In my last post, I asserted that Lyndon Johnson brilliantly seized a fleeting moment in American history and used his unique skills to accomplish what few others could have or would have: the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. It is not racist to admit this obvious truth. If you love civil rights, three cheers for Lyndon Johnson!

Lyndon Johnson struck many observers as an unlikely champion of civil rights in that he was a Democrat, a Southerner (Texan), and a famously adroit legislative deal maker, known for his ability to count votes and bend opponents to his interests. While he had articulated the southern orthodoxy of racial segregation early in his career, he famously proclaimed that his later actions sprang from a "change of heart."

Johnson's authentic sensitivity toward the plight of African Americans was sincere, organic, and a lifetime in the making. However, a legend has grown up around this historic legislative accomplishment.

According to the tradition, after signing the landmark legislation in 1964, Johnson purportedly turned to a young aide and proclaimed: "We have lost the South for a generation." This jewel of political prescience is a favorite for pundits and academics, illustrating for many LBJ's courage, integrity, and dedication to racial justice in the face of certain electoral disaster.

Did Johnson really say it?

Perhaps. The source for the quote is Bill Moyers, Johnson's youthful press secretary at the time. Is Moyers a credible historical source? His access and proximity to the President certainly makes him worth considering. On the other hand, I sometimes have difficulty determining when Moyers is preaching, reporting, or opining; more troubling, I am not sure that even he is always readily capable of such distinctions.

Even if the quote is accurate, was Johnson really conceding the South to his arch rivals, the Republicans?

Not likely. No matter how convicted the Texan president found himself on civil rights, he was no political martyr. As vice president, pitching a civil rights bill to President Kennedy, Ted Sorenson remembers Johnson arguing that the losses in the South (if they occurred) would come from states that were already in transition. In effect, Johnson made the case that much of the South was lost anyway. In fact, the Republicans had already made giant strides in the region during the Eisenhower administration.

Could Johnson actually have envisioned the inclusion of African American voters as a curative for an emerging realignment?

And this is where the unabashed speculation begins...

Johnson came of age politically on the edge of South Texas where Democratic Party bosses had "voted Mexicans" en masse with regularity and success; that is, truckloads of brown-skinned voters would be carted to polling places on election day and instructed for whom to vote, for a price. For that time and place, using Latino votes as a blunt instrument was merely politics as usual.

Moreover, Johnson came of age in an era in which the Huey Long Machine in Louisiana, his neighboring state to the east, voted African Americans in massive numbers. Long had proved himself a visionary in this regard. While every other southern state took great pains to bar black voting in any significant numbers during the Jim-Crow Era, Long boldly combined the black vote with poor whites to achieve a populist coalition and a personal fiefdom in the Bayou State.

Was Johnson influenced by these examples of successfully manipulating minority votes? Frankly, I am not nearly enough of a Johnson scholar to make that case with any specificity or certainty.

However, this alternative explanation makes at least as much sense as the more popular legend. While sincerely believing in civil rights, Johnson was also inclined to pursue the transformational legislation with a hope of wresting a more secure political future for his party. In many ways, this scenario is a better fit with the LBJ we think we know than a political suicide mission to achieve justice no matter the cost.