19 MARCH 1965, Page 4


President Johnson's Challenge



Mr. Johnson has been splendid enough this weekend to make those of us uneasy with his style wish that the whole world were Texas and all its victims old coloured ladies, all its oppres- sors Southern sheriffs and all his opponents Southern governors.

He began the week badly, as he has begun so many weeks since his inauguration. On the Sunday before it, the State troopers of Alabama and a partisan force identified as the posse of Sheriff James Clark of Dallas County fell upon a group of Negroes parading for the right to vote with a violence compounded of that sense of release policemen everywhere feel when they are set free from protracted restraint, and of that sense of rectitude which Southern policemen par- ticularly bring to the beating of Negroes.

They are a fortunate people whose Sharpevilles are within reach of plane or car. Something like a thousand ministers had come to Selma from all over the country by Tuesday, their assembly including the special poignance of a covey of nuns. There was another march where violence was only avoided by delicate manoeuvres over face which showed the obvious touch of the President. That night, four white men struck down the Reverend James Reeb, one of those who had followed this sudden widespread im- pulse, on the streets of Selma. The White House had im contribution to these events except a statement that the President deplored their brutalities; it was, in the context of the moment, hardly less pitiful than Mr. Kennedy's unfor- tunate formalities after the bombings in Birmingham.

By Wednesday, Mr. Reeb was plainly dying and 'substantial segments of the population were displaying the new national habit of voting with the feet all over the country. On Thursday, fourteen Washington students joined the White House tour and then sat down for seven hours in one of its public rooms to support their demand for federal punishment of Alabama. The President acted for most of the time as though tlese intruders were not in what he later called 'my home' and then, quite unexpectedly, had them ejected. Douglas Kiker, White House cor- respondent of the Herald Tribune, caught the President's posture in tones unexpectedly caustic:

The President [said Kikerj is approaching this racial crisis much in the same way that he has approached the Vietnam crisis.

Publicly he deliberately avoids a show of concern. He attempts to give the impression that all is in control and there really is nothing to get excited about.

But, in the end, his response is one of sudden, sharp use of force.

The President did seem by Thursday night altogether the uncertain sensitive man he has plainly been in his reaction to those Democratic Senators who have taken a position an inch or so short of absolute faith in his Asian policy. And here he was confronting a situation which seemed no more amenable to his passion for neatness and order than Vietnam. He had not, one thinks, until now quite appreciated the extent of that commitment to civil rights which the Negro example has finally forced on a general population which for more than a decade had been notable for apathy. The fourteen children who sat down in the White House were no more than a handful; but, in the extremity of their bad manners, they were representative of a spirit of disorder suddenly loose in a nation whose President had until now seen his task as the avoidance of disorder. We are an extraordinary nation; Jawaharlal Nehru seems in the very course of its celebration to have buried Gandhi- ism in India; and here it was in full flourish in Mr. Johnson's hallway.

His temper did not visibly improve Friday. The White House was surrounded by disre- spectful pickets; the President sat down with a group of ministers just returned from Selma and found himself at once in a quarrel. He would not, he told them at the end, be 'blackjacked' into precipitate action. His visitors emerged almost as irritated as their host, and they found their fellow demonstrators more irritated still. 'We didn't come '1,500 miles to be jeered at,' one Lutheran minister cried. 'What are we going to tell our people?'

On Saturday Governor Wallace of Alabama came to see the President. Outside the White House there were two picket signs reading: `Wallace, Go Home and Take Lyndon with You.' Inside Mr. Johnson was back on the ground he knows best: he was telling a Southern governor that he didn't have the votes. Wallace departed with a minimum of courtesy; and, when he had gone, the President stood up before the reporters and all his irritations had finally and grandly focused on official Alabama:

Last Sunday a group of Negro Americans in Selma, Alabama, attempted peacefully to pro- test the denial of the most basic political right of all—the right to vote. They were attacked and some were brutally beaten. . . . We will not be moved by anyone or anything from the path of justice.

He reported that, in their conversations, he had made certain suggestions to Governor Wallace:

I told the Governor that the brutality in Selma last Sunday just must not be repeated. He agreed that he abhorred brutality and regretted any incidents in which any American citizen met with violence.

The President's slow and furry voice was as broad in its sarcasm and its dislike as it is in its customary tones of love and contentment. On Monday the President went before the Congress and summoned it to the passage of a wide and forceful statute guaranteeing the right to vote. His legislative agenda is already crowded; he had plainly wanted to let the issue rest for awhile after the passage of the Civil Rights law. Yet those unknown Negroes and those state troopers in Selma, and those crowds around his home had brought him here now with real and sudden commitment. No President had ever taken a position as flat and downright as the one he was taking now: still, it is hard to remember so many Americans so flatly and downrightedly demand- ing so much of their government.

And so. Mr. Johnson had, to his surprise and ours, been fed with that spirit which comes from below. Of all diets he has avoided it most, and. of all diets, none would seem to have agreed with him more.