Johnson was ruthless leader

Published 12:05 am Wednesday, October 26, 2011

There was never a more ruthless, cutthroat, no-holds-barred man to sit in the Oval Office than Lyndon Johnson. His biographer, Robert Caro, describes Johnson as the quintessential backroom brawler.

Johnson came up in the tough frontier world of rural Texas politics. He carried those Texas spurs to the halls of congress and later to the White House. He was the most effective majority leader that Washington has ever seen because he was the meanest gunslinger on the Hill. He meant to get things accomplished even if it meant using intimidation. He was successful because he was shrewd and feared. He carried this win-at-all-costs attitude with him to the White House.

Therefore, when Johnson made up his mind that he was going to pass civil rights legislation there was little doubt that it would finally become the law of the land. It had been extolled and promised for decades by the Democratic eastern elitists like Franklin Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson and John Kennedy. These well-bred, erudite classic northeastern liberals had talked the talk but it took the rough-hewn, crude Texan Lyndon Johnson to walk the walk.

Most civil rights leaders doubted Johnson’s commitment because he was a Southerner. However, they did not know that once he made up his mind to get something done it was lights out. Lyndon made civil rights his mission, passing the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Being a Southerner, he knew what this legislation would mean politically. He prophetically stated when he signed the Act that he had just delivered the South to the Republican Party.

His prophecy was fulfilled in the 1964 election. Johnson carried 44 states but lost all five of the Deep South states, including Alabama which voted overwhelmingly Republican in November of 1964 in what is referred to as the Southern Goldwater Landslide.

After Johnson’s reelection, he set sail on a second piece of Civil Rights legislation and passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This landmark legislation gave African Americans the clear right to vote in the South. The legislation was aimed directly at the Deep South states that had voted against Lyndon. In typical vengeful Johnson style, he zeroed in on the states that had a history of voting rights violations and had voted for Goldwater.

One provision of the Act mandated that any laws that affected voting in these states had to be approved by the U.S. Justice Department. This requirement is still in effect. Therefore, Alabama’s voter identification law, which was passed in the avalanche of conservative legislation enacted earlier this year, will be under scrutiny before it can be put into place.

Our voter ID bill requires that a voter show an official valid photo ID to cast a ballot. This issue has been heralded as a hallmark GOP issue in the state for several decades. Therefore, there was little doubt that when the Republicans claimed Goat Hill they would pass the measure. Our law will not become effective until 2014 so the Justice Department will have plenty of time to review our act.

In recent years the Justice Department has given approval to most voting and reapportionment issues in an almost perfunctory manner but this act may be different. An Obama administration appointed attorney general may look at the act with a more jaundiced eye. Alabama’s voter ID act may appear to be benign and unobstructive. However, African American leaders do not see it that way. Of all the conservative bills ramrodded through the legislature this year this one created the most ire and animosity among black legislators. They believe that this bill strikes at the very essence of the intent of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. They know their constituents. Many of them are poor and live in isolated hamlets and rural enclaves. They do not own an automobile. Therefore, they have no driver’s license to show at the polls. They generally do not fly on airplanes and they pay their bills in cash because they have no checking accounts.

Republicans argue that it only makes commonsense to show a photo ID when you vote. Democrats counter that there is scant evidence of voter impersonation fraud. They say that these laws clearly harken back to the Jim Crow laws with their poll taxes and literacy tests that inhibited and prevented blacks from voting in the South from Reconstruction through the 1960s.

Buoyed by big Republican gains in the 2010 elections a host of states have enacted photo ID laws since January. In addition to Alabama, South Carolina, Kansas, Texas, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Georgia have joined the parade. However, these new voter ID acts may not have clear sailing in garnering Justice Department clearance.