When We Thought We Had It All (Part I)


Lyndon Johnson meeting with civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and James Farmer, circa 1964 (Photo: Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum)

I have been reading Monte L. Pearson’s recent book, The Roots of Defeat: the Clintons, Obama and the Decline of the Democrats, which I hope to review for these pages. Pearson, as the title suggests, writes about the capture of the Democratic Party by the Third Way Democrats, a process which he sees as beginning with the final breakup of the New Deal Coalition in the mid- 1970s. As I read, I was reminded of an earlier time, a dramatic, four-year period when the Democratic Party went from towering success to near-destruction.

There was a brief moment in the early 1960s when it seemed that the immediate agenda of American social democrats was going to be realized, that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Economic Bill of Rights, proclaimed in 1944 as he tried to shape the post-war society, was going to be written into the law of the land. Today, when Republicans to the right of anything we thought possible rule the Presidency, both houses of the Congress and the Supreme Court, when we often can’t preserve a basic social and economic safety net, the remembrance of those days is bitter-sweet. We thought we had it all. What happened? Where did we go wrong?

They were heady, even revolutionary times. In my memory, I date them as beginning in late August of 1963 at the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, an event organized by the great tactician and social democrat, Bayard Rustin. Of course, the March did not start the civil rights revolution; that had been growing from strength to strength since the mid-1950s. The March was, however, a vast summary on one day of the events that had gone before and a linking of the cries for Black rights and better lives for all. A quarter of a million people gathered in Washington to demand not only equality before the law but also the jobs, wages, housing, etc. that would make legal equality a living reality. The presence of the labor movement was conspicuous, as leaders like Walter Reuther put their political muscle behind the coalition that the March represented. Towering over the March was its leader, A. Philip Randolph, who combined in his dignified person a lifetime of civil rights advocacy, labor leadership and social democratic vision. As we walked in our Sunday best along the sweltering streets to the Lincoln Memorial, we knew that we were making history.

Within three months President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, commencing a violent decade, and our new President was that very complicated man, Lyndon Baines Johnson. We knew a few things about him: that, just out of a Texas teachers college (no Harvard!), he had taught poor Mexican-American children, that he was a dedicated New Deal congressman in the 1930s, that he revered FDR, saying that Roosevelt treated him “like a daddy.” We also knew that his ambition for power had driven him to ally with Texas oil and construction interests and that some Southern senators had seen him as the great hope for a leader who would maintain segregation.

We began to learn about our new President when, in his first State of the union Address, on January 8, 1964, he called for a “War on Poverty.” With poverty in America at 17%, Johnson called for a national effort not only to relieve poverty but to prevent it. In July 1964, with Johnson’s inimitable arm-twisting, Congress passed a civil rights act that outlawed discrimination, prohibited racial segregation in schools, employment and public accommodations and banned unequal application of voter registration requirements. By August of the same year, the Economic Opportunity Act was passed, putting the “War on Poverty” into the statute books. The food stamp program, improving nutrition for the poor, quickly followed. Politically, it was clear that Johnson was breaking with his Southern base and that the long-hoped-for realignment of the party system into liberal and conservative parties was happening.

The seal on the greatest year of reform since the New Deal came with the election in November 1964. As if to guarantee the return to the days of FDR, Johnson selected as his running mate Hubert Humphrey, the leader of the Democratic Party left. In a straight left versus right contest with Barry Goldwater, Johnson crushed the conservative champion, winning the popular vote by 16 million votes. As 1965 began, we knew that we were on the verge of a still greater wave of change, one that would sweep us forward to a real social democracy.

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