Lady Bird Johnson died, and predictably the papers are filled with obituaries talking about her contribution to the esthetics of America’s roadways. This is predictably shallow. I was very moved by the tribute that Sid Blumenthal pens this morning at Salon.com, in which he reminds us that Lady Bird was a Southern Lady from a very prominent Montgomery, Alabama family—and she was defined by her conscience, not by her concern about highway billboards.
Lady Bird belonged to the other South, the liberal South that confronted the harsh realities of segregation and the monolithic system of power that enforced it. She came to her beliefs gradually and, like many other Southerners, engaged in an internal struggle to remake herself and her legacy. She was born, 94 years ago, in a part of East Texas 10 miles from the Louisiana border, amid cotton plantations and “many, many blacks,” she wrote, “totally part of the Old South … a whole feudal way of life.” The bricks of her large house had been handmade by slaves. Her grandfather had fought for the Confederacy at Shiloh. Her father was known to whites as “Cap’n” and to blacks simply as “Mister Boss.” Her mother came a big and influential family in Alabama, where as a girl Lady Bird spent her summers.
“She did not start out as an all-out civil rights person. It took getting there,” Harry McPherson, a longtime aide to Lyndon Johnson, told me. “My recollection is of an enormously civilized woman who was also politically intelligent and knew how important the civil rights issue was to the country and to her husband. That was the main tide she was sailing on. But there was a riptide, the long Southern background, the Montgomery, Alabama, background of her family.”
Sometimes the day’s must-read can be an obituary. And that’s the case today.