Lessons Learned from LBJ, the Green Book and the YMCA

On my birthday weekend last month I visited a good friend in Austin, Texas, who shares the same birth date. I wanted to visit the LBJ Library and, because my friend is a social studies specialist for the public schools there, she was very familiar with the place and a great tour guide.

Our museum visit was just what I wanted to do on my 60th birthday. It was a nostalgic look back. We read about events of that era, which we remembered even though we were both just children in the 1960s.

I enjoyed learning more about President Johnson’s focus on public education, which began at age 20 when he taught dirt-poor kids at what was then called the “Mexican school” in the town of Cotulla, Texas.  That experience stayed with him. In fact, he returned to that school when he was president to recognize National Education Week.

It was at the end of the tour, while browsing in the gift shop, where I learned something new. The shop sold memorabilia from the Johnson era, and one item was the “Green Book.” An explanation of this small booklet with a green cover, said: “In 1936, Victor H. Green released the Negro Motorist Green Book, the first in his annual series of travel guides listing hotels that would accept African American customers….”

This particular edition was from 1963-64. It seems like a time long ago, but it was during my lifetime that people needed this to travel. By the time of this edition, it had been in annual production for almost 30 years.

IMG_5307Then, on July 2, 1964, President Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act, which banned discrimination in public places. It had been a key platform position of John F. Kennedy when he ran for president in 1960.  Vice President Johnson pledged to see it through. We know signing the law wasn’t magic, but it was pivotal and it was the law.

It is worth knowing that President Johnson wasn’t always a supporter of civil rights. In fact, during his many years in Congress, he was not.  It’s worth remembering because it’s one of the most compelling stories of how history remembers, and how people can change.

I never really knew about the Green Book when I came across it that day. Interestingly, about a week later, while driving with my family to a Thanksgiving gathering, we listened to NPR’s 1A morning program, which discussed the new movie, Green Book.  My husband, who grew up in very white suburban St. Paul, Minnesota, had never heard of it either.

It was an odd feeling to actually hold something in my hand that was required of African American families who traveled then.  Traveling safely was a concern.  The book included facilities in other countries, too.  Of course, as a white family, acceptance in any public place was not a concern for us.

When it’s not something you have to focus on, sometimes you don’t recognize enough the problems that are so real to others.

I looked through the book at all the places I have lived. One constant across them was that the YMCA/YWCA was always listed as a safe spot for all families to stay.

Louisville listed the Y, Oklahoma City listed the Y, Washington, D.C. listed the Y.  Seminole, Oklahoma did not have a Y — it listed the Due Drop Inn.

I felt sorry this book had to be published. But, I felt proud of some things, too.

I’m proud that I serve on the Board of Directors of the Greater Louisville YMCA, an organization on the forefront of inclusion and healthy lives for everyone.

I’m proud of the decades-long work of the members of the board for the Jefferson County Public Schools who have focused in diversity and equity.

And, I am proud to be reminded that people can change.  Lyndon Johnson was not perfect; no one is. But he felt compassion as a young teacher, and grew to be a strong leader. Strong enough to change.


About Debbie Wesslund

I served on the Jefferson County Board of Education, Louisville, KY, from 2007-2014 and continue to be an advocate for public schools. There’s a high-level dialogue about public education that swings from positive to negative, with many who seek the spotlight voicing an inaccurate picture of our public schools. Words matter. They get lodged in our public perceptions, creating a narrative that doesn’t reflect the real story. There’s so much more to public education, and much worth applauding in Kentucky and across the country. The stakes are high: public education is the most serious public business we are about as a community, a state and a nation. We must continually renew our resolve to support public education. There’s always more promise in building something up, than in tearing it down.
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