President Johnson was sadly prophetic; the Democratic Party did lose at least a generation of white Southern voters and, sadly, African American votes have often not been enough to make up the difference.
But in a real and more important way, he saved the South.
A Virginian through and through, I love so many things about my landbase. I love Southern manners, Southern men with accents, Southern blues, my friends’ real mint juleps in frosty silver cups. I love Southern lawyers in seersucker suits, bow ties, and braces — men and women. I love hot Summer nights. I love magnolia trees, Spanish moss, gardenias, camellias, mimosa trees, and the Southern habit of sharing plants from our gardens with each other. I love ham biscuits, iced tea with mint, blue crabs with Old Bay, fried green tomatoes, fried okra, fried chicken . . . . I could go on.
But the horrible contagion of segregation was going to destroy the South, one way or another (and maybe take the rest of America with it). Abraham Lincoln saw it and Lyndon Johnson saw it. With the stroke of his pen, Johnson lost the South and saved it from itself, even if that salvation is still working its way slowly through some parts of our infected body politic.
My generation will never forgive President Johnson for his foreign policy (and I say this as I watch President Obama — whose presidency is a direct result of President Johnson’s brave act 50 years ago — send “advisors” to Middle Eastern countries just as President Johnson sent “advisors” to Viet Nam) crimes, nor should we. But he was a brave Democrat from the deep South when he signed the Civil Rights Act, knowing all the while what a political cost it would exact. Sometimes, people do things because they are right.
An important part of my practice of Witchcraft is being in touch with my own, specific landbase. Today, on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, I was grateful to our county library system for republishing this leaflet entitled “The Negro Citizen in Arlington,” and published in 1960, a few years before President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. (The sexism inherent in the entire leaflet was endemic at the time.) Here’s just one small example of what segregation was like in my hometown while I was a little girl:
3. Highly qualified personnel direct the Arlington recreation program for Negroes but whereas the playgrounds and summer recreation programs for white children are located in the neighborhoods where white children live, only two small playgrounds are available for Negroes. Both of them are inadequate and the largest one, where full-scale ball games might be played, is in the southern tip of Arlington, inaccessible to the large number of Negro youth in North Arlington. Negro children live very near some of the large playing fields designated for white children. They can only watch from the sidelines. If friendly youngsters call out to them to join the games, they must ignore the invitation or accept it with the risk that they might be sent away, or, failing to leave, might be taken to the police station.
Sometimes, the best way to save something is to lose it for a generation.
Thank you, Mr. Johnson. The South has never been nor ever can be truly lost; we just take a long time to get to where we’re going, sometimes. It’s the heat, I think.