How race wrecked liberalism.

Author:Nuechterlein, James
Position::Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Laws that Changed America - Book Review


By Nick Kotz Houghton Mifflin 522 pp. $26.

The story of race in modern American history is a melancholy one. There was a brief, intense moment of hope in the early 1960s--a moment which produced the landmark civil-rights bills of 1964 and 1965--that the nation might somehow transcend its terrible racial past and enter on a new era of justice and comity. But the moment quickly burnt itself out in a series of renewed antagonisms and mutual incomprehensions between blacks and whites that seem today, if not nearly as incendiary as at their worst, still not likely of resolution. Liberals insist that not enough was done to seize the moment, conservatives suspect that much that went wrong had to do with erroneous diagnoses and exaggerated expectations, and hardly anyone has plausible suggestions for what we might do now to set things right.

Nick Kotz's Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Laws that Changed America reflects, in the end, the same mood of sorrowful regret that marks most accounts of the period. Americans are accustomed to think of their nation's history as a success story, but the tale of the civil-rights movement--despite, as Kotz correctly reminds us, all that its supporters accomplished--cannot persuasively be told that way.

Kotz's tale is not just a sad one; it is also one that has been told many times before. Indeed, no episode in recent American history has been more thoroughly studied than the civil-fights movement of the 1960s. Memoirs, biographies, and monographs have created a profuse and detailed literature that makes it difficult for new books to avoid redundancy. Kotz does not entirely solve the problem--much of his narrative will be familiar to informed readers--but, for the most part, he handles it admirably. He displays a clear command of secondary sources and uses a variety of primary accounts (especially his own extensive personal interviews and President Johnson's voluminous telephone tapes) to provide immediacy and authenticity to his telling of an oft-told tale.

Most of all, he offers readers a fresh and instructive angle of vision. Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon Johnson were the two central figures of the civil-rights struggle in the 1960s. But while they on occasion worked effectively together, theirs was always a tangled, mutually suspicious alliance--and one that finally fell hopelessly apart. That did not cause the collapse of the civil-fights movement, but it effectively symbolized it. Kotz's account leaves the reader with the sense that the disintegration of Johnson and King's alliance was at once unfortunate and unavoidable. So also, perhaps, with the disintegration of the civil-rights coalition.

But there is still more to learn here--more than Kotz intends, and more, almost certainly, than he would agree with. It is commonly (if often only tacitly) conceded that liberalism went wrong in the 1960s, as measured by the fact that liberals, who once gloried in the label, have been reluctant to speak its name ever since. There are a number of reasons for modern liberalism's decline, but major among them was loss of confidence in the assumption that had powered it from its origins in Populism through the New Deal and beyond: faith in the power of the federal government to solve the problems of American society.

After the perceived failure of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society--an extraordinarily ambitious program of reform that was at least as confident in the affirmative power of government as was the New Deal--that faith has never fully been restored. And the failure of civil-rights legislation to deliver on its promise of solving the problem of racial conflict in America lies very near the heart of the Great Society's undoing.

In historiographical terms, Judgment Days can be categorized as moderately revisionist. The treatment of King is more conventional than Kotz allows (he unconvincingly claims that previous authors have not adequately recognized King's political skills, moderating influence within the civil-fights movement, and developing radicalism). But the book does give a more generous view of Johnson than is customary.

Conservatives disdain Johnson because of the extravagances of the Great Society, while liberals hold him in contempt because his policy in Vietnam reduced America to moral ruin and brought discredit on liberalism. Kotz agrees that Johnson was terribly wrong on Vietnam, but he suggests that liberals, in their preoccupation with the presumed follies of the war, have failed to do justice to Johnson's domestic accomplishments, especially with regard to civil rights. He did not simply, as is often suggested, ride the national emotion over John Kennedy's assassination to easy victories on a reform agenda. He won them, Kotz reminds us, through the immense legislative skills he had demonstrated and perfected in his career as majority leader of the Senate. He had, to be sure, a promising opportunity, but he made the very most of it, as Kotz's skillful narrative demonstrates. He was perhaps as brilliant a leader of Congress as any president in our history.

More than that, he accomplished his victories in civil rights knowing full well that he was risking grave political damage to himself and his party. In the common telling of the story, the civil-rights bills of 1964 and 1965--the first ending segregation in public accommodations, the second guaranteeing voting rights for blacks--cost Johnson and the Democrats their control of the South and quite likely, over the long run, their national majority as well. That part of the story is more complicated than is normally supposed, but the conventional wisdom cannot simply be dismissed.

So we have, in Kotz's telling, not just one hero of the civil-rights enterprise but two. Martin Luther King of course was the great prophet of racial liberation, but Lyndon Johnson was his essential political partner. As if to provide dramatic balance, Kotz introduces a villain, as well: J. Edgar Hoover. That's obvious enough at one level. As head of the FBI, Hoover set out with near-obsessive intensity to destroy King as a civil-rights leader. He fed Johnson--as he had John and Robert Kennedy before him--an endless stream of memos detailing King's marital infidelities and Communist connections. (Kotz raises questions--largely unpersuasive in my view--about the accuracy of the Communism charge, especially concerning the role of Stanley Levison, one of King's most influential advisors. Nonetheless, he is correct to note there is no evidence that Communist thought played any significant role in the shaping of the mainstream civil-rights movement.)

Hoover also circulated his information--gathered through various secret surveillance devices--to other political figures and the media as well, hoping the publicity would ruin King's reputation. (It is encouraging that so few politicians or members of the press publicized the material.) The FBI even went so far as to send King a composite tape of his sexual activities accompanied by an anonymous letter suggesting that the only alternative for him to public disgrace was suicide. Such episodes in sexual blackmail were apparently not restricted to King. Kotz notes the remarkable irony that the FBI used similar tactics against the Ku Klux Klan. "In terms of violating civil liberties," he concludes, "the FBI's war against the Klan was just as...

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