Legacy of an assassination

December 13, 1993|By Henry Flores

THE recent airing of taped telephone conversations between Lyndon B. Johnson and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover offered an intriguing look into the mind of the nation's new president during the days immediately following John F. Kennedy's assassination.

The tapes also served to remind us of the numb shock we felt in the days and weeks after Nov. 22, 1963, as we realized who was replacing our beloved slain president.

After all, Johnson represented not only the state where Kennedy was gunned down, but the resurgence of a South which had for decades fought to block progressive social legislation. The South of Lyndon Johnson had long shown a smiling face and "good ol' boy" attitude that belied festering racial hatred. John Kennedy was dead, and the ascension of Lyndon Johnson to the presidency pushed the country deeper into despair.

But three decades later, it's clear that Johnson surprised many of his early critics. To this day, historians are at a loss to explain the motivation behind his switch to a caring, socially progressive leader.

His progress was astounding. Four months after the assassination at the University of Michigan, Johnson invoked the Kennedy legacy when he first presented his vision of a "Great Society." In quick order, Johnson gave the nation the sweeping Civil Rights Act of 1964 and, in the same year, the Office of Economic Opportunity. The latter went on to spawn the Community Action Program (CAP), Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), Medicare and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

What allowed President Johnson to engineer such an energetic agenda was the profound state of shock in which the nation found itself following the Kennedy assassination. The reactionary Southern forces in the Senate could not muster the necessary votes to defeat Johnson's legislative assaults because of the overwhelming national sentiment that the "Kennedy legacy" had be fulfilled.

Some analysts contend that if Johnson's tenure were measured solely on his domestic agenda performance, he would rank as one of the nation's greatest presidents. His place in history, however, was irrevocably tarnished by the destruction awaiting him in Vietnam.

Though this landmark social legislation brought many reforms to the United States, what was -- and is still -- important is that those laws put races and racism forever on the front burner of the domestic policy agenda. Since their passage and enactment, evidence of their necessity keeps emerging across the land.

We must continue the fight for the equal representation of African Americans and other minorities at all government levels. We still must fight against race-based employment and promotion discrimination in the private and public sectors.

As the 1960s pass even further into history, what will be remembered as the "Kennedy legacy" is the civil rights effort of Lyndon Johnson. Without the passage of the revolutionary civil and voting rights acts, racism would not be so easy to fight today on the floor of Congress or in the courtrooms of this country or in classrooms. It is sad to consider that, had it not been for the 1963 assassination of one of our most promising presidents, we would not in all likelihood have the force of law with which to fight the debilitations of racism in America in 1993.

Henry Flores is chair of the political science department at St. Mary's University in San Antonio and biographer of longtime Texas Congressman Henry Gonzales.

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