Alas, an Uncivil Alliance

Book cover
Judgment Daysby By Nick KotzHoughton Mifflin. 544p $26
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were historical landmarks. This double-barreled assault on apartheid in the United States was the first time since 1875 that Congress was able to muster the votes necessary to make good on the Constitution’s promise of equality. Until then, all civil rights measures designed to protect African-Americans against discrimination succumbed to Southern filibusters in the United States Senate. The significance of the two civil rights acts cannot be exaggerated. The first desegregated public facilities, banned racial discrimination in public places, barred employers from discriminating on the basis of race and proscribed racial discrimination in all federally assisted programs. The Voting Rights Act likewise possessed a sharp set of teeth. Its practical effect was to ban literary tests and other practices used to deny African-Americans access to the ballot. Together these statutes constituted nothing less than a second emancipation proclamation.

In Judgment Days, Nick Kotz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and close student of the civil rights movement, tells the story behind the passage of these celebrated statutes. Informed readers will find much that is familiar in this richly documented account of the civil rights battles of the mid-1960’s. Less familiar may be the account of how President Johnson and Martin Luther King conspired to win congressional approval of the two laws that changed America (as the book’s subtitle puts it). What makes Judgment Days captivatingand originalis the dramatic narrative woven by the author around the torments, weaknesses and power plays of these two complex personalities on behalf of a common cause. Relying on letters, oral histories, released telephone tapes, previously unexamined F.B.I. files and scores of interviews with former civil rights leaders, Kotz reconstructs an electrifying tale of the uneasy rivalry and sometimes stormy alliance between two men driven by different motives and obsessed by their place in history.


The year 1963 was pivotal in the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr., its leader, had often been arrested and jailed for mounting peaceful demonstrations against segregated practices and facilities in the South. King’s strategy of nonviolent resistance was met by the lethal force of fire hoses, police dogs and church bombings, one of which resulted in the killing of four Sunday-school children in Alabama. The killing of these innocents, amid threats on his own life, led King to deliver his famous I Have a Dream speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before the largest civil rights demonstration ever to occur in the United States. Moved by these events, President Kennedy proposed sweeping civil rights legislation but seemed temperamentally unprepared to lock horns with a Congress dominated by powerful Southern committee chairmen. Ironically, as Kotz points up in convincing detail, it would take the passion, cunning and tenacity of a Southern president distrusted by the civil rights community to press Congress into action.

Shortly after Kennedy’s assassination, President Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. struck an unlikely bargain. King would use his moral authority and stirring rhetoric to arouse the nation’s conscience and marshal popular support for strong civil rights legislation. Johnson in turn would work on Congress behind the scenes, employing all the tricks he had perfected as one of the Senate’s most powerful and wily majority leadersfrom personal one-on-one invitations to the Oval Office to bribing senators and representatives with promises of multimillion dollar contracts for their states and districts. (Johnson virtually bought the pro-civil rights vote of the Republican minority leader, Senator Everett Dirksen, with judicial appointments and federal projects for Illinois.) How Johnson won over recalcitrant congressmen and overcame the threat of major filibusters in the Senate is one of this book’s most fascinating accounts.

F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover is the third person who figures prominently in Kotz’s story. Hoover was convinced that King was part of a Communist conspiracy and did everything in his power to discredit him and the civil rights movement generally. Hoover’s tactics included eavesdropping practices that revealed King’s marital infidelities and other moral lapses, but Johnson appeared to resist the temptation to publicize them, just as Hoover tended to limit the F.B.I.’s role in bringing racist law-breakers to justice. The interplay between Hoover and Johnson with respect to King is yet another intriguing facet of this book.

Kotz’s narrative helps to destroy popular stereotypes of his main characters. King the moralist turns out to have been a brilliant political strategist in his own right, orchestrating street demonstrations, occasionally in conflict with Johnson’s sense of the political, to highlight the injustices of racial discrimination. Johnson, on the other hand, often perceived as a crude and self-interested politician beholden to Texas oil interests, was passionately committed to the cause of civil rights. Given his own impoverished background, he idolized Franklin D. Roosevelt, identified with the underdog and pledged unwavering support to minorities and the dispossessed. What emerges from Judgment Daysin this reviewer’s eyesis a religious leader less noble and virtuous than his popular image and a political leader more devoted to racial equality and the common good than most Americans have been led to believe.

The lives of the two men, however, ended tragically, as did their alliance. King lost control of the civil rights movement to young militants convinced of the futility of nonviolence, whereas Johnson, mired in Vietnam, lost his popularity, even removing himself as a candidate for re-election in 1968. According to Kotz’s account, King intensified his criticism of Johnson’s war policy and, prior to his assassination, shifted emphasis from desegregation to the war on poverty. Johnson, like some leaders in the black civil rights community, thought King’s antiwar rhetoric and assault on inner-city poverty undermined his commitment to end discrimination in America. Yet bitter as Johnson felt toward Kingand the bitterness ran deepthe president, no longer burdened by an election campaign, pressed ahead with still another smashing victory on the civil rights front, having pulled out all the stops to secure the passage of the landmark Fair Housing Act of 1968.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

Neither a self-help book nor a how-to manual, One Beautiful Dream nonetheless inspires self-reflection and offers concrete, practical lessons embedded within colorful stories and memorable scenes.
Serena SigillitoJuly 13, 2018
The author of "The Devil Wears Prada" writes a sequel of sorts.
Megan K. McCabeJuly 13, 2018
An interpretive essay and some questions for reflection on the Catholic Book Club's new selection, "Dagger John" by John Loughery.
Kevin SpinaleJuly 11, 2018
A quiet life centered on the rhythms of prayer, work and play turns out to be...rather worth it.
Gregory HillisJuly 05, 2018