Probably like a fair number of other people, I decided to spend part of the weekend prior to MLK Day reading Nick Kotz’s new book, Judgment Days, about the complex relationship between King and Lyndon Johnson, who together helped achieve the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act breakthroughs in the mid-1960s.
I’ve just finished the section on the Civil Rights Act, a tale dominated by Johnson’s familiar legislative genius and King’s agonizing balancing act over how to keep pressure on Congress without creating a national backlash. But what really stands out is the common conviction of MLK and LBJ that the drive for civil rights legislation had to be cast in moral, not legal terms–a conviction that both expressed to John F. Kennedy prior to his first big national civil rights speech.
“I know the risks are great, and we might lose the South [in 1964], but those sorts of states may be lost to us anyway,” [Johnson] told Kennedy aide Theodore Sorensen. “The difference is, if your president just goes down there and enforces court decrees, the South will feel it’s yielded to force. But if he goes down there and looks them in the eye and states the moral issue and the Christian issue, these southerners will at least respect his courage….”
Six days after Johnson had given his counsel to the White House, the president received strikingly similar advice from Martin Luther King. A front-page article in the June 10 New York Times quoted King as saying that the president must begin to address race as a moral issue, in terms “we seldom if ever hear” from the White House. The following evening, with little preparation and against the advice of his staff, the president went before television cameras with a sketchily drafted text and committed himself to the main issues of the civil rights struggle. “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” he declared. “It is as old as Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.”
The importance of using “values language,” you see, did not just arise in 2004.