[space]
[space] EEOC 35th Anniversary Logo [space] March for Freedom and Jobs [space] Signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 [space] Protest Sign [space] Children's Art [space]
[space]
[space] History [space] Milestones [space] The Law [space] Voices [space] Visions [space]
[space]

TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW WITH LEE C. WHITE

By Stacey Petersen*

It is now more than thirty years since the close of the Lyndon Johnson Administration, and the historians' report cards have begun to form an early consensus on that administration. In general, a D minus on Viet Nam; an A in civil rights and education; some high grades and not-so-high grades for several Great Society programs.

I was fortunate to have been President Kennedy's civil rights counsel and to have continued in that capacity with President Johnson through March of 1966. When JFK moved into the White House, civil rights leaders and African Americans in general sensed that there was a new attitude in the federal government, that doors would more readily swing open for consideration of their great concerns. And, of course, they were correct.

The unanimous decision of the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, followed by the blockbusting passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 (blockbusting not because of its relatively gentle content, but because it was passed at all), then by President Eisenhower's dispatch of Army troops to integrate Little Rock's Central High School, denoted progress and a greater willingness of the national government to address racial strife. But progress was painfully slow. John Kennedy, as candidate, courted black voters. His telephone call to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., while King was in jail in Atlanta, and his chiding of President Eisenhower for his failure to end discrimination in housing "with a stroke of a pen" generated a big turnout of black voters on election day. The black community could claim that but for its support, the election would have gone the other way. Because of his razor-thin margin over Richard Nixon, President Kennedy's reply was, "Yes, I know, every group tells me that, and they're all correct."

One of the first JFK actions was to establish the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity and designate the vice-president as its chairman. With his usual vigor and industriousness, LBJ talked Hobart Taylor, a brilliant lawyer and the son of one of his black friends and supporters in Texas, to be the staff director. With whites and blacks, lawyers and businessmen, and Taylor's pushing spirit, the Committee produced a program known as Plans for Progress, which amounted to pledges by corporations to increase the number of minority employees by an agreed percentage over a specified period of time. The program was not without its critics, who contended that it was window dressing because there were no sanctions and the program was the equivalent of the federal government awarding "Good Housekeeping Seals of Approval." Word reached Bobby Kennedy, the Attorney General, who passed on the criticism to JFK. I wound up with the assignment to check it out. Working with Taylor and George Reedy, an assistant of LBJ and later his press secretary, I went over the numbers and the nature of the Plans for Progress program and concluded that it was a step in the right direction, that there were no sweetheart deals, and that the participants on both sides were sincere. The major deficiency was that there was no statutory underpinning for the program and that it was not possible to require or enforce sanctions. Ultimately, Congress did create the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr. was its first chairman.

LBJ's mastery in achieving legislative goals was an acknowledged fact of political life during his career. There were numerous facets to his prodigious skill. While majority leader in the Senate, he learned every member's political situation at home, what issues and projects were near and dear to his/her heart, what committee assignment was coveted, and what time of day was best to negotiate with the member. He knew the gritty details of key legislation. He knew

the sense of accomplishment that the body would have collectively in a record of achievement; and he knew how to count. But, in my view, central to his technique was single-mindedness. He would establish a target and somehow every action and thought would be focused on that objective until it was accomplished, and then another issue would be elevated to the target position. This was his approach to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

It was no secret that Lyndon Johnson was a very complex human being. He could be charming, slightly outrageous, extremely thoughtful and considerate, vindictive, sensitive, profane, sentimental, mean, demanding, overbearing, persuasive, crafty, and shrewd. Above all, he was intelligent and focused. High on his agenda were the issues of racial discrimination and problems of the poor. His empathy for the blacks who had been treated so badly and for the poor, regardless of their color, was deep in him, and he was willing to do what had to be done to try to solve their fundamental problems.

He was determined to move forward on civil rights issues, although he was certain the Democratic Party would pay a price in the South. He was, of course, correct. But after a generation, it appears that the Southern states are beginning to become more open to Democratic candidates.

Were Lyndon Johnson given the opportunity to view the United States today, some twenty-five years after his death, my guess is that he would be somewhat pleased but surely disappointed. He would be overjoyed that Head Start was still alive, but would fret that it was underfunded. He would probably be appalled at the drug scenes and at efforts to abolish affirmative action, but encouraged by the integration of the armed services. He would be aghast at the continuing numbers of people in poverty, especially in light of the unprecedented strength of the economy. His advice would be, "Let's get going, we've got a lot of ground to cover."

* Stacey Petersen is a candidate for a Master of Arts Degree with a specialization in Legal Studies at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas.


35th Anniversary Home EEOC Main Site