“We have lost the South for a generation”: What Lyndon Johnson said, or would have said if only he had said it

[Continuing our series on deception in politics and public policy.]

“We have lost the South for a generation,” President Lyndon B. Johnson told an aide after he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Not really, of course. Johnson didn’t say that.

I’ve examined more than a hundred uses of that quote, going back to what seems to be its first appearance in 2002 (as an indirect quote, one without quotation marks) and what seems to be its first appearance as a direct quote in 2004. That would be some 40 years after Johnson supposedly uttered it. Some falsely attribute the story to Johnson aide Bill Moyers, but not one writer or commentator using the quote includes a citation that tracks back to anyone who heard (or claims to have heard) LBJ say it. The quote directly contradicts earlier versions that appeared closer to the event. So it can be said with a high level of confidence that the quote is fake. There is simply no reason to believe it.

Yet it’s part of left-wing gospel.

Every person who follows politics has heard some version of the story: LBJ made the comment at some point on the day they passed the Civil Rights Act, or later on the morning of the day Johnson signed the legislation (that legislation being the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or maybe the Voting Rights Act of 1965), or he said it that evening as he lay in bed, or he said it at the conclusion of the signing ceremony when he turned to a friend, or maybe an aide, and said, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.” Or “for your lifetime.” Or “for a generation.” Or “We have lost the South for a generation.” Or maybe he said, “There goes the South.” And he was absolutely right: As a reaction to Johnson’s act of courage, the South turned Republican immediately, overnight, instantly, only 46 years later. Yessiree. That’s their story, and they’re sticking to it.

The details of the story aren’t important, after all, because the story is simply Too Good to Check.

In Part 2 of this column, I’ll deal with origin of the story and its disparate versions. First, let’s look at the version that has Johnson saying “We have lost the South for a generation.” Some examples:

►Racist preacher Al Sharpton said on his MSNBC show, July 2, 2014 (http://www.nbcnews.com/id/55568397/ns/msnbc-politicsnation/t/politicsnation-wednesday-july-nd/#.VDP4mvldUXw):

After Johnson signed the bill, he famously said he’d lost the South to the GOP for a generation.  Sadly, he was right. Here is the map of the states of the old Confederacy. Now look at the political map today. For just the second time since the Civil War, Republicans control the legislature in every Confederate state.

►Wikipedia handles it this way (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lyndon_B._Johnson):

Legend has it that, as he put down his pen, Johnson told an aide, “We have lost the South for a generation,” anticipating a coming backlash from Southern whites against Johnson’s Democratic Party.

Note that the Wikipedia entry calls it a legend, and there is no footnote.

►Quizlet, which produces quizzes that are used in schools, has the same fake information as Wikipedia, adding a smear directed at Richard Nixon and the Republicans:

Legend has it that, as he put down his pen, Johnson told an aide, “We have lost the South for a generation”, anticipating a coming backlash from Southern whites against Johnson’s Democratic Party. Moreover, Richard Nixon politically counterattacked with the Southern Strategy where it would “secure” votes for the Republican Party by grabbing the advocates of segregation as well as most of the Southern Democrats.

On the Quizlet site, a teacher is quoted: “This is my third year using Quizlet in my classroom. This has truly revolutionized the lives of my students. They are HUGE fans. I know they will be using Quizlet right through their college years.” And, presumably, voting in accord with the fake history they are taught.

►Snopes.com, the debunking website, does not have an entry for the quote. (Although Snopes is highly accurate, its creators are clearly sympathetic to the Left, and tend to avoid the debunking of left-wing myths by ignoring those myths.) There is, however, a comment in the site’s discussion section at http://message.snopes.com/showthread.php?t=79865:

Comment: Did Lyndon Johnson really say “We have lost the South for a generation” after signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It is sometimes prefaced “legend has it,” sometime it is said to have been a comment made to Bill Moyers, sometimes to Jack Valenti, sometimes to both. The earliest mention that I can find for it on Google Books is 1999, which seems like a prediction made after the fact. Presumably if Bill Moyers was the source it would be citable from one of his books, but I can’t find a verified citation. This seems fishy to me. I assume any qualified Johnson scholar could verify the quote, or consign it to legend.

Five commenters responded, none of them finding evidence for the quote. (Some of them refer to a quote from Johnson that expresses a similar sentiment.  In Part 2 of this column, I will discuss that quote, which was reported by a single, questionable individual.)

►Yahoo Answers (Answer.com) addresses the question:  “Why did LBJ say ‘We have lost the South for a generation’ after he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964?” at https://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20100522174050AAOFfJr . No one challenges the premise of the question, that Johnson said that. The “best answer,” by the site’s ranking system, is “He knew the results of his actions ahead of time, and he did what was right, not politically, but MORALLY correct.”

►When commentator Glenn Beck suggested that Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act to cement African-Americans to the Democratic Party, the left-wing, George Soros-funded Media Matters for America attacked Beck (http://mediamatters.org/blog/2010/10/26/becks-broke-lbj-passed-civil-rights-legislation/172464):

But was that really why Johnson supported the bills? Let’s put it this way: There’s no story about the president signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, turning to Bill Moyers, and saying, “We have won the black vote for a generation.” But there is one about Johnson telling Moyers, “We have lost the South for a generation.” You may recognize the quote; it’s probably the most famous thing Johnson is ever reported to have said, though Beck completely ignores it because it doesn’t fit his narrative. Johnson knowingly sacrificed a large chunk of the Democratic coalition to pass civil rights legislation.

That’s right: Media Matters attacked Beck on the ground that there’s “no story” of Johnson making the cynical statement that “”We have won the black vote for a generation,” while “there is one” (a story) that has Johnson saying “”We have lost the South for a generation.” According to Media Matters, what counted was whether there was such a story circulating, NOT WHETHER THE STORY WAS TRUE. (The link in the excerpt, which appears in the original, goes to a Salon tribute to Lady Bird Johnson, which doesn’t reference the quote.) Media Matters highlights the importance of the quote: “it’s probably the most famous thing Johnson is ever reported to have said.” REPORTED to have said. Per Media Matters, Beck was deceptive in excluding the quote: he “ignores it [the quote] because it doesn’t fit his narrative.” In other words, just because it didn’t fit his narrative, Glenn Beck deliberately ignored the statement THAT JOHNSON NEVER SAID. The unmitigated gall! How typical of those crazy right-wingers!



If LBJ had made that comment, he would have been wrong. The Goldwater surge in the South faded quickly. With a handful of exceptions, Republican gains in the region in 1964 vanished by 1966. Decades passed with Democrats still in firm control of the South.  Even at the presidential level, Republicans for decades did no better in the South than in the country as a whole. It was 1988, nearly a quarter-century following the signing of the Civil Rights Act, when Republican presidential candidates began to do better in the South than elsewhere. Three decades passed after the signing of the Civil Rights Act before the Republicans—rooted among more affluent, educated voters—became competitive with Democrats in most of the South. After Reconstruction ended in the 1870s, there was no Republican governor in Georgia until 2002, and no Republican U.S. Senator from Louisiana until 2004. Republicans won the state senate in North Carolina for the first time in 2010.

In my native state of Alabama, during my first semester in law school (in 1976, 12 years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act), there were no Republicans—zero—in the state legislature. There were 140 Democrats. Democrats had controlled both chambers of the Alabama legislature since 1872, and would do so until 2010.

Look back at that comment from the racist preacher. Sharpton is claiming that the Civil Rights Act lost the South to the Democrats “for a generation” in 1964, but he is simultaneously acknowledging that, as of 2014, Republicans control the South’s legislatures “for just the second time since the Civil War.” One is left to figure out for oneself which political party controlled those legislatures for, say, the 130+ years prior to 2010.

By the way, someone might point out to Sharpton that very few Confederates voted in recent elections.  None, to be precise. The last confirmed Confederate war veteran died before Sharpton was born. Today’s Republicans in the South are the people who beat the Confederates’ last political descendents, the segregationist Democrats.  (Contrary to left-wing myth, less than one percent of segregationist Democrat officeholders ever switched to the GOP.)

Other than during Reconstruction, the GOP first achieved dominance in the South in 2010, a full 46 years after LBJ signed the Civil Right Act. If that was a response to the legislation bearing Johnson’s signature, it was among the slowest responses ever recorded in politics. It would be like marching in the year 2019 against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Why does the belief persist in the fake Johnson remark? Because people are lazy, and don’t bother to check things out if they somehow “sound right.” The late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould wondered why an early version of a horse, Eohippus, was almost always described as being about the size of a small Fox Terrier. Why did almost everyone use the same analogy—one that happened to be wrong? (Eohippus was about half the size of a Fox Terrier.) Of all animals in earth history to which we could compare the Eohippus, why was it always a Fox Terrier? The answer: A geologist/eugenicist named Henry Fairfield Osborne Sr. use the analogy in a pamphlet in the 1920s, and another author appropriated that “fact,” and someone else copied that analogy, and so on. Next thing you know, it was a factoid that appeared in practically every source. In turn, the next writer could use it in full confidence that it must be true (and, even if it’s not, the writer is not going to get in trouble for using it, because it’s well-sourced). The Eohippus/Fox Terrier comparison is an example of something we’ve previously discussed in this column: the meme, an idea that spreads like a virus.

Another reason the Johnson quote persists is that politics is important enough that many people, in desperate need of talking points in favor of their positions, grab ahold of whatever real or fake “facts” support their positions. For example, Communist Party doctrine holds that something that is true (politically correct) if it benefits the cause, and untrue (politically incorrect) if it harms the cause. Objective reality has little to do with it. But that concept is part of human nature, to accept stories as true if they reinforce your prejudices and beliefs, and to doubt them or see them as lies if they go against your way of thinking.  Police officers sometimes commit brutality and sometimes exhibit racial prejudice; therefore, the police officer is guilty in the Ferguson, Missouri case.

The Johnson quote makes him seem noble, that he was signing the Civil Rights Act not as part of a cynical attempt to shift African-Americans into the Democratic Party, but because he was doing what was right. (My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that Johnson did it both as a cynical political maneuver and as the right thing to do. By the way, LBJ is often quoted as telling two officials that he signed the Act precisely because it would make African-Americans—Johnson would have said “Nigras”—into Democrats for the next century. In an upcoming column, I’ll investigate the origin of that story.)

The “We have lost the South for a generation” quote reinforces the beliefs of Democrats that they are superior to Republicans, so it must be true, whether it actually happened or not.  The media, the academic/pseudo-academic world, and the ranks of the elites are dominated by people who tend to side with Democrats and hate Republicans and Southerners. As Johnnie Cochran might have said: If the story fits, you must believe it.

[There’s an earlier version of this quote, which Johnson might have said, but probably didn’t. In Part 2 of this column, I’ll delve into the original story behind the Johnson quote—what actually happened, or, at least, what someone said happened.]

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