Monday, November 5, 2007

Flashback: Hubert’s Finest Hour—The Emissary Between the White House and the Senate Which Led to Passage of the Historic Civil Rights Act of 1964.


[More than 50 years of politics written for my kids and grandchildren as a memoir].

His Finest Hour.

“You’re very generous for an old-time…but let me say always fair…critic! Not all my Democratic colleagues have said that about me,” the ebullient former vice president 65-year-old Hubert Humphrey exulted to me (age 47) in 1975 as we strode into the lobby of the L’Enfant Plaza hotel for his speech to the Washington, D. C. management meeting of Quaker Oats officers and staff at which I introduced him. Before the group, I hailed his major role in passage of the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 and said that while Lyndon Johnson was praised as the master of the Senate during his majority leader days, Johnson had never passed a bill in its enormity as the civil rights act of 1964—which Hubert did. That elicited a standing ovation from the heavily Republican audience.

He accepted the applause, turned to me and said, “Tom, I won’t deny what you said but I’m sure your old employers in Minnesota will be mad!” Nor was I exaggerating as he and I well knew. He has never gotten sufficient credit for passing a bill over the steadfast opposition of southern Democratic conservatives who ran the major Senate committees. Johnson has been given major praise—but no one got it done other than Hubert. And history should be ashamed of itself for not giving him his due credit as one, if not the most effective, Senate leaders of all time…matching Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Fighting Bob LaFollette, Bob Taft and surpassing even Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson.

That bill, signed July 2, 1964 formally outlawed segregation in U. S. schools and public places. The law was passed to circumvent loopholes in the federal use of the equal protection clause—and so was passed under the commerce clause, Hubert’s original concept. It banned discrimination once and for all in public facilities, government, employment and rendering null and void the Jim Crow laws in the south, ruling that it was illegal to compel segregation in schools, housing and hiring.

From the day Hubert looked forward to getting out of Doland, S. D. beyond his days as a janitor-“super,” firing up the furnace in the Minneapolis four-plex while he went to school, past his welding together a disparate group of liberal moderates and out-and-out radicals to make a hybrid party, the Democratic-Farmer-Laborites…and beyond the poisonously bitter days where after World War II he drove recalcitrant Communists belonging to the Farmer-Laborites out of public life…and to the mayoralty and his fiery speech to the 1948 convention to the Senate…through his days of isolation where he was in the Senate doghouse because of his civil rights views…beyond the day where he narrowly sidestepped defeat by a legendary Republican governor who had decided not to run…he had anticipated greatness but probably nothing like this—he didn’t know what form it would take.

It started to come together with the elevation to the presidency of the former segregationist southerner who had befriended him—Lyndon Johnson. Immediately after Johnson succeeded to the presidency following John Kennedy’s assassination, he commandeered Hubert and told him he would count on his support to get the liberals in the Senate to understand Johnson didn’t have horns. They were not only disenchanted with Johnson, some even nurtured the paranoia that LBJ had arranged the assassination of their hero JFK by luring him to Dallas. It was an ugly reception LBJ got in private liberal circles in Washington—and in the salons of Georgetown.

Hubert’s incurable optimism buoyed up Johnson who was a heavy handed downer. From the outset, Johnson depended on Hubert for strategic and communications-p.r. advice. Initially there were several things Hubert did for Johnson…sometimes after a verbal tussle with the president…that worked. Within days of the assassination, they numbered three major things.

1. Immediately after taking office, Johnson wanted to move in to the White House immediately to show he was in command.. It was natural and his patronizing hangers-on wanted him to in order to galvanize the idea of possession of the presidency and the passing of the torch. Hubert huddled with Johnson’s aides Bill Moyers and his p. r. guru Jack Valenti (Valenti so close that he took up residence at the White House to massage the ego of the man whom Valenti correctly adjudged would be his everlasting meal ticket). “Don’t do it, Lyndon,” said Hubert. “Let Jackie and her family stay as long as they want. They’ll move out and you’ll get in there, don’t worry. Don’t be pushy or it’ll kill you with this liberal, Kennedy-worshiping press.” Johnson agreed and worked out of his home, The Elms, in northwest Washington for three weeks while Jackie Kennedy took her sweet time about moving out.

2. It was at The Elms that Valenti and Moyers put a full-court press on Johnson to show the nation that a new leader was in command. Shortly after Nov. 22, both argued that it would be essential that Johnson address the nation on TV. Johnson was warmly receptive. Everybody looked to Hubert who was sitting on the divan next to Johnson. He didn’t cave.

“Don’t do it, Lyndon,” he said as Valenti and Moyers gasped. “Don’t do it. Tell you why. The country is too broken up about the assassination and your getting your face on TV will look like you’re rushing it. Also—and you won’t want to hear this—TV isn’t kind to you as it was to Jack. Your Southern accent doesn’t help you; your looks with your hangdog face and big ears don’t help you. What you should do is postpone this until the next State of the Union where you get to go on your own turf, the Congress. That’ll be next January 8.” Moyers and Valeini almost passed out. It was a measured insult to their leader. Johnson looked down and reflected. Then he moved to the next item of the agenda showing he had accepted the blunt criticism.

“January 8th” said Johnson. “That’ll be too late!” No, said Hubert, trust me—it’ll be just perfect. Valenti and Moyers shook their heads, eying Johnson for approval. But Johnson rubbed his jaw and thought it over. Then he said, “wal—maybe you’re right, Hubert.”

“Trust me,” said Hubert. “The best thing you can do right now until this period of mourning blows over is to get to work behind the scenes to pass Jack’s legislative program.”

“Jack’s legislative program, [explective]!” said Valenti.

“You and I know the legislative program has been languishing,” continued Hubert, “—most of all because Jack and Bobby weren’t all that eager to get a lot of things passed. People don’t know that but we do. You have a chance to become a hero for the election of 1964 when Goldwater is likely to run, if you use your talents to get it passed, Lyndon.”

Johnson said, “with one condition, Hubert. You gotta help me. I’ll need you for `64.” It was a hint that he would put Hubert on the ticket as his vice president. If Hubert was flattered, he didn’t show it nor did he react to the words. But he got it. And in his role as Whip, not even majority leader, he got it done while Mike Mansfield, a gentle, wispy, soft-spoken Montanan who didn’t like to push or pull, occupied the leadership but did remarkably little.

3. Hubert set to work on the late Jack Kennedy’s agenda which Kennedy hadn’t expended much energy on. Hubert cut deals between liberals, moderates and conservatives to get these things passed in Jack’s name, in Lyndon’s name: the basic guts of an anti-poverty program which JFK and his brother privately dissed and allowed to go fallow; federal aid to college students; federal aid for mass transit; the farm bill which contained an important wheat support plus a revolutionary item: food stamps which the Kennedys were not wild about. Johnson himself wondered how the farm bill could make it with so many Democrats in the House from the big cities and he gave Hubert a list of those big-city guys, wondering if they would ever vote for it, including Chicago’s Roman Pucinski. They numbered twelve. Of that number, Hubert got eleven.

4. When the time came to make his State of the Union speech to the Congress and the nation on television, Lyndon Johnson was unusually nervous. He frittered over his speech and in desperation called Hubert and an attorney, Abe Fortas to his house, The Elms (Jackie Kennedy still hadn’t moved out of the White House). Hubert looked at the speech and thought it was too lachrymose about Kennedy’s death. He scribbled on a pad the bare outline of what happened in Dallas and added—“Let us continue.” Brilliant. Johnson adopted it immediately. It was typed in final form at 2 a.m. ten hours before Johnson was due to the joint session of Congress.

5. And just before Johnson left for the Capitol, Hubert called him and told him something he could announce. A bill sponsored by then Rep. Karl Mundt (R-ND), an inveterate Cold War hard-liner, which kept the ban on wheat sales to the Soviet Union in effect had reached the Senate floor and the Senate failed to defeat it two weeks earlier. Now the Senate defeated it—in time for Johnson to mention it and say he thought it an important step in thawing U. S. –Soviet relations. (Note: it wasn’t but that’s not the point of this story: the point is what Hubert did in about an hour’s time).

Good as this stuff was for Johnson, the big issue was civil rights. It was an issue Lyndon had always gently finessed in the Senate. He had been instrumental in passing a weak bill in the Eisenhower years—nothing with teeth. Yet Hubert saw a new era dawning.

Everett Dirksen, said Johnson to Hubert, is the key to passage of civil rights in the Senate—“but I don’t blame Everett, not a single Negro vote is goin’ to come to him in Illinois because they all vote Democrat. So we gotta do other things. And you gotta give up your atom smasher, Hubert, to Everett.” Okay, Hubert did. But Everett wanted a lot more than that: almost Hubert’s first born child. Ah but this was down the road.

Thumbnail History of Civil Rights Movement.

Short-hand history of the movement for my loving children and grandchildren who, smart as they are, were too young to have experienced it: Civil rights began as modern movement in the 1940s. Jim Farmer (a friend of mine and fellow Republican, the founder of CORE) was arrested many times in New York in the 1940s and early `50s. Because he wasn’t a minister they locked him up and threw away the key and the press wasn’t interested. Lest you think the 5-star general who was in the White House, Dwight Eisenhower was dilatory, in 1957 when Gov. Orval Faubus of Arkansas sent the national guard to block Little Rock high school from the “Little Rock 9” who wanted to integrate it, Ike sent the 101st airborne to see they entered the premises safely.

All that being said, it took a minister with a Lincolnesque eloquence to touch the soul of the media in the country on the issue and he did so on Dec. 1, 1955.

It started with the Montgomery, Ala bus boycott and a hitherto almost anonymous lady named Jo Ann Robinson, a professor at all-black Alabama State. She found just the right person to test Montgomery’s blacks-in-the-back-of-the-bus ordinance: Rosa Parks. Rosa Parks was not the uneducated seamstress media myth represents her as. She was educated. She was a seamstress yes because she couldn’t find other work but she had attended the lab school at Alabama State, was an active NAACP worker, had been arrested before. On Dec. 1 she boarded a city bus and sat in the fifth row, the first row blacks could occupy. A few stops later the front four rows were filled with whites and one white man was standing. The driver asked all four of the blacks seated in the fifth row to move. Three complied: not Rosa. She was arrested. The revolution was on and Jo Ann Robinson got hold of a young minister at Dexter Avenue Baptist church, Martin Luther King, Jr. Together they formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA).

King, Robinson and the MIA organized the black boycotts. They organized a black motor pool to take blacks to work. The White Citizens Council tried to break up the boycott. It failed. Store owners in downtown Birmingham were complaining that business was dropping off. The White Citizens Council turned to violence on Feb.1, 1956, bombing King’s home. Then it turned to the law, indicting 89 blacks under an old law prohibiting boycotts. King was tried. He was ordered to pay $500 plus $500 in court costs or spend 386 days in the state penitentiary. He appealed. The boycott lasted a year but white snipers shot at the buses. On Jan. 10, 1957 ministers from around the South ended the MIA and founded its successor, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Episodes happened in rapid succession: Jim Farmer’s “Freedom Rides” on May 4, 1961 An interracial group would board Greyhound buses destined for the South, whites sitting in the back and blacks in the front; at rest stops whites would go into black areas and vice-versa. On May 4, 1961 a Freedom Ride left Washington, D. C. for New Orleans. On May 14, Mothers Day, they split into two groups to travel through Alabama. The first group was met with 200 angered whites in Annison, Ala. Then it was firebombed. By the time it got to Birmingham, its public safety commissioner, Bull Conner, didn’t provide protection. Also the lunch counters were segregated. King flew to Birmingham and held a mass meeting surrounded by federal marshals for protection. A mob of several thousand whites surrounded the church where he was speaking. A plan was hatched by one who later became a friend of mine, Hosea Williams, to have King arrested on Good Friday, April 12 to dramatize the point.

King was arrested and placed in solitary confinement. In jail he read a newspaper advertisement by the businessmen of Birmingham addressed to the people, defending their actions. In jail he on the margins of the ad and on any scrap paper he could find, an eloquent “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The nation’s media gave it mass attention. On May 2 the police arrested 959 black children for singing “We Shall Overcome”. The jails were packed and could hold no more. Finally the Birmingham business community, fearing damage to downtown stores, agreed to integrate lunch counters and hire more blacks. King got a much needed victory.

After Birmingham, President Kennedy proposed a new civil rights bill. Civil rights groups organized a March on Washington, hoping to draw a crowd of 100,000—but instead more than 250,000 came from around the nation. They assembled Aug. 28, 1963 and King delivered the closing address with his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Jack Kennedy decided to go on TV June 12, 1963 with his civil rights program. The night Kennedy spoke to the nation came the first deadly intervention. “We interrupt this program to bring you a special bulletin: Civil rights leader Medgar Evers was shot to death tonight (June 12) in front of his home in Mississippi!”

The country became inflamed and the media was pushing for a tough civil rights bill. Initially pragmatists John and Bobby Kennedy had initially decided to go for a somewhat toothless bill, fearing to alienate the Southern states which they needed for the election of 1964. A bill of some sort was needed because it was anticipated that the Republicans would nominate Nelson Rockefeller who was a strong civil right-er. Bobby’s plan: a weak civil rights bill to pass and let Rockefeller inflame the South with his not civil rights rhetoric which will give the South to us as the moderates.

But before the civil rights draft was read, another circumstance intervened which tossed the go-moderate strategy in the wastebasket. “We interrupt this program to bring you a special bulletin! In a sudden announcement from Albany, N. Y., Gov. Nelson Rockefeller has announced he will divorce his wife of 34 years. Rockefeller has been generally listed as the likely GOP presidential nominee in 1964. What this will do to his prospective candidacy is undetermined.” Then a few days later: “We interrupt this program to bring you a special bulletin. New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller has announced he will marry a woman, a mother of four, Mrs. Marguerite (Happy) Fitler, who is being divorced form her husband, a close friend of the Governor who is a virologist working for the Rockefeller Institute.” That was an incipient dose of political poison for Rockefeller.

And a few days after that, a fatal dose of strychnine for any presidential candidate: “A judge today denied Mrs. Marguerite (Happy) Fitler who is slated to marry New York Gov .Nelson Rockefeller custody of her five children. On a related issue, New York law seems only to permit adultery as legal reason for divorce so the governor and Mrs. Fitler are trying to get their divorces in another state where mental cruelty is allowed as a reason. Why Mrs. Fitler was denied custody is due to the fact that the judge has found her unfit. But a spokesman for the governor and Mrs. Fitler say they are appealing this. ruling”

No matter. Strychnine it was—and is—for Rockefeller long after his death (which happened under questionable circumstances in the company of another woman). A billionaire, he had the haughty sense that as a Rockefeller he could get away with anything. But he was wrong and it meant that no matter how he vowed he would continue in the race, Rocky wasn’t going to get the nomination—no way! The logical Republican nominee would be Barry Goldwater who was conservative…a new breed from the Northeastern liberals who had dominated the GOP heretofore since Hoover. And Goldwater was unlikely to support the civil rights bill. Now Bobby decided they would push for a strong civil rights bill because the South would logically go for Goldwater anyhow and Democrats needed to shore up the difference between JFK and Goldwater in the north—but all the while, ever the pragmatist, Bobby would duplicitously pass the word to the South that he’d take care of the bill with lax enforcement.

John Kennedy’s bill wasn’t introduced until June, 1963 because the brothers had pondered what to do (they decided in June that Rockefeller was out, Goldwater logically in). Then came another news intervention in September, 1963: We interrupt this program to bring you a news bulletin. Four Negro, children, were killed today when a bomb exploded in a church they were praying in in Birmingham, Alabama!”

Now the Kennedys were certain a tough civil rights bill had to emerge into law. The episode inflamed House Judiciary chairman Emanuel (Manny) Cellar of New York who toughened it up quite a bit. His committee passed it and then pro-forma it went to old Howard Smith’s Rules where Smith hinted it would gather dust. Cellar vowed that, by god, he’d get the bill out of Rules if he had to initiate the radical procedure of getting a discharge petition signed to send it to the floor. It was a radical move: a discharge petition had to get a majority of House members on it before it would be automatically discharged. The signature campaign lagged.

At that precise moment a third intervention: November 22, 1963: “We interrupt this program with a special bulletin! President Kennedy has been assassinated in Dallas, shot to death as he rode in a motorcade! Vice President Lyndon Johnson is preparing to take the oath of office to become the 36th president of the United States!”

The Politics of Civil Rights.

The national psyche changed overnight. Kennedy was a martyr in the role of Lincoln. (Fr. Andrew Greeley in his syndicated newspaper column recommended that JFK be named a Doctor of the Church to be joined with Gregory the Great, Ambrose, Augustine, Basil, Bonaventure, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Isador, Leo the Great and Catherine of show you how over the top he was and can get; nothing has been heard of this idea from him since we’ve learned more about JFK).

(Here I want to insert a correction from yesterday’s erroneous draft called to my attention by a vigilant reader of this website. I referred to Speaker Sam Rayburn and his discontent with civil rights—but I was erroneously thinking of the 1957 so-called “civil rights bill” which dealt weakly with voting rights and which was largely ineffective due to the fact that Georgia’s Dick Russell wanted his boy Lyndon Johnson to pass a weak bill to take the heat off southern Democrats. Rayburn was unenthusiastic but caused the bill to be passed by the House anyhow. Rayburn was dead and his old majority leader, John McCormack of Massachusetts, a firm supporter of civil rights was Speaker).

McCormack could do nothing with cantankerous Howard Smith of Virginia, age 79, a segregationist and chairman of Rules, a man known as “Judge.”

Instead Lyndon Johnson himself called both Judge Smith and the ranking Democrat on Rules, Bill Colmer of Mississippi (whose top aide was a young man named Trent Lott). Both were agreeable to let the bill go from Rules to the House floor on the supposition gained from LBJ that the Senate would probably not pass it. The House passed it in February, 1964 290-130 with a number of “yes” votes on both sides of the aisle based on the unexpressed hope that the old warhorses in the Senate would kill it.

Johnson gave Hubert the toughest job any legislative manager had since Illinois Democrat Stephen A. Douglas and Massachusetts Whig Daniel Webster passed the Compromise of 1850 that Henry Clay envisioned but couldn’t get through the Senate. Even tougher. The mandate: get a tough civil rights bill out of the Senate where old Jim Eastland of Mississippi was Judiciary chairman and the peerless strategist for the South, Dick Russell of Georgia (Lyndon’s once mentor) stood guard with an encyclopedic knowledge of parliamentary procedure. And he would have to work with Bobby Kennedy who had detonated his presidential career by sic-ing Frank Roosevelt, Jr. on him in West Virginia with the “Humphrey was a draft-dodger” refrain.

It was one of the few times Hubert met with Bobby. Hubert spoke first. “Bobby, ol’ partner!” Bobby in his nasal voice said, “I’m all yours Dr. Hubert!” They laughed and got to work.

How Hubert passed the bill and wrote more history than many presidents did—next time.

McCarthy “Nominated” for Vice President.

All the while Gene McCarthy was lying rather low, not overworking. He was traveling the country picking up legal honoraria and dropping in on St. John’s to rub old scabs, remember past slights and make sly fun of Hubert and Lyndon with Fr. Godfrey Diekmann OSB. He was getting ready for reelection in 1964 which didn’t look to be too difficult. He was getting ready to face Wheelock Whitney, a mega-millionaire who was taking the bows for bringing the Washington Senators baseball team to the state as the Minnesota Twins. McCarthy was mentioned favorably for the vice presidency with Lyndon Johnson by, of all people, Manny Cellar, House Judiciary chairman, who said McCarthy is “a scholarly gentleman, erudite and a real orator who has carved out a remarkable career in the Senate. He would be the best vice presidential candidate and the strongest.”

It was a shot directed across the bow of Minnesota’s senior senator and a dig as well because Cellar, a fervent civil rights advocate, hadn’t recognized Hubert’s legislative prowess at all. Manny Cellar was one colleague Gene never made fun of.


  1. Mr. Roeser, I've enjoyed your account of the careers of Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy.

    However, I think your memory deceives you about Sam Rayburn's involvement in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. According to wikipedia, Sam Rayburn died in 1961.

    I recall a scene described in one of the illustrated books issued by the press services after the Kennedy assassination, in which LBJ, before retiring for the night after the assassination, pauses before a painting of Rayburns and says, "Mr. Speaker, I wish you were here tonight."

  2. My wife and our small family of then lived in NE Dallas near White Rock Lake. I worked for Texas Instruments at their original big plant on Lemmon Avenue just south of Love Field where the Kennedys and everyone landed. There was a motorcade down Lemmon Avenue. I and many fellow workers stood on the median as they passed slowly by. If I or anyone else had a grenade it could have been easily tossed, probably without anyone noticing.

    I went to lunch with a vendor, and just as we were being served, the waiter told us that the president had been shot.

    I went back to work and cleared off my desk. While leaving, I noticed that several bulletin boards that posted anti-Kennedy remarks were cleared away.

    I still nurture an unprovable belief that the Mob had this done via Oswald in order to payback for Cuban blunders that impacted their business.

  3. Tom,
    This account is spellbinding. But I have to question two points. Either LBJ was in the White HOuse by the time he gave the state of the union address or Jackie stayed there a lot longer than 3 weeks.

    Secondly, I know LBJ addressed the nation sometime in late November or early December. I remember watching him on TV in the lounge of the University of Missouri school of journalism (my alma mater), which I could only have visited in that small window. He concluded by reciting "And bless thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea."