AUSTIN, Texas – Luci Baines Johnson was a somewhat impatient 18-year-old on Aug. 6, 1965, when she happened to be on what she called “daddy duty,” meaning “I was supposed to accompany him to important occasions.”
The occasion that day was President Lyndon Johnson’s scheduled signing of the Voting Rights Act, which Congress had passed the day before. She assumed the ceremony would be in the East Room of the White House, where the Civil Rights Act had been signed the previous year.
“And that would probably take an hour and then I could be on my way,” she recalled in a recent interview from the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas.
Instead, her father met her and guided her to the South Portico, where the presidential motorcade was waiting. They were going to Congress.
Knowing a trip to Capitol Hill would take more time than she anticipated, she asked why.
“‘We are going to Congress because there are going to be some courageous men and women who may not be returning to Congress because of the stand they have taken on voting rights,’” she recalled her father telling her. ”‘And there are going to be some extraordinary men and women who will be able to come to the Congress because of this great day. That’s why we’re going to Congress.’”
Johnson, who stood behind her father during the signings, knew the significance of the law and asked him afterward why he had presented the first signing pen to Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, a Republican from Illinois, when so many civil rights champions were on hand.
“Luci Baines, I did not have to say or do anything to convince one of those great civil rights leaders to be for that legislation,” she recalled him saying. “If Everett Dirksen hadn’t been willing to be so courageous to support it, too, and more importantly brought his people along ... we’d never have had a law.”
Johnson said personal relationships and events in her father’s life influenced his thinking on civil rights and voting rights, as well as many of the social programs he helped establish.
Some of that can be traced to his life before politics when he was a teacher in Cotulla, Texas, where most of his students were Mexican American. They were wonderful and eager, but often hungry and very poor, she said.
“He thought he’d grown up poor so he would understand what their plight was like,” she said. “But he had never gone without a toothbrush. He had never gone without toothpaste. He had never gone without shoes. He had never known the kind of discrimination that they had known.”
“He swore if he ever got in a position to change the trajectory of the lives of people of color” he would, she said.
Johnson said she was saddened in 2013 when the Supreme Court released its ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which essentially ended a provision of the Voting Rights Act mandating the way states were included on the list of those needing to get advance approval for voting-related changes.
“I cried because I knew what was coming. I knew that there were parts of this country, including my home state, my father’s home state, that would take advantage of the fact that there would no longer be an opportunity to have the federal government ensure that everyone in the community had the right and equal access to the voting booth,” she said.
“I have seen over a lifetime so much take place that has tried to close the doors on all those rights,” she said. “I’m 75 years old now, and my energies are less than they once were, but for all of my days I will do all I can to try to keep those doors open to people of color, people who are discriminated against because of their age, or their ethnicity or their physical handicaps.”
On Thursday, the Supreme Court issued a ruling on another core provision of the Voting Rights Act, one that is designed to protect the voting rights of minorities. A 5-4 court majority sided with plaintiffs who had argued that Alabama's congressional maps diluted the influence of Black voters.
Johnson said she wants to continue fighting to protect voting rights and maintain her father’s legacy.
“I don’t want to get to heaven one day, and I hope I do, and have to say to my father, it was gutted to death on my watch,” she said.
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