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Character Sketches

Character Sketches
Chapter 38: The Stormy Sixties, 1960 - 1968


Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908 - 1973)

Johnson was a highly skilled Senate majority leader in the 1950s and was frustrated by his powerlessness as Kennedys vice president.

The son of a flamboyant Texas state senator, Lyndon often joined him amid the colorful, corrupt atmosphere of Austin. Johnsons first venture into politics came at San Marcos Teachers College, where he formed a student political group, the White Stars, to take control of campus activities and jobs from a rival group, the Black Stars.

Johnson briefly taught high school in Houston and organized successful student debate teams that traveled all over the state. He became a congressional assistant in Washington and learned to imitate the congressmans voice on the phone well enough to carry on extensive conversations with callers.

Roosevelt treated Johnson as a special young protégé and invited him to go sailing as a particular favor. Johnson lost his first senate race in 1941 but won his next try in 1948 by 87 votesa result that earned him the nickname Landslide Lyndon.

Quote: I knew from the start that I was bound to be crucified either way I moved. If I left the woman I lovedthe Great Societyin order to get involved with that bitch of a war on the other side of the world, then I would lose everything at home. All my programs, all my dreams. But if I left that war and let the communists take over South Vietnam, then I would be seen as a coward and my nation would be seen as an appeaser and we would find it impossible to accomplish anything for anyone anywhere on the entire globe. (Conversation, 1970)

REFERENCE: Robert Dallek, Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1908 - 1960 (1991).


Martin Luther King, Jr. (1928 - 1968)

King was much criticized in his lifetime, but in 1986 his birthday began to be celebrated as a national holidaythe first such honor given to a black American.

He came from a long line of Baptist preachers. His father, Martin Luther King, Sr., was pastor at Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta, and Martin, Jr., was for a time copastor with him.

King and his wife, Coretta Scott, both came from the middle-class Atlanta black community. He experienced sharper discrimination when he went north to study theology. King earned his doctorate from Boston University with a dissertation on the doctrine of God and also studied the nonviolent teachings of Gandhi. Later he and his wife visited India to learn more about Gandhian techniques.

During Kings civil rights campaign in Chicago in 1966, he lived in a ghetto slum on the West Side. His outspoken attacks on the Vietnam War caused considerable criticism that he was not sticking to civil rights issues. At the time of his assassination, he was conducting a campaign for black garbage workers in Memphis.

Quote: When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of Gods children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of that old Negro spiritual, Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last! (I Have a Dream speech, 1963)

REFERENCE: David L. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1986).


John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917 - 1963)

Kennedy achieved a narrow victory in 1960 and for most of his time in office had to battle for political support, but after his assassination he entered the pantheon of national heroes.

Through much of his youth, Kennedy struggled to compete with his more athletic and glamorous older brother, Joseph Kennedy, Jr. After Joes combat death in World War II, John took his place as the focus of his fathers ambitions for the presidency.

Kennedys Harvard senior thesis was published as a book, Why England Slept, with the aid of his father. During his youth, Kennedy was often seriously ill with back troubles compounded by Addisons disease, which was thought to be life-threatening. In 1954 he underwent major back surgery and missed the Senate vote censuring Joseph McCarthy.

Kennedy was cool, skeptical, sardonic, and well read. He had a reputation as a playboy but was also a sober, well-disciplined, determined politician who used his abilities to the fullest.

Quote: Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and throughout the world. (Inaugural address, 1961)

REFERENCES: Herbert Parmet, Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy (1980); JFK: The Presidency of John F. Kennedy (1983); Thomas Reeves, A Question of Character: A Life of John Kennedy (1991).


Robert Francis Kennedy (1925 - 1968)

Kennedy was the younger brother of President John Kennedy who became a leader of the antiVietnam War movement before his assassination during the presidential campaign of 1968.

The third of the Kennedy brothers, Robert had great difficulty keeping up with his older, favored brothers Joseph, Jr., and John. For much of his political career he operated in the background as John Kennedys political manager and adviser.

Kennedy was long distrusted by liberals because of his association with Senator Joseph McCarthy, and by labor because of his involvement with Senate committees investigating union racketeering. During his years as attorney general (1961 - 1964), he carried on a fierce prosecution of Teamster boss James Hoffa and eventually saw him convicted.

Kennedy became deeply depressed after his brothers assassination, but revived once he resigned as attorney general and won election as U.S. senator from New York in 1964. He disliked Johnson intensely, but at first hesitated to break with him because he thought Johnson would regard Kennedys antiwar position as a purely personal vendetta.

Quote: Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. (To Seek a Newer World, 1967)

REFERENCE: Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Robert F. Kennedy and His Times (1978).



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