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“Judgment Days” by Nick Kotz (Houghton Mifflin, 522 pages, $26) To be sure, there is no dearth of books on the civil rights activities of the 1960s. But Nick Kotz, journalist, author, and shrewd observer of the Washington scene, has weighed in with a compelling story keyed to the roles played by two extraordinary human beings in achieving the enactment of the two most significant pieces of civil rights legislation in the nation’s history: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Both then-President Lyndon Johnson and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. are uniformly recognized as having been major players in pressing Congress in the monumental effort required to pass tough, meaningful civil rights laws. What Kotz has produced in “Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws That Changed America” is a narrative setting out in great detail how these two complicated and, in some ways, flawed individuals, with their outsized egos and vastly different personal styles, worked together, and sometimes not together, to achieve the landmark legislation. Kotz had access to taped conversations, formal documents, oral histories, and a vast library of books and articles, not to mention the 150 interviews he conducted (including one with this reviewer). He also possessed, apparently, boundless energy and painstaking patience in gathering the strands of the story and weaving them together to provide a “fly on the wall” flavor to the narrative. LBJ’s decision to use the shattering impact of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination as a powerful ramrod to secure enactment of the civil rights legislation pending in Congress on Nov. 22, 1963, was classic Johnson legislative strategy. Not only was it a rallying trumpet, but also it would show, if anyone was interested, that LBJ could get accomplished what the martyred JFK could not. After the bill was introduced in June 1963, Kennedy launched a broad effort to build public support for the legislation by conducting a series of meetings with national leaders in the East Room of the White House. JFK directed that LBJ, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall be present at every meeting, so as to show the administration’s commitment to achieving enactment. Included in the groups were educators, labor leaders, business leaders, lawyers, and religious leaders. The last group he hit especially hard, pointing out that our nation’s treatment of minorities was the great moral issue of our time and, for the most part, church leaders had ignored it. Obviously, no one will ever know whether the bill would have made it into law without the push it received from the subsequent assassination. King, the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, had emerged from the pack of civil rights leaders because of his personal involvement in such highly visible activities as the bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., by that city’s black population, sparked by the dramatic flouting of local law by a tired Rosa Parks. He had a keen sense of the importance and power of visualized events. As Kotz notes, it was the “I Have a Dream” speech that King delivered at the August 1963 March on Washington that resonated throughout the country and the world. He had come to symbolize the civil rights movement. The president and the civil rights leader were major players, but a cast of hundreds if not thousands were also in the arena, including Bobby Kennedy, who testified nine straight days on the bill, Deputy Attorney General (and later AG) Nick Katzenbach, Burke Marshall, and White House Congressional Liaison Larry O’Brien. Equally crucial to the effort were Sens. Hubert Humphrey, D-Minn., and Everett Dirksen, R-Ill., Rep. William McCulloch, R-Ohio, and many other legislators. But to use a term heard recently, passage was no slam-dunk. Kotz has it all, including the poignant conversations LBJ had with his great friend and mentor Richard Russell, the Democratic senator from Georgia who was the vigorous and resourceful leader of the legislation’s opposition in the Senate. It was high drama involving, as it did, the most contentious issue this country ever faced. The march from Selma to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama, was perhaps the trickiest and most difficult event on the road to a Voting Rights Act. On March 7, 1965, known as “Bloody Sunday,” Alabama troopers confronted protesters at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and viciously beat them, including the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, John Lewis, now a Democratic congressman from Georgia. So as not to allow the movement to be deterred by the beatings, King assembled hundreds of marchers, including some prominent national personalities, for a second march on Montgomery, to take place two days later. A firm, courageous federal district judge in Montgomery, Frank Johnson, an Eisenhower appointee, ordered King to delay the march a few days so that he could decide whether to issue a restraining order protecting the marchers. King had to choose between disappointing the fired-up marchers and being roundly criticized by other leaders, on the one hand, and disobeying a federal judge’s order, on the other. The impasse was resolved by negotiators led by Gov. Leroy Collins of Florida, and Judge Johnson authorized the second march in forceful language installing him as one of the heroes of the story. He was reviled and his life was constantly threatened, demonstrating that the recent rash of judicial harassments and deaths are not new phenomena. Of course, the outrages of Selma provided the engine for the Voting Rights Act, which, compared to the 1964 act, was a breeze. LBJ accurately predicted the Democratic Party would lose the South for a couple of generations. If Judge Johnson was a hero, the plot had a certified villain in J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Kotz details the shoddy efforts on the part of the FBI to smear King’s reputation. In his personal life, King may not have been a candidate for sainthood, but the efforts to peddle transcripts of wiretaps to journalists and to claim he was influenced by Communists when the bureau knew that to be false have to be some of the worst examples of governmental misconduct. Although Kotz never quite flatly asserts that the legislation would not have been enacted without the efforts of King, there is an implied thesis that “they did it together.” Not to denigrate King’s contribution, but to this observer, Johnson’s legislative wizardry, especially in 1964 and 1965, was so potent that those bills were going to be enacted with or without the efforts of King. The working relationship between LBJ and King was never free of some suspicion on both sides. It was totally shattered, however, when King broke with the president over the Vietnam War. The Johnson administration’s tragic missteps in handling Vietnam still taint its legacy, but the administration will always be honored and lauded for its contribution to reducing discrimination against the nation’s minorities. Kotz has produced a valuable and very readable rendering of how two widely diverse people contributed to a remarkable legislative achievement. It takes a master storyteller to create a suspenseful narrative when the outcome is known to all. Lee C. White is of counsel to Spiegel & McDiarmid. He was a civil rights adviser to President John F. Kennedy as assistant special counsel, and to President Lyndon Baines Johnson, as special counsel.

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