A few weeks ago a dear friend told me a story that he’d heard told by Robert McNamara:
“Robert McNamara described a personal experience that Lyndon Baines Johnson had that taught the President what life can be like for people who are the targets of injustice.
LBJ began his work in Washington as a Representative in the House and then, in 1948, he became the junior Senator from Texas. It was a time before flying was as fast (or affordable) as it is today, so he and Lady Bird Johnson used to go back and forth between Washington and their home in West Texas by car. They did not take the wheel themselves – they regularly employed African American drivers, often men who worked for them both in Washington and at their ranch. The trip took a couple of days and included the usual breaks and rest stops.
McNamara said that he had been told by LBJ that on an early trip the driver, whom he knew well, had said to him, in a very embarrassed way, that he needed to stop on a remote stretch of the road so he could take a bathroom break in a nearby field. LBJ asked him why he hadn’t used the restroom when they stopped for gas.
The driver looked at him and replied quietly, ‘Because there is not a filling station between Washington and Johnson City where a black man can use the toilet.’
Johnson had known for a very long time of both the legal structure of segregation and that it applied to bathrooms as well as to housing, schools, and lunch counters. But this time a man he knew well had shown him how the rules worked even in small ways in day-to-day life.
LBJ told McNamara that although he had always been pretty pro-civil rights – especially for a Texas politician – this incident was the first time he’d encountered what segregation really meant for the people it oppressed. McNamara said that Johnson told this story with such feeling that he believed it had been a powerful factor in LBJ’s embrace of the cause of meaningful civil rights legislation. LBJ did promote and support this legislation in many ways, even though he believed (accurately) that it would destroy the Democratic Party in the South.”
When I first heard this story it made me pause, and then remember events that were part of a distant history. I’d forgotten about the powerful legacy that Johnson had left – with the Voting Rights Act, The War on Poverty, Medicare and Medicaid and other initiatives – because I had lost respect for him over his involvement in the Vietnam War. LBJ was a forceful leader and his Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara (who had first been appointed by Kennedy) was brilliant, but despite their positive accomplishments they had both rightly suffered a great loss of reputation and regard because of their responsibility for the Vietnam War. This story allowed me to see both men in a different light. It also reminded me not to assess others – of whatever rank in life – too quickly. We are all complex, plus-and-minus beings, and we need to see the common humanity in all of us – whether we drive cars or have great political power.
Edith Wharton wrote something that adds to this story for me:“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”
This time, Lyndon Johnson, with his willingness to see another person clearly and to take action to begin righting a great wrong, was the candle and Robert McNamara, in telling the story, was the mirror. I’m glad to have heard this story now – when we really need both ways of spreading light.