Friday, July 13, 2007

Lady Bird---More Than Just Wildflowers

I was saddened to learn this week of the passing of Lady Bird Johnson. Until today I had ignored her passing…a bit I guess in part because the anniversary of my own mother’s passing was looming. I finally decided to dig in and see what I could find out regarding a very strong southern First Lady. I was a small girl during the Johnson administration but I rememember a great smile and a truly wondrous southern accent from Mrs. Johnson…someone who spoke the language of my kith and kin…for some it is truly an art form and she was a grand master.

I think this is a lovely picture of her. It shows how I would want to remember her if she was my mother---young, vivacious, and enjoying herself. This picture was taken on May 8, 1968 by Robert Knudsen (courtesy of LBJ Library). I believe this is the same gown she is wearing in her official portrait, but I like seeing her this way instead of seated. Don’t you?

Lady Bird and President Johnson had a whirlwind courtship. They met in Washington D.C. and he asked her to marry him almost immediately. For the next seven weeks he courted her relentlessly finally throwing down the gauntlet by stating, “Now or never.” The former First Lady relented. They came from two different worlds in the same state…..President Johnson was born in a small, poor farmhouse. Lady Bird hailed from a mansion complete with servants, the largest home in Harrison County, Texas.

The former First Lady’s father, Thomas Jefferson Taylor, began a mercantile operation in a crossroads town called Karnack, Texas. In fact prior to Mrs. Johnson’s birth the family lived above Taylor’s General Store. At some point Mrs. Taylor left the tiny apartment stating she wouldn’t be back until her husband purchased a proper home for her, their two sons, and any future little Taylors.

The resulting purchase was the home now known as the Andrews-Taylor House or “The Brick House” to area locals. The two story mansion is privately owned today and is not open for tours. The two-story structure is made of bricks…bricks made by slaves before the Civil War. In the 1930s Taylor had enlarged his business holdings to include another store, was making loans to small farmers at 10% interest, and had become the largest landowner in Harrison County. A sign above the doorway at one of his stores stated it all….”T.J. Taylor---Dealer in Everything.” Everything included cotton----fifteen thousand acres of it.

Years later when interviewed by biographer Jarboe Russell, Mrs. Johnson said, “My father was a very strong character, to put it mildly. He lived by his own rules. It was a feudal way of life, really.” T.J. Taylor may have lived by his own rules, however, he had community spirit as well. In 1934, he donated over 300 acres of his land which is now Caddo Lake State Park. Could this be the beginnings of the former First Lady’s love of the environment and conservation?

During the early 1960s the former First Lady was very instrumental acting as a spokesperson for the Civil Rights Act. The law protected the constitutional rights of many in the south who had not had such protection before, and it was not popular with southern Democrats. The website Lady Bird: The Biography of First Lady Lady Bird Johnson remembers the time period best:

At her urging, Lady Bird's staff began working up plans for a train tour of key southern states. Democratic governors urged the president and First Lady not to go through with the trip, saying they could not guarantee her safety. But the First Lady insisted on the whistle-stop tour winding 1,628 miles through eight states in four days. Organized by Lady Bird, her staff and the wives of southern members of Congress, the trip traveled through rural and poor areas where the First Lady faced large and unruly crowds of whites and a growing number of Republican supporters opposed to her husband's policies.

By now, Lady Bird could deliver a compelling speech and knew how to reach out to an audience. "You may not agree with what I have to say," she said in her soft southern drawl, "but at least you will understand the way I say it." As her tour moved farther south into South Carolina, protesters turned more hostile, confronting her with placards deriding her as a "Black Bird" and screaming, "Lyndon Johnson is a Communist, Johnson is a Nigger-lover." At each stop Lady Bird listened to the chants and then asked for people to listen to her. The First Lady's personal appeal and courteous manner calmed most crowds. The media -- there were 150 national press reporters onboard the train at all times -- portrayed Lady Bird as a fearless moral representative of her husband.

By the time the tour, the first time a First Lady had campaigned on her own, wrapped up in New Orleans on October 9, 1964, Lady Bird had delivered some 47 formal stump speeches to an estimated 500,000 southerners. One nationally syndicated columnist would say of the Lady Bird Special, "Perhaps this marks the emergence of women as central figures to a national contest instead of being on the edges of a campaign."

It would seem that we have more to thank Lady Bird for than just wildflowers, wouldn’t it?

1 comment:

The Tour Marm said...

What a lovely tribute to a great lady!

She was indeed the iron hand 'neath the velvet glove.