The gripping movie version of “All the Way,” which premiered last week on HBO, centers on the combination of political brilliance and personal volatility that exemplified Lyndon B. Johnson’s triumphant first year in the White House. But its sub-text is civil rights, including the fight to protect the vote for Southern blacks at a time when enemies of that most basic American right didn’t hesitate to employ brutality, up to and including murder, to protect their segregated society. The movie’s timing is especially apt in an election year when an underlying issue is again voting rights, thanks to the efforts by Republicans governors and legislatures — granted free license by a conservative Supreme Court majority — to roll back those rights through new rules allegedly required to curb non-existent voter fraud. On Tuesday, the full 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans heard an appeal by Texas on behalf of one of the most draconian of those measures, the Texas voter ID law, after a three-judge panel upheld a federal district judge’s decision that it discriminated against the state’s growing minority population. Texas’ reliance on the 5th Circuit’s conservative majority — Republican presidents nominated 10 of its current 15 judges — symbolizes how the politics of these issues has changed.
In the 1960s, when I covered that panel as an Associated Press reporter in New Orleans, three liberal Republican judges appointed by President Dwight Eisenhower set the standard for civil rights protection and enforcement. Meanwhile, congressional Republicans joined northern and western Democrats in passing civil rights laws that climaxed with the sweeping 1964 statute banning discrimination in accommodations and employment, whose enactment is portrayed in “All the Way,” and the Voting Rights Act, which Johnson promised to pursue (and did) a year later.
Nowadays, congressional Republicans have abandoned the cause that epitomized the party of Abraham Lincoln for almost a century. The Republican-controlled House has refused to consider legislation to restore the Voting Rights Act provisions that the Supreme Court ruled in 2013 were outdated.