is one lawyer’s opinion

                on a blog site (and read some of the Comments on that site to this opinion).
                According to that site, the law “provides that the employer mandate provisions “shall apply” after December 31, 2013”.
                The word “after” means “not before”. It does NOT mean “on that date”, so this opinion appears shaky on grammatical, if not legal grounds.
                I wouldn’t wait for a serious court challenge.

                • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 02/12/2014 - 08:17 am.

                  One Lawyer’s Opinion

                  Paul, I don’t know your biography. Maybe you’ve spent time teaching law and constitutional issues and therefore feel free to simply dismiss someone else who has done the same. If not, then I don’t think ‘one lawyer’s opinion’ really cuts it as a response. And set aside any appeal to authority, the points that makes seem like sense to me. The dates of implementation aren’t part of some flexible area where the executive can change things on a whim.
                  And I wonder if you’re serious about the grammatical defense. If we go with ‘after’ meaning any later date, then a future Republican could delay the mandates indefinitely. Same with any other similarly worded portion. And any other law with that wording that they don’t like. Does anyone know offhand how tax law is worded? Could it be unrolled through this same grammatical loophole?
                  Dems should be thinking very hard about the consequences of shrugging off executive expansion. The Presidency will change parties again and they’re removing much of their standing to oppose.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 02/10/2014 - 01:54 pm.

    It will be interesting to see

    how Risen supports his assertions,
    and which individual(s) he thinks had a more important role than LBJ.
    If (as Risen puts it) LBJ’s role was no greater than Lincoln’s, I suspect that LBJ could live with that.
    Sounds like Risen has a broader point about ‘great men’ approaches to history.
    The bottom line question is not precisely how big LBJ’s role was, it’s would it have passed if Kennedy had remained President?

  3. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 02/10/2014 - 02:19 pm.

    Holding Johnson up by his ears this time…ask the Beagle

    …if one of Johnson’s beagles – was it ‘Him’ or ‘Her’ – being held by the ears for the press – and Johnson claimed it didn’t hurt because he adored those dogs?

    …so Johnson was a bully, ambitious and was essentially a politician’s politician ( my Father’s words long ago yet he voted for him although he was an independent Republican I think) and so it goes, politicians work a mad path to power; nature of the beast.

    Like FDR, we accepted a lot of abuse of the office but Franklin achieved what many still rightly or wrongly praise, for pulling the nation out of a Depression.

    We have survived so far although Blacks and Whites are still not equally endowed in this crazy democracy and fools rush in where others dare not go…so noble and heroic deeds are accomplished for questionable reasons at what else is new..someone is always there to absorb the heroics that took many to achieve; others who died , were hung in the process…who accepts the reward is not always a ‘winner’ I suppose.

    The world is a marketplace even when good is accomplished for not always purely the right reasons…

  4. Submitted by Richard Adair on 02/10/2014 - 02:45 pm.

    Read all of the Caro biography

    To understand Caro’s point, one needs to understand experiences in LBJ’s life described in the (fascinating) earlier volumes of this biography, especially why Johnson identified with the underdog, how northern liberals–particularly Humphrey–blocked his path to national office so long as he remained loyal to the southern block of senators led by Richard Russell, and how he needed a “big win” to get out from Kennedy’s shadow.

    To say LBJ was a complex man is an understatement. To say that many factors must align to get real change is trite. Caro’s account is very nuanced and gives a lot of credit to Johnson without oversimplifying his role.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 02/10/2014 - 03:26 pm.

    The irony, of course

    was that Johnson’s opposition to getting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed came from his own party. A large majority of republicans (80%) in both the house and senate had always been onboard. It was democrats like Al Gore senior, Bill Clinton’s mentor William Fulbright, and Klansman Bobby Byrd who stood in Johnson’s way.

    I doubt if most NAACP members even know that.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/10/2014 - 06:47 pm.

      Lott, Thurmond, et al

      Conservatives need to be called out, every time, on this revisionist history of the civil rights movement.

      After the passage civil rights legislation, over the course of a generation most of those white southern Democrats, politicians and voters alike, moved into the GOP column. Witness Sen. Trent Lott’s toast to Sen Strom Thurmond’s failed Presidential aspirations with the racist Dixiecrat party. Lott told us how we’d all be better now if we’d “listen to Thurmond then” (paraphrasing). What Thurmond was spouting was hateful racist drivel.

      To somehow suggest that the modern day GOP is somehow responsible for civil rights era legislation is ridiculous and just plain wrong. Seriously? This is the party of a barrage of voter restriction legislation, much of which disproportionally effects racial minorities.

      NAACP members may well be surprised to find that Republican (moderate) politicians voted for civil rights bills. But I’d wager that’s doubly so for Tea Partiers.

      The modern day GOP can’t even support immigration reform, even though a third grader can see they’re locking them selves out of the White House for another 4 years.

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 02/10/2014 - 09:07 pm.

        Revisionist history?

        Senators Al Gore Sr., William Fulbright, and the Klan’s Exalted Cyclops Bobby Byrd were democrats until the day they died.

        Neither Trent Lott nor Strom Thurmond were neither democrats nor ever members of the Klan.

        • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 02/11/2014 - 07:55 am.


          Unless you are being tricky by using neither twice, you have your facts wrong. Thurmond served in the Senate as a Democrat from 1954 to 1964, when he became a Republican after the Civil Rights Act passed. Lott was a Democrat and worked for a Democratic congressman, before he switched in 1972.

          So yes, Dennis, there were openly racist Democrats in the 1960s. And its not a secret that you have discovered and now shown the world. But again, its important to understand that those Democrats either 1) evolved and gave up their opposition to civil rights, or 2) switched to the Republican party and continued to be racists.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/11/2014 - 09:31 am.


          Strom Thurmond spent much of his political career trying to perpetuate legal segregation. When he ran for President in 1948, he declared that the entire U.S. Army couldn’t force white southerners to “admit the n*** race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.” He was never a Klan member, but he did as much damage as that bunch of rednecks in sheets.

          Trent Lott has longstanding ties to the Council of Conservative Citizens, the successor to the old Citizens’ Councils (the upscale version of the Klan). These ties were not indiscretions of older days, but continued up until he left the Senate.

          Apparently, you don’t believe a person can make a genuine change for the better. Or is it only Democrats who are beyond redemption?

    • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 02/10/2014 - 08:28 pm.

      And afterwards

      Gore and Byrd and other Democrats came around. And the hardcore racists, like Thurmond, switched to the Republican party.

    • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 02/11/2014 - 01:39 pm.


      The real irony here is your own low opinion of the historical awareness of NAACP members… you know, that ‘soft bigotry of low expectations?’

      I think most NAACP members ARE aware of history and it’s lessons, which is why I would surmise they vote for Democrats, by and large.

      As has been pointed out by many here, the overt racists and segregationists within the Democratic Party establishment LEFT the Democratic Party. You can figure out where they all went on your own time.

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 02/11/2014 - 03:29 pm.

        There must be some reason

        why they continue to vote for the party of slavery and are averse to the party that has always and only stood for their right to be free men. Can’t imagine why that would be the case.

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 02/11/2014 - 03:35 pm.

          Maybe the answer

          lies in your imagination, not the facts.

        • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 02/11/2014 - 04:27 pm.

          Perhaps I was wrong

          You CAN’T figure out where they all went on your own time.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/11/2014 - 04:29 pm.

          Why is that the case?

          Gee, Mr. Tester, I don’t have a clue. Maybe it’s because of patronizing attitudes implying that “they” are too stupid or easily led to know what’s in “their” own best interest. After all, didn’t Ron “Liberty” Paul say that “only about five percent percent of blacks have sensible political opinions?” Some might find that a bit insulting. What do you think?

  6. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 02/10/2014 - 04:16 pm.

    As Mr. Adair suggests, read the whole Caro series on LBJ.

    He spent years researching the entire life of LBJ, and his tremendous effort cannot be diminished by the breezy Mr. Risen. Mr. Caro has redefined what great biographical writing is. Mr. Risen could benefit from reading the whole set.

    Mr. Risen is currently in a promotional blitz for his new book. He states on his blog, “My next book, The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act, will appear on April 1. I’m lining up events and publicity and all the usual stuff…”. The article cited by Mr. Black could be viewed as mere promotion.

    Mr. Risen should go back to writing about distilled spirits – see a list of his articles in the Atlantic at

    When it comes to biography and LBJ, I’ll go with the credibility and meticulous research of Mr. Caro, but for clever notions about whiskey, vodka, and beer, Mr. Risen wins the cup, hands down !!

  7. Submitted by Steve Rose on 02/10/2014 - 07:07 pm.

    Really, any notable ones?

    Senator Strom Thurmond (D-SC): “This so-called Civil Rights Proposals, which the President has sent to Capitol Hill for enactment into law, are unconstitutional, unnecessary, unwise and extend beyond the realm of reason. This is the worst civil-rights package ever presented to the Congress and is reminiscent of the Reconstruction proposals and actions of the radical Republican Congress.”

    Another notable Democrat, Al Gore Senior voted against the Act. They staged quite a filibuster.

  8. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 02/10/2014 - 07:40 pm.

    Too much credit?

    I haven’t read the most recent installment of Caro’s multivolume biography of Johnson. So I can’t really speak to whether he gives Johnson too much credit for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Caro’s previous bio of Johnson “Master of the Senate” does give Johnson a lot of credit for passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act which undoubtedly he does deserve. Caro I think amply supports his thesis that Johnson was a political mastermind – I think he even uses the term “genius” if that term can be applicable to an art like politics- based on his knowledge of the arcane rules of the Senate. I

    It would probably be better to credit Johnson with having been an indispensible force to getting any civil rights legislation passed. Johnson was reacting to the forces that were making change necessary.

    I’d like to read too what Caro has to say about Johnson’s failure to support Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Memphis sanitation worker’s strike. Johnson had already announced his decision not to seek re-election when that strike happened. When MLK made the fateful decision to get involved, Johnson kept quiet. I’d like to know what went on there because that strike was an historical turning point on many levels not least of which that King was killed while engaged there.

  9. Submitted by Roy Everson on 02/11/2014 - 02:15 am.

    About those GOP moderates and liberals…

    Kudos to them for doing the right thing in 1964. As for the party itself, the very same year GOP righties nominated one of the most prominent opponents of Civil RIghts legislation, Barry Goldwater, who went on to win a handful of regressive Southern states on that very issue.

  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/13/2014 - 11:04 am.

    Who gave all the credit to LBJ in the first place?

    Seems to me most of the credit goes to the civil rights movement?

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