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Spencer Rendahl: Obama, MLK And LBJ



(Host) When former journalist and commentator Suzanne Spencer Rendahl realized that Barack Obama, the first African-American President of the United States, will be inaugurated for his second term on Martin Luther King Day, she immediately thought of the civil rights leader's ally, President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

(Spencer Rendahl) Vice President Johnson did not, of course, become president in the manner he or the nation would have chosen.

Johnson was sworn into office on Air Force One in his home state of Texas fifty years ago this coming November. He stood between his wife Lady Bird and the assassinated President John F. Kennedy's widow Jackie, her pink suit spattered with her murdered husband's blood.

JFK and LBJ could not have been more different. The urbane, Harvard-educated JFK grew up wealthy. LBJ grew up poor, picking cotton as a child and workingon a highway crew after graduating from high school. He attended a local teaching college and instructed children he described as brown-skinned who lived in poverty that he found familiar. Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Robert Caro wrote that LBJ's birth into poverty helped him identify with his students' plights, that of being, he said,denied respect for a reason, the color of their skin, over which they had no control.

Any semblance of an inaugural address would come after Kennedy's funeral in Johnson's speech to the joint session of Congress, televised for the nation. He had to assure the grieving nation that he could fill the shoes of its beloved former president.

And LBJ had to give the country his agenda. When he shared plans to advocate for JFK's Civil Rights bill, an advisor urged him not to devote his first speech to a lost cause.

Johnson famously replied Well, what the hell's the presidency for?

In his historic address, LBJ referred to his students as he announced to the nation, I never thought that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students ... and people like them all over the country. But now I do have that chance. And I'll let you in on a secret. I mean to use it.

Afterwards, LBJ met individually with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders to strategize.

King told two of his aides after his meeting that LBJ ... is a pragmatist and a man of pragmatic compassion. It just may be that he's going to go where John Kennedy couldn't.

And he did. He signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which desegregated schools and public facilities, with King at his side.

LBJ fought on for the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which outlawed poll taxes and literacy tests. He went before Congress and declared We Shall Overcome, the rallying cry of men and women who marched in places like Selma, Alabama. King's assistants recounted that when he saw LBJ utter those words on television, he cried.

Now, I'm no LBJ idealist. He could be ruthless and self-serving. And my family still bears the scars of his escalation of the Vietnam War. But arguably, LBJ accomplished more for Civil Rights than any president since Abraham Lincoln ended slavery. And President Barak Obama's second inauguration will be part of that legacy.