2oo002 The Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 19 64 15
the passage of civil rights legislation, and asked Johnson what had
changed him. "Mr. Farmer, I'll answer that by quoting a friend of yours,
'Free at last. Free at last. Thank God A'mighty, I'm free at last.' What he
was saying was that he was free from accountability to and reliance on
any prejudiced constituency. Now he could act on his own feelings as
president of the United States." Farmer said he was flattered by this
Texan president's wooing of civil rights leaders. "Despite his southern
accent and southern ways, he was sincerely for civil rights. And he was
twisting arms, threatening, cajoling senators, lining up votes for the bill
that became the Civil Rights Act of 1964."35 It was during this initial face-
to-face meeting that Farmer first heard about the ordeal of Zephyr
Wright. Johnson said that he felt the public accommodations portion
was the heart and soul of the bill, and he told Farmer why:
One day down in Texas many years ago my maid was going on vacation with
her husband. Lady Bird -that's Mrs. Johnson, you know- told the maid to take
our dog with her; we had a little beagle. My maid said, 'Mrs. Johnson, please
don't make me take the dog with me. My husband and I will be driving across
the South and it's going to be tough enough finding places to stay, just being
black, without having a dog with us.'
Mr. Farmer, that made me cry. Just to think that a wonderful woman like my
maid couldn't stay in any hotel she wanted to. It made me mad. I'd lived in
Texas all my life and I'd never thought about it before. Right then I swore that if
I ever got any power, I would do something about it. Now I have the power and
I'm going to do something about it."6
Farmer said also that Johnson mentioned that Mrs.Wright had a college
education-from Wiley College, Farmer's alma mater."
Johnson relates a little different version of the story in The Vantage
Point. In it, Gene Williams, who was to drive cross country from
Washington to Johnson City, Texas, with Zephyr Wright and both their
spouses, was also asked to take Johnson's dog, Little Beagle. Williams
begged Johnson not to make them take the dog, saying. "'Well senator,
it's tough enough to get all the way from Washington to Texas. We drive
for hours and hours,' he said. 'We get hungry but there is no place to
" "Lyndon Johnson's Great Society -Part II-Civil Rights," Farmer to Gillette, interview,
audiotape Ri 126 (LBJ Library). Farmer met Johnson earlier when the latter was vice president.
Farmer and Johnson together created the concept of affirmative action, which Johnson later
introduced in a speech at Farmer's alma mater, Howard University, in 1963. Farmer, Lay Bare the
36 Farmer, Lay Bare the Heart, 294.
7 James Farmer to Gail K Beil, August 1997, interview. Farmer is sure that Johnson said
"maid" instead of "cook," but that Mrs. Wright was the subject of the story. In Johnson's own
account he said that the Wrights and Helen and Gene Williams were coming together. Mrs.
Williams was the Johnson's maid. See Lyndon Baines Johnson, The Vantage Pont: Perspectives of a
Presidency. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), 154.
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 106, July 2002 - April, 2003. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101223/. Accessed March 16, 2014.