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Reform’s Mating Dance: Presidents, Social Movements, and Racial Realignments

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 December 2011

Sidney M. Milkis
University of Virginia
Daniel J. Tichenor
University of Oregon


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Copyright © Donald Critchlow and Cambridge University Press 2011

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1. For example, see Sanders, Elizabeth, “Presidents and Social Movements: A Logic and Preliminary Results,” in Formative Acts: American Politics in the Making, ed. Skowronek, Stephen and Glassman, Matthew (Philadelphia, 2007).Google Scholar For a study that emphasizes the conflict between executive power and racial justice, see Riley, Russell L., The Presidency and the Politics of Racial Equality (New York, 2007).Google Scholar

2. On the distinctive interests that structure the tense relationship between presidents and social movements, see Miroff, Bruce, “Presidential Leverage over Social Movements: The Johnson White House and Civil Rights,” Journal of Politics 43 (February 1981): 1–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

3. Lowndes, Joe, Novkov, Julie, and Warren, Dorian T., “Race and American Political Development,” in Race and American Political Development, ed. Lowndes, , Novkov, , and Warren, (New York, 2007), 16.Google Scholar

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12. Phillips is quoted in Lillie Buffum Chace Wyman and Arthur Crawford Wyman, Elizabeth Buffum Chace, 1806–1899 (Boston, 1914), 1:83.

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17. Lincoln’s Speech at Peoria, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 2:247–83.

18. Lincoln’s Inaugural Address, in Richardson, James D., ed., Messages and Papers of the Presidents (New York, 1897), 7:3206.Google Scholar

19. Ibid., 3210 (emphasis in original).

20. Garrison quoted in Risely, Ford, Abolition and the Press: The Moral Struggle Against Slavery (Evanston, 2008), 151.Google Scholar

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22. Lincoln is quoted in Sorin, Gerald, Abolitionism: A New Perspective (New York, 1972), 150.Google Scholar

23. Abraham Lincoln to Orville Browning, 22 September 1861, in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 4:531–32. See also McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York, 1988), 356–57.Google Scholar

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25. See Foner, Philip, Frederick Douglass (New York, 1964), 201–5.Google Scholar

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27. Sorin, Abolitionism, 151; and Sherwin, Oscar, Prophet of Liberty: The Life and Times of Wendell Phillips (New York, 1958), 452.Google Scholar

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33. Sorin, Abolitionism, 154.

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35. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 356 (emphasis in original).

36. Lincoln, Abraham, “Remarks to a delegation of Progressive Friends,” Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 5:278–79.Google Scholar

37. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 5:144–46.

38. Sherwin, Prophet of Liberty, 458.

39. Foner, Frederick Douglass, 200–201.

40. Frederick Douglass, “Fighting Rebels with One Hand: An Address Delivered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,” 14 January 1862, The Writings of Frederick Douglass, Library of Congress Collection,

41. Foner, Frederick Douglass, 200–201.

42. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 500.

43. Williams, Lincoln and the Radicals, 157–67.

44. Paludan, Phillip Shaw, The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Lawrence, Kans., 1994), 104–5.Google Scholar

45. Sherwin, Prophet of Liberty, 464–65 (emphasis in original).

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47. Donald, 362–69; see also Sherwin, Prophet of Liberty, 464–65.

48. Trefousse, The Radical Republicans, 203–4.

49. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 558; Franklin, John Hope, Emancipation Proclamation (Washington, D.C., 1994), 61–62.Google Scholar

50. Frederick, Douglass, “Negroes and the National War Effort: An Address Delivered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,” 6 July 1863, in The Writings of Frederick Douglass.

51. Abraham Lincoln to Charles D. Robinson, 17 August 1864, and Lincoln interview with Alexander W. Randall and Joseph T. Mills, 19 August 1864, in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 7:499–500 and 506–7.

52. McPherson, James M., Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution (New York, 1991), 86.Google Scholar

53. Frederick Douglass to Abraham Lincoln, 29 August 1864. Available at Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division (Washington, D.C., [2000–2001]),, accessed 10 August 2009.

54. Frederick Douglass to Abraham Lincoln, 19 August 1864, Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress.

55. Foner, Eric, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (New York, 2010), 312.Google Scholar

56. Paludan, The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, 297–302.

57. Abraham Lincoln, “Response to Serenade,” 1 February 1865, in Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 8:254.

58. Foner, Philip, ed., The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass (New York, 1955), 4:316.Google Scholar

59. Ulysses S. Grant, Message to Congress, 30 March 1870, James D. Richardson, ed., Messages and Papers of the President, 6:4010.

60. Frederick Douglass, quoted in Keyssar, Alexander, The Right to Vote: the Contested History of Democracy in the United States (New York, 2001), 103.Google Scholar

61. Lincoln took this position in refusing to veto a bill reducing fees paid to the marshal of the District of Columbia; see The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 7:414–415.

62. Crenson, Matthew and Ginsberg, Benjamin, Presidential Power: Unchecked and Unbalanced (New York, 2007), 102.Google Scholar

63. Sumner quoted in Whittington, Keith E., Constitutional Constructions: Divided Powers and Constitutional Meaning (Cambridge, Mass., 1999), 118.Google Scholar

64. Woodward, C. Van, Reunion and Reaction (Boston, 1966), 4.Google Scholar

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66. Milkis, Sidney M., Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party, and the Transformation of American Democracy (Lawrence, Kans., 2009).Google Scholar

67. Tichenor, Daniel, “The Presidency, Social Movements, and Contentious Change,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 29 (March 1999), 16.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

68. Stokes, Thomas, Chip Off My Shoulder (Princeton, 1940), 503.Google Scholar

69. Interview with Horace Busby, Sidney M. Milkis, 25 June 1987.

70. Louis Martin, editor and publisher of the black newspaper Michigan Chronicle, and an important official of the Democratic National Committee during the Johnson years, where he served as an effective liaison between the White House and the African American community, saw LBJ’s southern background as the key to understanding the president’s strong civil rights record: “Now my feeling about Johnson . . . is that since [he] was a southerner, he would normally, being a good politician, lean over backwards to prove that he was not a racist. Further, there’s something in the folklore of Negro life that a reconstructed southerner is really far more liberal than a liberal Yankee. . . . Johnson did many things that Kennedy would never have done.” Oral History of Louis Martin, 14 May 1969, interviewed by David G. McComb, Tape 1, 22, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, Austin, Texas. Pointing to the fragile yet indispensable link between civil rights reformers and the Johnson White House, Martin admitted that he “exploited this part of folklore,” just as LBJ exploited his African American advisers and civil rights leaders to make a distinctive mark on American history.

71. Goodwin, Richard, Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties (Boston, 1988), 275.Google Scholar

72. Conkin, Paul Keith, Big Daddy from the Pedernales: Lyndon Baines Johnson (Boston, 1986), 164.Google Scholar

73. As Johnson’s aide Bill Moyers wrote in fending off the cautionary importuning of other White House staffers, “This is a political year, but the President is not just thinking of the next election—he is thinking of the next generation. . . . He believes there is a danger that the primacy of politics this year will prevent the Nation from looking at the longer pull—hence his deliberate decision to cast the spotlight on certain issues which ought to be imbedded in the Nation’s consciousness.” Memorandum, Bill Moyers to George Reedy, 21 May 1964, White House Central Files—SP, Johnson Library (emphasis in original).

74. ‘Remarks at a Breakfast of the Georgia Legislature,’ May 8, 1964, Public Papers and Addresses of the Presidents: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1963–1964, I: 649.

75. Editorial, “LBJ’s Challenge,” Washington Post, 9 May 1964, A8.

76. King, Martin Luther Jr., in The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Carson, Clayborne (New York, 1998), 242–43.Google Scholar

77. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charged with preventing racial and sexual discriminatory practices in employment, was stripped of its authority to file suit in the courts. The EEOC could recommend, but only the Justice Department had the power to initiate a suit. The Justice Department, in turn, could only file suits under conditions where obvious discriminatory practices, which characterized Jim Crow laws in the South, prevailed. On Dirksen’s relationship with Johnson and the role that the Republican Senate leader played in enacting civil rights legislation, see Hulsey, Byron C., Everett C. Dirksen and His Presidents: How a Senate Giant Shaped American Politics (Lawrence, Kans., 2000), 183–204.Google Scholar

78. Ibid., 196. Johnson’s power over Congress had become so great by the summer of 1964 that he was able to pressure Republican minority leader, Charles Halleck, to support a rule that enabled Congress to act on the president’s poverty legislation. See telephone conversation between Lyndon Johnson and Charles Halleck, 22 June 1964, White House Tapes,

79. See, for example, Johnson telephone conversation with Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP, 2 July 1964, Johnson Tapes. Originally the president and civil rights leaders agreed that he would sign the bill on July 4 to highlight its historic importance. But Johnson was concerned that Republican legislators were heading off to the GOP convention and might not be able to participate in the signing ceremony, thus risking the bipartisan support he had worked so hard to achieve. Wilkins expressed his support for LBJ’s desire to sign the bill on July 2, emphasizing particularly the need to cultivate bipartisanship as “an overwhelming political reason” to act quickly.

80. Memorandum, Lee C. White to Johnson, 13 August 1964, Johnson Library.

81. E-mail to authors from Sherwin J. Markman, a Johnson White House aide, who was heavily involved in resolving the MFDP controversy, 13 January 2004.

82. Johnson also was concerned, even at this early stage of his presidency, that an unruly convention might open the door to a Robert Kennedy candidacy. Markman, written communication.

83. Johnson telephone conversation with Walter Reuther, 9 August 1964, Johnson tapes.

84. Johnson telephone conversation with Hubert Humphrey and Walter Reuther, 25 August 1964, Johnson tapes. On the Mississippi seating controversy, see Mark Stern, “Lyndon Johnson and the Democratization of the Democratic National Delegate Selection Process,” paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, San Francisco, 29 August–1 September 1990. Johnson was kept apprised of the Democratic National Committee’s implementation of the 1964 convention’s call for greater participation; given the tight reins the White House kept on the committee, these activities certainly would not have gone on without the president’s approval. See Memorandum, Marvin Watson to LBJ, 19 April 1967, Marvin Watson Files, Johnson Library. As became clear at the 1968 convention, the rule was no paper tiger. Having found no evidence that the Mississippi Democratic party had “complied with either the spirit or the letter” of the convention call prohibiting racial discrimination, the Credentials Committee voted overwhelmingly to bar the Mississippi regular delegation from its seats. A biracial delegation, including many members of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Party, was seated in its place. See Sidney M. Milkis, The President and the Parties: The Transformation of the American Party System Since the New Deal (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 210–16.

85. Johnson Telephone conversation with Martin Luther King Jr., 15 January 1965, Johnson Tapes.

86. Kotz, Nick, Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Laws That Changed America (Boston, 2005), 267.Google Scholar As Kotz notes, King was elated with the president’s expressed support for the marchers’ cause.

87. Lyndon B. Johnson, “Special Message to Congress: The American Promise,” 15 March 1965,

88. In 1963, Johnson mentioned FDR’s 1938 purge campaign to Kennedy aide Theodore Sorensen. Johnson recalled that FDR had attempted a failed “purge” in the 1938 primary campaigns, trying to replace conservative southern and border-state Democrats with 100 percent New Dealers who were committed to economic reform. The president’s moral commitment to civil rights, LBJ believed, should not be expressed in an effort to purge southern Democrats, but, rather, through an appeal to their consciences: “I think the President could do this in North Carolina or some place. I’d invite the congressmen and senators to be on the platform. . . . I’d have him talk about the contributions that they had made and then I’d say, ‘Now, we have a problem here. No Nation—a hundred years ago in the Lincoln-Douglas debate, Lincoln said, No Nation can long endure half slave and half free.’ Now no world can long endure half slave and half free and we’ve got to do something about it in our own country.” Telephone conversation between Lyndon Johnson and Ted Sorensen, 3 June 1963, George Reedy Office Files, Johnson Library.

89. Martin Luther King Jr., The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., 288.

90. John Lewis, with D’Orso, Michael, Walking with the Wind (New York, 1998), 340Google Scholar; see also Kotz, Judgment Days, 312. Johnson showed a less poetic, more practical side to Lewis in asking for the civil rights movement’s help in implementing the Voting Rights Act. Inviting the civil rights leader to meet privately with him in the Oval Office prior to signing the legislation, LBJ told Lewis earnestly, “Now, John, you’ve got to go back and get all those folks registered. You’ve got to go back and get those boys by the balls. Just like a bull gets on top of a cow. You’ve got to get them by the balls and you’ve got to squeeze, squeeze ‘em till they hurt.” “I’d heard that Lyndon Johnson enjoyed talking in graphic, down-home terms,” Lewis later acknowledged, “but I wasn’t quite prepared for all those bulls and balls” (346).

91. Lewis, Walking with the Wind, 340.

92. Johnson’s enormous ambition, invested in the bold commitment to create a Great Society, could hardly be indifferent to world affairs. “History has a peculiar ability to forget what a president does at home and judges him on the size of his impact on the world beyond his shores,” Bill Moyers wrote in a memo to Johnson in June 1965. This “irony of judgment” would determine Johnson’s place in history. “Some president, some day, will come along and pass programs topping the Great Society—the country will have greater needs than today and he will have more GNP to use in solving them.” Moyers’s memo concluded, “But no president is likely again to have the chance to redeem Southeast Asia from Red China—or keep the Communists out the Caribbean—or save the U.N.” Memorandum: Moyers to LBJ, 21 June 1965, Office Files of Bill Moyers.

93. Memoranda, Hayes Redmon to Bill Moyers, 27 November 1965 and 30 November 1965, in ibid.

94. As Kotz notes, both Kennedy and Johnson “failed to recognize a significant historical reality. The Communist Party’s fifty-year campaign to recruit African Americans to its cause had been a colossal failure.” Kotz, Judgment Days, 236.

95. Johnson telephone conversation with Martin Luther King, 20 August 1965, Johnson Tapes.

96. Kotz, Judgment Days, 353.

97. Richard Goodwin, Speech Draft, May 1965, White House Central File: SP 3-93, Box 172, Johnson Library; Johnson telephone conversation with King, 20 August 1965, Johnson tapes; Lyndon Johnson, “Commencement Address at Howard University: ‘To Fulfill These Rights,’” 4 June 1965, Public Papers of the Presidents: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965, 2:636.

98. Johnson telephone conversation with King, 20 August 1965.

99. Ibid.

100. Branch, Taylor, The Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965–1968 (New York, 2006), 234.Google Scholar

101. Carter, David Charles, “Two Nations: Social Insurgency and National Civil Rights Policymaking in the Johnson Administration, 1965–1968” (Ph.D. diss., Duke University, 2001), 320.Google Scholar

102. Mann, Robert, The Walls of Jericho: Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Russell, and the Struggle for Civil Rights (New York, 1996), 480.Google Scholar

103. Carmichael, Stokely and Hamilton, Charles V., Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America (New York, 1967), 40 (emphasis in original).Google Scholar

104. The openly segregationist campaigns in Arkansas and Maryland did not succeed because pro–civil rights majorities formed behind the moderate Republican candidacies of Winthrop Rockefeller, Nelson’s brother, and Spiro Agnew, a big Nelson supporter, respectively. See Paul Hope, “New Faces Mark Victory of Republicans,” Washington Star, 9 November 1966.

105. Interview with Harry McPherson, Sidney M. Milkis, 30 July 1985.

106. Public Papers of the Presidents: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1967, 2 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1968), 1:721, 723.

107. In June 1965, James Rowe, who ran Johnson’s 1964 campaign, informed the president that the Office of Economic Opportunity was “giving instructions and grants to local private groups for the purpose of training the Negro poor on how to conduct sit-ins and protest meetings against government agencies, federal, state and local.” Johnson passed this memo on to Bill Moyers, with a pointed note: “For God’s sake, get on top of this and stop it at once.” Memorandum, James Rowe to the President, 29 June 1965, White House Central File: Aides, Moyers, Johnson Library. Shriver “started a damn revolution,” LBJ complained to Richard Daley a few months later. Telephone conversation with Richard Daley, 24 December 1965, Johnson Tapes.

108. On the Johnson administration’s attempt to craft a “new” liberal coalition, see Milkis, Sidney M., “Lyndon Johnson, the Great Society, and the Modern Presidency,” in The Great Society and the High Tide of Liberalism, ed. Milkis, and Mileur, Jerome (Amherst, 2005).Google Scholar

109. As LBJ privately told Hubert Humphrey in the spring of 1968: “I could not be the rallying force to unite the country and meet the problems confronted by the nation . . . in the face of a contentious campaign and the negative attitudes towards [me] of the youth, Negroes, and academics.” W. W. Rostow, Memorandum of Conversation, Participants: The President; the Vice President; Charles Murphy; W. W. Rostow, 5 April 1968, White House Famous Names, Box 6, Folder: Robert F. Kennedy, 1968 Campaign, Johnson Library.

110. Following R. Shep Melnick, by “civil rights state” we mean “not just the abstract rights and policies announced by the courts, Congress, and federal agencies, but the dense institutional structures developed over the decades to define the meaning of such key terms as “discrimination” and “equal opportunity,” to establish detailed guidelines for the many public officials and private parties subject to civil rights laws, to monitor their compliance, and to impose sanctions on those who fail to comply.” R. Shep Melnick, “The Great Debate over the Civil Rights State,” paper presented at the American Enterprise Institute, 12 May 2010.

111. Graham, Hugh Davis, The Civil Rights Era: Origins and Development of National Policy, 1960–1972 (New York, 1990), 106.Google Scholar

112. Ibid., 4 and 114–454.

113. Ibid., 462–63. On the critical role that the courts played in mounting the civil rights state, with special attention to the rewriting of Title VII, see Frymer, Paul, “Acting When Elected Officials Won’t: Federal Courts and Civil Rights Enforcement in the U.S. Labor Unions, 1935–85,” American Political Science Review 97, no. 3 (August 2003): 483–99.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

114. On the connection between the Great Society and the reform politics of the 1970s, see Melnick, R. Shep, “From Tax and Spend to Mandate and Sue: Liberalism After the Great Society,” in Milkis, and Mileur, , eds., The Great Society and the High Tide of Liberalism.”Google Scholar

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