United Under One Nation

A Review of Judgment Days
by Nick Kotz

Author Biography

Nick Kotz had wrote a total of six books, Judgment Days was the last of which was published. His books have focused on politics, civil rights and social justice in American history. He lives in Broad Run, Virginia, and has received a Pulitzer Prize and a National Magazine Award for his writings.

In 1963, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was pushing (lightly) for a change in equality between white Americans and African Americans. On November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Texas and was declared dead hours later at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas. This assassination marked the beginning of social changes in America under Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy’s Vice President, and then, President. Though overwhelmed by the sudden loss and the new position he held, Johnson quickly began to tackle his new role. Reverend Martin Luther King, a civil rights activist—and future national civil rights leader—believed that the “finest tribute that the American people [can] pay to the late President Kennedy is to implement the progressive policies that he sought to initiate.”1 King had a hard time accepting Kennedy’s death, but believed that it might speed up the process of passing civil rights legislation in Congress. The devastating death of young Kennedy stirred the nation, but also caused hostility between members of the government. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who already disliked Johnson, became completely hostile towards him, as Johnson assumed the presidency the same day as John Kennedy’s death. Johnson, eager to continue Kennedy’s work and pending legislation, demanded that all of his legislation be pushed through Congress and passed, with no change and no compromise. This opened a gateway for the rough, rocky and “unlikely partnership” of Lyndon B. Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. in the pressing matter of civil rights.2

November 22, 1963 was one of the most tragic days in history and also one of the busiest days politically. The transition from John Kennedy to Lyndon Johnson was rough and unwelcomed by most. The nation was content with Kennedy as the president for the most part. White southerners weren’t fond of him for pushing the civil rights bills he proposed even though it appeared a small and cautious step. However, with Johnson in the oval office, everyone, even his fellow southerners, were at an unease with his new powerful position. While northerners feared his southern roots, southerners feared his changing view towards civil rights, which had been growing stronger since the mid 1950’s. His entrance into the Presidency was quick; Johnson took the oath before entering the presidential plane to return to Washington the same day of Kennedy’s death. These actions were quickly shunned by the entire Kennedy administration, which Johnson kept during his presidency. One of Johnson’s first steps was to call Roy Wilkins to his office, where he first announced to the civil rights leader “I want that bill passed,” referring to Kennedy’s civil rights bill.3

Before this meeting, Wilkins believed Johnson to be a man of alternative motives, but upon leaving, Wilkin’s “doubts about the president’s intentions were largely dispelled” and he ultimately believed in Johnson’s intentions on moving the civil rights bill through congress.4 Along with Wilkins, Johnson also met with Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. A “black visionary who inspired a nation by fighting a nonviolent war” throughout the entire US, King was one of the most prominent leaders for the movement.5 He fought mostly against the southern states of Mississippi and Alabama, where cities and towns that had ignored the desegregation act of 1954 and continued to have segregated schools in their towns. These nonviolent protests caused riots and outlandish anti-civil rights groups behavior, mostly by the Ku Klux Klan. Another problem for the unknowing King was Edgar J. Hoover, director of the FBI—both an anticommunist and anti civil rights activist. Hoover tried to destroy King by tapping his hotel rooms and alerting the president of King’s behavior. However, Johnson kept meeting with King, finally reaching a common interest in civil rights.

In 1964, Johnson walked into Forty Acres, a University of Texas faculty retreat, with Gerri Whittington, his new personal secretary. This was Johnson’s “symbolic first strike.”6 Johnson had vowed that he would assert the presidency’s power to “tear down the walls of official racial discrimination in American Society.”7 However, it was much easier said than done. On January 8, 1964, Johnson delivered his first State of the Union address to a joint session of congress. He spoke strongly, opening with “let this session of congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last one hundred sessions combined.”8 These words not only captured his audience, but also peaked their interest for the rest of his speech. He finished by urging congress to pass, not only Johnson’s bill, but also Kennedy’s unfinished bill supporting civil rights, federal aid to education, medical care for the elderly, and tax cuts. What was harder than pressing Congress to pass Kennedy’s legislation, was fighting the angry Ku Klux Klan who was constantly fighting against the SNCC, NACCP and SCLC who worked hard to create Freedom schools to teach African Americans about their constitutional rights. In retaliation, the KKK bombed a church, killing 4 young African American girls. This action caused more protests and violent reactions from the KKK. However, as the bill pushed through Congress, the KKK, angry about the civil rights bill, continued bullying African Americans, which the president was unable to stop due to the law enforcement in the south not enforcing previous bills passed.

Besides the KKK, Johnson also had trouble with the civil rights activist groups. The Civil Rights Bill was passed in 1964, but segregation prevailed. The worst segregated states were Alabama and Mississippi, which Johnson was afraid of losing in the presidential election. Then, however, he decided to support the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The MFDP were African Americans who tried to register to vote in Mississippi. However, it was difficult to go about it peacefully. Throughout their marches and demonstrations they were arrested, despite the fact that a judge permitted them to march. Then, King won the Nobel Peace Prize and visited the Pope at the Vatican, which caused an uproar on the homefront. Hoover, who was still feeding information to Johnson and Robert Kennedy, stated to his fellow FBI agents that he was “amazed that the Pope gave an audience to such a degenerate,” which ended up sprawled across the newspaper headlines.9 This open attack on King was frowned upon by not only the rest of the FBI, but also by Robert Kennedy and Johnson. Although Johnson didn’t necessarily disapprove of the wire tapping, he didn’t encourage openly slanderous remarks. Johnson was too driven towards winning the new election to focus on King anymore. With the civil rights bill passed, Johnson was more determined to remain the president, only speaking on civil rights in his speeches.

Nick Kotz, the author of Judgment Days, mainly focused was the trials and tribulations of the civil rights bill passage and its effect on the entire country. His thesis was focused on what Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson managed to produce in their union—“the most dramatic social change in America since the Emancipation Proclamation.”10 His book was strongly based around the thesis that the major push for the civil rights bill was the death of John Kennedy. His death—the grief that the country held—was a motivator to pass the bill that Kennedy had written and supported. Kennedy’s tragic assassination was the biggest push that the civil rights bill had ever had. The meetings that Johnson and King had together; their constant struggle with America; their encounters outside of the office and not in person; the corrupt vision of the FBI; and the violence that followed civil rights activist would have never happened if Kennedy hadn’t been killed. The historiography behind the book was evoked by the current question of equality in America: are gay marriages legal? This questioning of equality happened before, and the United States needs to be reminded.

Publisher’s Weekly called it a “sympathetic but complex and critical assessment” of Johnson and King, who were so different on the outside but the same on the inside.11 The review analyzed Kotz’s method and writing style, admiring how he managed to show in detail the wary partnership of two of the most inspirational leaders of the 1960’s. It also admired their out of touch yet close connection that they shared from having similar roots, and similar experiences. Their work together was difficult and straining, since the two leaders were working in a time when “politics really was infused with the highest moral values.”12

Donald P. Kommers, a Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, also reviewed Kotz’s book. He commended it for being a “dramatic narrative woven by the author around the torments, weaknesses and power plays” of the two most complex leaders.13 He also claims that Kotz helps to “destroy popular stereotypes of his main characters.”14Kommers admires how Kotz wraps up an entire period of distress and excellence into one novel, and manages to override all of the bad with the good that occurs.

According to Kotz, 1963-1965 was a turning point in American history. The events that occurred were cause and effect, one effect leading to a new cause in a vicious cycle. Politically, the world was changed because Johnson had set a new precedence for the presidency. Johnson used multiple tactics to push for Kennedy’s legislation to go through Congress. He befriended people he had once considered enemies, nearly betrayed those who were his friends, and allowed wire tapping to occur over King, his partner in the civil rights. Culturally, the civil rights bill turned the world upside down. Everything that Americans had once known had been thrown aside and rewritten with the influence of leaders of two different colors. All of the segregation between white Americans and African Americans had been shattered and rebuilt to make blacks and whites equal in the eyes of the law. This dramatic change in history, as Kotz sees it, was remarkable among both the people and the government.

The sixties marked a historical, social, cultural and political turning point in America. Many changes happened that have affected life today in America. The fight for civil rights, equality for all, is what we are now based on. The civil rights moment was one of the biggest cultural movements to happen in American history. Nothing came close to being as heart felt, dangerous, meaningful and necessary all at once. For two men of different color to look past their skin and their own prejudices in order to work together for the greater good of the nation was unheard of. Johnson and King’s constant effort in the civil rights helped to bring this nation together as one. There were also political changes in this period that were remarkable and set a new standard, a new precedent, for our government today. Johnson took control, telling the people that they were all Americans, despite their skin color. He took the White House by storm, coming in almost too fast and demanding the changes that the people had been seeking, talking to every person he needed help from personally, doing all the dirty work himself. He got his hands dirty trying to unite millions, spending long days working towards improving the law, the government and the nation. Johnson’s authority and control set a standard that shows every future president that they have the ability to make a difference if they speak, act and move loudly enough. The political and cultural change during the sixties was a turning point in our history, a legacy in which we now carry with us today.

Johnson and King were two extraordinary men working together for one common goal of equality. Through all of the obstacles that stood in the way; through all of the speeches they created; through all of the violence that came with the suggestion of peace and equality; through all of the people in the country and in the government who stood in front of them trying to block their path—they stood strong with their hopes uniting the country under one common belief—equality. The unexpected partnership of Johnson and King—because of their differences and their similarities—they brought to America a bill that would forever change history and unite every American, not just white, under one constitution and one solid nation.

review by Aubrey Dinneen

  1. Kotz, Nick. Judgment Days. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. 9
  2. Kotz, Nick xi
  3. Kotz, Nick 23
  4. Kotz, Nick 23
  5. Kotz, Nick 182
  6. Kotz, Nick 87
  7. Kotz, Nick 87
  8. Kotz, Nick 229
  9. Kotz, Nick 229
  10. Kotz, Nick xi
  11. Seldes, Timothy. Publishers Weekly, 2004.
  12. Seldes, Timothy.

© 2006 Irvine High School

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