Near one of my special places to read, stacked on a low book-crammed shelf, are four books with a total of 3,163 pages (not counting the indexes). All of these pages are about one man with whom I have been fascinated since I was a college student. This man is Lyndon B. Johnson.
I was studying in the college library when I heard that President Kennedy had been assassinated. I was devastated, just as so many others were. In the ensuing months as Johnson assumed the presidency, I hated the thought of him following Kennedy because Kennedy was hope and Johnson was a southerner only known by the shadow of the stereotype.
As many of us celebrate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act by President Johnson, I am rereading the first book among the four by Robert Caro who has written more about Johnson than anyone else, I would wager. This book is about the ancestors, birth, growing up, and way Lyndon Johnson became a politician. It is The Years of Lyndon Johnson-The Path to Power.
I am rereading it because I have not yet read the following three, and I want to tie the first book tightly to the others where Caro continues the life of Johnson as a politician. As I’m reading about Johnson’s evolution, I’m attempting to make sense of what has fascinated me about the man. How could a man who has been described in so many unflattering ways be the same person who supported and signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964?
This week as I’m reading the Washington Post and listening to the Sunday morning talk shows, I cannot get away from the opinions about Cliven Bundy and his comments about African Americans. I turn the pages of the paper and I hear another talk show beginning and there are all the commentaries on whether or not the owner of the L.A. Clippers said what he allegedly said about black people and what the NBA ought to do about it.
Many of us try to make sense of these kinds of headline-grabbing incidents in 2014. And like my puzzlement about President Johnson, I am willing to keep working at understanding why this kind of ignorance and hatred exist and what educated humanitarians can do about it. When the problems are ignorance and hatred, education has to be part of the solution.
Just as it seems as if it will take me forever to complete the 3,163 pages of Caro’s books about Johnson (even as he is working on the fifth), it will seem as if it will take forever to understand and address ignorance and hatred, but we must continue to gnaw at it.
As if the Caro books are not enough, I’m going to see Bryan Cranston in All the Way on Broadway about Lyndon Johnson because one has to approach complex questions from a variety of perspectives. Our best hope as educators is to listen to our students and help them see broader perspectives, encourage them to dig deep for understanding and inspire them to be willing to take unpopular stands in support of humanitarian values.
A new book by Clay Risen, The Bill of the Century-The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act, was reviewed in the Washington Post this weekend, and a major point made in the book is that it was the unsung heroes such as civil rights activists and religious groups that made passage of the Civil Rights Act possible. If you are an educator, you are more than likely an unsung hero who will be the power behind students who will move civilization in the right direction. Puzzling questions and unsung heroes inspire us to keep the pressure on and do the hard work that lies before us.