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The Music Has Gone Out of the Movement Civil Rights and the Johnson Administration, 1965–1968 (review)

From: Southern Cultures
Volume 18, Number 3, Fall 2012
pp. 120-122 | 10.1353/scu.2012.0031

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On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law his crowning legislative achievement, the Voting Rights Act. Sustained acts of nonviolent direct resistance to the inequities of Jim Crow political systems, most famously the Freedom Summer Project in Mississippi and the Selma-to-Montgomery March in Alabama, had pressured Congress to protect the rights of aspirational black voters, but it was Johnson’s force of personality that ultimately secured the legislation. The White House worked in remarkable concert with national civil rights groups to construct the legislation and lobby for its passage, and the images of the bill’s signing ceremony—Johnson surrounded by civil rights leaders, all smiles and handshakes—are among the most indelible of the era. But the back-slapping lasted less than a week. On August 11, African Americans’ long-simmering resentments in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles boiled over into a full-blown riot.

In retrospect, the signing ceremony seemed to represent the high-water mark of both the Civil Rights Movement and the Johnson presidency, and Watts seemed to usher in a new era of disappointment on the part of African Americans, of which the dozens of urban riots that followed were symptoms. Many in the Civil Rights Movement, especially those who gravitated toward Black Power ideologies, came to interpret Watts as a symbol of how hollow Johnson’s commitment to their cause was and how far national policy had yet to go. Civil rights leaders from A. Philip Randolph to Martin Luther King Jr. had insisted all along that economic justice had to be an ultimate goal of civil rights reform, but the 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Voting Rights Acts did nothing to advance that agenda. Johnson understood this as well as anyone. “Hell, what good are rights if you don’t have a decent home or someone to take care of you when you’re sick?” he asked an aide (16).

At the time, however, the Watts riot appeared to be an anomaly. Johnson still seemed poised to build on his legislative achievements despite the blip, having already presented what historian David Carter calls “a broader vision [of civil rights reform] promising equality of results,” on top of equality of opportunity, in a May 1965 speech at Howard University (8). Carter’s deeply researched and gracefully written book, The Music Has Gone Out of the Movement, examines Johnson’s relationship with national civil rights figures and groups in the period between the Howard speech and the disappointing end of his presidency. Carter explains, “As grassroots movements and their antagonists forced the Johnson administration to respond to events rather than dictate policy, new, if sometimes fractious, relationships and pressures shaped the history of the period in unpredictable ways” (xii).

Over the past generation civil rights historians have concentrated either on decisions made in Washington, D.C., or on actions at the grassroots; few have successfully combined the two approaches. Carter bridges the gap beautifully, with chapters that are organized thematically and follow one another more or less chronologically. Among the many insightful contributions Carter makes to this literature is his depiction of “the government,” which was no more monolithic in his telling than “the movement” was; each contained a “plurality of actors and motivations” (243).

The approach works especially well in chapters that focus on the Child Development Group of Mississippi (cdgm ), an organization composed of local people who had originally responded to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s organizing efforts, and who managed the state’s Head Start program for a short time beginning in 1965. These chapters explore the inherent strains between black Mississippians who were practicing true self-determination for the first time and War on Poverty bureaucrats who had to keep Mississippi’s retrograde senators off of their backs. The tensions were impossible to overcome. As a friend of the cdgm observed, “You can’t develop grass roots democracy on a timetable set in Washington or structure freedom by the same regulations that organize a bureaucracy” (130).

Carter paints a portrait of a Lyndon Johnson who legitimately wanted to address the twinned problems of poverty and racism, but who was able to do so only...

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