Our Civil Rights, and Biden's Legacy, Are on the Line | Opinion

When President Lyndon B. Johnson took office in 1963, his advisors urged him to abandon President John F. Kennedy's push for civil rights legislation. If he didn't, they warned, he would lose the support of the southern Democrats who were pivotal to his election. LBJ famously replied, "Well, what the hell's the presidency for?"

President Joe Biden now faces his own civil rights fight. As states introduce hundreds of voter suppression bills targeting communities of color, and Senate Republicans stonewall the sweeping voting rights measure, Biden should push the U.S. Senate to end the filibuster and pass the For The People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to save our democracy from Jim Crow 2.0.

That's what President Johnson would do. Rather than follow the advice of his advisors, Johnson took bold action to advance civil rights for Black Americans. As veteran Washington Post journalist Mary McGrory put it, Johnson employed "an incredible, potent mixture of persuasion, badgering, flattery, threats, reminders of past favors and future advantages" to pass two of the most critical pieces of legislation of the 20th century: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Johnson used every tool in his arsenal to address what he called "an American problem." To Georgia Senator Richard Russell, a renowned segregationist and the leading voice in the Senate filibuster against the Civil Rights Act, he said: "Dick, I love you and I owe you. But ... I'm going to run over you if you challenge me on this civil rights bill." He encouraged Senator Hubert Humphrey, who authored the Civil Rights Act, and Majority Leader Mike Mansfield to put pressure on Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen and others to break the Republican filibuster. He met with civil rights leaders like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. regularly and continued to voice his commitment to the cause in speeches and public appearances. When the Senate invoked cloture in June 1964, bringing an end to the longest filibuster in history, it's believed that Johnson's tactics swayed as many as a dozen senators to pass the Civil Rights Act.

President Joe Biden speaks
President Joe Biden speaks about the Child Tax Credit relief payments that are part of the American Rescue Plan during an event in the Eisenhower Executive Office building in Washington, D.C., July 15, 2021. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Now, decades later, a party increasingly out of touch with the majority of Americans and unable to win in free and fair elections is determined to roll back the rights and democratic practices for which President Johnson and the Civil Rights Movement fought so ardently. Republicans have proposed over 380 bills in state legislatures designed to restrict voting rights, particularly among Democratic-leaning communities of color. Georgia's latest voting law is so stringent that the U.S. Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit against the state. The Supreme Court, with three new Trump appointees, dealt the latest blow with its Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee decision to uphold Arizona's voting restrictions, significantly weakening the efficacy of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

As Senate Democrats seek to overcome the Republican filibuster and resistance from Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia to pass the For The People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, President Biden now has the opportunity to follow Johnson's lead, cementing his own legacy as a champion of civil rights.

Biden has called for the need to protect and expand voting rights. But he has yet to call for an end to the filibuster, that "Jim Crow relic" as former President Barack Obama called it last year at John Lewis' funeral, instead deferring to obstructionists like Senator Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

Like Joe Biden, Lyndon B. Johnson served as vice president and for many years as senator before ascending to the presidency. With his years of experience, Johnson understood the power of the presidency to bend recalcitrant senators to his will and to advance his civil rights agenda for the American people. If Biden hopes to succeed with the agenda that the American people voted for and desperately need, he too must abandon political caution and use all of the tools and power of the presidency to do what's right for Americans and for the future of American democracy. The eyes of history are on him.

John Bonifaz is the co-founder and president of Free Speech For People.

Ben Clements is the chairman and senior legal advisor for Free Speech For People.

Free Speech For People is a national non-profit legal advocacy organization dedicated to defending our democracy and our Constitution.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.