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Progressives Have Failed to Heed LBJ’s Final Warning

7 minute read
Updegrove is the former director of the LBJ Library and the author of Incomparable Grace: JFK in the Presidency  

Fifty years ago, on December 12, 1972, former President Lyndon Johnson gave what would be his final speech, six weeks before his death from a heart attack. He delivered the remarks at a civil rights symposium he had convened at his presidential library in Austin, Texas, where leaders from the Civil Rights Movement had come to mark the progress made over the last decade and to take a hard look at the racial injustice that continued to plague America.

Hardly the colossus he had been a few years before when he dominated Washington, the visibly frail LBJ was suffering from Angina. Doctors had urged him not to attend at all. But Johnson, popping nitroglycerin pills to keep chest pains at bay, had something to say about the inextricable nature of racial and economic justice—and the message he delivered resonates just as pressingly a half a century later.

While the former president spoke proudly of the advances in civil rights that had come during the course of his administration, he used his remarks not to advance his own legacy, nor to simply say that more needed to be done, but to say that he himself hadn’t done enough.

Black Americans are working now where they were not working 10 years ago. Black Americans, Brown Americans, Americans of every color and every condition are eating now and shopping now, going to the bathroom now and riding now, and spending nights now and obtaining credit now, and giving now, and attending classes now, going and coming in dignity as they were never able to do in years before.

But now that I’ve said that, I want to say this, I don’t want this symposium to come here and spend two days talking about what we have done, the progress had been much too small. We haven’t done nearly enough. I’m kind of ashamed of myself that I had six years and couldn’t do more than I did. I’m sure all of you feel the same way about it.

In enumerating these deficiencies, Johnson gave Americans what would be his final leadership lesson: True, long-lasting racial equity will be realized only if it’s grounded in economic fairness and opportunity.

The conviction was nothing new. The Civil Rights Movement was waged under the same notion; Martin Luther King had given his iconic 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, coupling demands for liberty and equality with those for economic advancement. Indeed, toward the end of his life King would shift his focus to a Poor People’s Campaign, aimed at combating America’s economic gaps and asserting the rights of the nation’s poorest—disproportionately people of color

But LBJ believed that he and civil rights leaders had still failed to convince the public—predominately White Americans—of the crucial link between racial equity and economic opportunity. He argued that in order to protect and build on the progress they had made, the public must agree that it’s the responsibility of the government to play an active role in leveling the economic playing field, to explicitly uplift Black Americans and other systemically disadvantaged groups.

Now, here is what I want to say, what I have said is precisely the work which we must continue and this is a whole important part of this meeting – not all we have done, what we can do. So much, so little have we done. It oughtn’t to take much place what we must do. So I think it’s time to leave aside the legalisms and euphemisms and eloquent evasions. It’s time we get down to business of trying to stand black and white on level ground.

What good is he doing sitting at the counter to get a cup of coffee if he doesn’t have 50 cents to get it? And most of them just don’t have it. That’s why they are not here. It’s not their mother or their father who didn’t want them here. It’s not that they don’t have an ambition to be here. They just can’t do it and we’ve got to level out that ground son.

Yet all these years later, despite good intentions, progressives have yet to heed Johnson’s warning, instead choosing the same politically expedient path LBJ believed to be among his biggest failures: not inextricably associating the pursuit of racial equity from economic policy. “Progressives know better,” maintains John Bryant, founder and chairman of Operation Hope, a non-profit aimed at providing financial literacy and resources in underserved communities. “But for political positioning reasons haven’t done better in using free enterprise and capitalism to lift up people of color. They wrongly believe that they can’t embrace citizenship, capitalism, and community at the same time.”

Take the recent political discourse around student loan forgiveness as an example. The banner of “fairness” has been carried more vocally not by progressives touting its disproportionate benefits for those with the greatest economic needs, including people of color, and thus leveling the playing field, but instead by conservatives who lament those who were left out. Even during last month’s midterm elections, many progressive candidates actively avoided running on economic issues altogether.

Because progressives have yet to prioritize those issues, many of the policies and programs that LBJ championed—initiatives that helped reduce the number of Black Americans living below the poverty line by half, from 55 percent in 1960 to 27 percent in 1968—remain under the threat of cuts or adverse reforms including Medicare and Medicare, Head Start, food stamps, federal housing programs, and affirmative action.

At the time of his speech, Johnson was conscious of his own mortality and knew his presidential legacy, shrouded at the time by the Vietnam War, was still in the balance. But he didn’t allow himself to simply celebrate his own accomplishments and those of the leaders gathered because there was more work to be done. He ended his address with a call to action:

But we must not allow the visibility of a few to diminish the efforts to satisfy what is our real responsibility to the still unseen millions who are faced with that basic problem of being Black in a White society. So our objective must be to assure that all Americans play by the same rules and all Americans play against the same odds. Who among us would claim that that is true today? I feel this is the first work of any society which aspires to greatness, so let’s be on with it. We know there is injustice. We know there is intolerance. We know there is discrimination and hate and suspicion, and we know there is division among us. But there is a larger truth. We have proved that great progress is possible. We know how much still remains to be done.

And if our efforts continue, and if our will is strong, and if our hearts are right, and if courage remains our constant companion, then, my fellow Americans, I am confident we shall overcome.

This message is just as important today—and it offers questions that we should be asking ourselves: Can we fulfill America’s inherent promise of equality without commensurate economic opportunity? And if not, why aren’t we doing more to deliver it?

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