"At times, history and fate meet in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom," asserted President Lyndon Johnson 40 years ago. "So it was last week in Selma, Alabama." Speaking to Congress and to millions watching on television, Johnson recalled the brutal assault that had occurred in Selma a few days earlier, on Sunday, March 7, 1965. On that infamous day, Alabama authorities had mercilessly beaten a peaceful group of black and white protesters, whose aim was simple: to gain the right to vote for black Southerners.
Among those watching Johnson on television that evening was Martin Luther King Jr., whose eyes filled with tears when the president said that the entire nation had to "overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice." And then he exclaimed, "We shall overcome!" Many in the Capitol were moved by the president's words, inspired by the fact that Johnson, a son of the Jim Crow South, had invoked the language of the black struggle.
As Nick Kotz reminds us in "Judgment Days," until fairly recently, Southern schools, restaurants, hotels, and swimming pools were segregated. Blacks could not serve on Southern juries; they endured discrimination in housing and employment; and black citizens in the South were not allowed to vote. But with the start of the 1960s, the ground began to shift, and according to Kotz, Johnson and King played a critical role in helping America realize its age-old promise.
With King and Johnson at the center of his narrative, Kotz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, includes new material that freshens an oft-told tale. Using recently released recordings of telephone conversations in which the loquacious Johnson sought to influence political and civil rights leaders, Kotz paints a memorable portrait of a president responding to the campaign for black freedom. Inspired by Franklin Roosevelt, Johnson fervently believed the federal government had an obligation to aid the oppressed, and "Judgment Days" traces L.B.J.'s tireless effort to pass the landmark laws that would empower black Americans.
Discussing civil rights legislation with Sen. Richard Russell, Georgia's arch segregationist, Johnson warned, "Dick, you've got to get out of my way. If you don't, I'm going to roll over you. I don't intend to cavil or compromise."
True to his word, the president ran great political risks in backing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed institutionalized segregation. And the following year, Johnson energetically supported the Voting Rights Act, which guaranteed blacks the right to vote, something white Southerners had denied them throughout most of the 20th century. Thus, Johnson, the first Southerner to occupy the White House in nearly 50 years, had done more to advance the black struggle than had any president since Lincoln.
In recent years, it has become fashionable among some historians to minimize King's importance to the civil rights movement. Many scholars now focus on less celebrated figures and consider the way ordinary people energized the crusade. But "Judgment Days" traces how King propelled the movement forward by combining the oratory of the black preacher with the talents of a master political strategist.
If King's story has been told before, it is well to be reminded of the intellect, tenacity, and sheer courage he possessed as he guided the movement from the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56 to the perilous campaigns in Birmingham and beyond.
Still, the most gripping sections of the book concern the less noble figure of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who harbored a pathological hatred for King. The director was determined to undermine King's work.
Beyond the FBI's spurious assertions about his Communist connections, the bureau also monitored King's extramarital liaisons, and shared its findings with Johnson and the press.
Hoover believed King's faithlessness made the minister unfit to lead. "I am amazed that the Pope gave an audience to such a degenerate," Hoover wrote, after King met with the pontiff in 1964.
And when King won the Nobel Peace Prize that same year, Hoover registered his disgust: "King could well qualify for the 'top alley cat' prize."
Rather than apprehending those responsible for the beatings, bombings, and murders of innocent men, women, and children, the FBI spent its time compiling a dossier on King's dalliances. In one instance, the FBI tried to drive King to suicide by sending him a hate letter and a tape that agents had made of his extramarital activities. "King, there is only one thing left for you to do," the letter stated. "There is but one way out.... You better take it before your filthy, abnormal, fraudulent self is bared to the nation."
The recording ultimately wound up in the hands of Mrs. King, who was shocked by its contents. This, then, was how the nation's premier law enforcement agency worked to assist the noblest cause in modern American legal history.
Notwithstanding the obsessions of J. Edgar Hoover, the mid-1960s was a time of considerable progress. If the legislative triumphs of 1964 and 1965 were followed by the divisions produced by Vietnam and the turmoil following King's assassination, "Judgment Days" is a powerful reminder that the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts transformed the lives not just of black citizens, but of every American.
• Jonathan Rosenberg teaches American history at Hunter College of the City University of New York. He is the coauthor of "Kennedy, Johnson, and the Quest for Justice: The Civil Rights Tapes."