KC Johnson

Civil Rights Tapes

President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., 19 Sept. 1963, in a meeting with other civil rights leaders, discussing the aftereffects of the Birmingham church bombing that killed four African-American children

Martin Luther King, Jr.: Now, the real problem that we face is this: the Negro community is about to reach a breaking point. There is a great deal of frustration and despair and confusion in the Negro community, and there is this feeling of being alone and not protected.

If you walk the street, you aren’t safe. If you stay at home, you aren’t safe; there is the danger of a bomb. If you’re in church now, it isn’t safe. So that the Negro feels that everywhere he goes, if he remains stationary, he’s in danger of some physical violence.

Now, this presents a real problem for those of us who find ourselves in leadership positions. Because we are preaching, at every moment, the philosophy and the method of non-violence. And I think I can say, without fear of successful contradiction, that we have been consistent at standing up for nonviolence at every point, and even with Sunday’s [the church bombing] and Monday’s [allegations of police brutality against demonstrators] developments, we continue to be firm at this point.

But more and more, we are facing the problem of our people saying, “What’s the use?”

[Break.]

President Kennedy: Now, it’s tough for the Negro community. On the other hand, what the Negro community is trying to do is a very important effort, which has implications all over the country. And I know that this bombing is particularly difficult.

But if you look at any—as you know—any of these struggles over a period across the world, it is a very dangerous effort. So everybody just has to keep their nerve. If the Negroes should begin to respond and shoot at whites, we lose.

I think [Alabama governor George] Wallace has lost. I heard a Southern senator with regards to civil rights say to me today, this is what I hear from him—that Wallace has made a bad mistake [in endorsing the brutal police response to the protests].

Now if you get . . . Wallace is in a bad position. And because you gentlemen and the community have conducted yourselves in the way you have, it’s with you. And of course when the police starts going for guns, they’ll shoot some innocent people, and they’ll be white, and then that will just wipe away all this support that’s built up.

There will be no—in the beginning, you can’t get anything. I can’t do very much. Congress can’t do very much unless we keep the support of the white community throughout the country—as a country. Once that goes, then we’re pretty much really down to a racial struggle, so that I think we’ve just got to tell the Negro community that this is a very hard price which they have to pay to get this job done.

——–

Pres. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. discuss the aftermath of the Birmingham church bombing.

https://kcjohnson.files.wordpress.com/2010/02/kennedy-king-birmingham1.mp3″

Martin Luther King, Jr.:  Now, the real problem that we face is this: the Negro community is about to reach a breaking point. There is a great deal of frustration and despair and confusion in the Negro community, and there is this feeling of being alone and not protected.

If you walk the street, you aren’t safe. If you stay at home, you aren’t safe; there is the danger of a bomb. If you’re in church now, it isn’t safe. So that the Negro feels that everywhere he goes, if he remains stationary, he’s in danger of some physical violence.

Now, this presents a real problem for those of us who find ourselves in leadership positions. Because we are preaching, at every moment, the philosophy and the method of non-violence. And I think I can say, without fear of successful contradiction, that we have been consistent at standing up for nonviolence at every point, and even with Sunday’s [the church bombing] and Monday’s [allegations of police brutality against demonstrators] developments, we continue to be firm at this point.

But more and more, we are facing the problem of our people saying, “What’s the use?”

[Break.]

President Kennedy:  Now, it’s tough for the Negro community. On the other hand, what the Negro community is trying to do is a very important effort, which has implications all over the country. And I know that this bombing is particularly difficult.

But if you look at any—as you know—any of these struggles over a period across the world, it is a very dangerous effort. So everybody just has to keep their nerve. If the Negroes should begin to respond and shoot at whites, we lose.

I think [Alabama governor George] Wallace has lost. I heard a Southern senator with regards to civil rights say to me today, this is what I hear from him—that Wallace has made a bad mistake [in endorsing the brutal police response to the protests].

Now if you get . . . Wallace is in a bad position. And because you gentlemen and the community have conducted yourselves in the way you have, it’s with you. And of course when the police starts going for guns, they’ll shoot some innocent people, and they’ll be white, and then that will just wipe away all this support that’s built up.

There will be no—in the beginning, you can’t get anything. I can’t do very much. Congress can’t do very much unless we keep the support of the white community throughout the country—as a country. Once that goes, then we’re pretty much really down to a racial struggle, so that I think we’ve just got to tell the Negro community that this is a very hard price which they have to pay to get this job done.

——

The hardest problem of the convention, however, was the question of seating the Mississippi Freedom Democratic delegation. On the convention’s first day, DNC chairman John Bailey called to update the President on the credentials committee fight, and to complain about one of the MFDP’s key backers, Oregon congresswoman Edith Green.

President Johnson: I think we’re doing the best we can, John. I don’t imagine there’s much we can do. You’ll probably have a roll call on the Minority Report, I gather.

John Bailey: I think we better have it late tonight, don’t you, if we’re going to have it?

President Johnson: I don’t know; I don’t know. I don’t care much. I’m awfully disappointed that folks would act that way. And I’m distressed that they would treat me that way. But I don’t want to say anything about it. I may—I may . . . well, I may be in touch with you a little bit later.

But I just—I think you will have it, and I know it’s pretty difficult on both sides.

Bailey: Well, there’s no need of it, really.

President Johnson: No. not a bit. But . . .

Bailey: Well, some of the people have got the bit in their teeth. You know, between you and I, that Mrs. Green is a bitch.

President Johnson: Yeah.

Bailey: Huh?

President Johnson: Yeah. Yeah.

Bailey: And Joe Rauh keeps saying he wants to help, but he can’t get on the television often enough.

President Johnson: Yeah, that’s right.

Bailey: Just stirring the dogs up.

President Johnson: That’s right.

Edith Green

To Johnson’s delight, a compromise was brokered, to ensure the full seating of the Mississippi regulars. Then, to his astonishment, even Southern moderates opposed the deal. The President made clear his displeasure to Georgia governor Carl Sanders, in one of his most emotional calls of the campaign season.

President Johnson: What’s happening is we’re doing four or five things. Number one: we’re coming in there and seating the state of Mississippi. Every damn one of them. Now, they oughtn’t to be, Carl. They oughtn’t to …

Carl Sanders: I don’t—

President Johnson: You and I just can’t survive our political modern life with these goddamned fellows down there [white Mississippi leaders] that are eating them for breakfast every morning. They’ve got to quit that. And they’ve got to let them [African-Americans] vote. And they’ve got to let them shave. And they’ve got to let them eat, and things like that. And they don’t do it.

However much we love [Democratic Senators] Jim Eastland and John Stennis, they get a governor like Ross Barnett, and he’s messing around there with [George] Wallace, and they won’t let one [black] man go in a precinct convention. We’ve got to put a stop to that, because that’s just like the old days, by God, when they wouldn’t let them go in and cast a vote of any kind.

You’ve put a stop to it in your state. But we’re going to ignore that. We’re going to say, “Hell, yes, you did it. You’re wrong. You violated the ’57 [civil rights] law, and you violated the ’60 [civil rights] law, and you violated the ’64 [civil rights] law, but we’re going to seat you—every damn one of you. [dripping with sarcasm] You lily white babies, we’re going to salute you.”

Carl Sanders

When Sanders informed Johnson that the Mississippi and Alabama delegations (the latter headed by former Birmingham police chief Bull Connor) didn’t want to sign separate pledges of party loyalty, the President again turned sarcastic.

President Johnson: . . . Now, I’m a poor old man here that’s got a government falling on me.

In Vietnam today, I just walked out of the [National] Security Council. I’ve got [Defense Secretary Robert] McNamara coming in here at 6:00 tonight. I’m bringing [Ambassador to Vietnam] General [Maxwell] Taylor back. I’ve got Cyprus in a hell of a war.

I can’t go up there and tell those damn fellows, and argue with [Harlem congressman] Adam Clayton Powell and Martin Luther King and the fellow from Alabama—Bull Connor. They ought to try to make it as easy on me as they can, because they’ve all been in these things in their own state conventions. They’ve got problems, and they’re going to have them.

Now, this doesn’t hurt anybody. I’m for everybody taking the oath. Nobody claims they won’t do it except Mississippi and Alabama.

Sanders: That’s right, and now they say they’ll do it. They just don’t want to be singled out in writing.

President Johnson: Well, just tell them that every national committeeman has taken it, from every state, speaking for his state.

Sanders: Well, I agree with you. I—

President Johnson: Every one of them have already done it. But I don’t object. I’d come up there myself, walk out naked and take it, if it would ease Bull Connor’s pressure any.

Fannie Lou Hamer, testifying on behalf of the MFDP before the Credentials Committee

——–

President Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr., 13 June 1965, 12:22pm, re: Voting Rights Act

Martin Luther King, Jr.: It’s so important to get Negroes registered to vote in large numbers in the South, and it would be this coalition of the Negro vote and the moderate white vote that will really make the new South.

President Johnson: That’s exactly right.

I think it’s very important that we not say that we’re doing this—and we’re not doing it—just because it’s Negroes and whites. But we take the position that every person born in this country when they reach a certain age that he have a right to vote, just like he has a right to fight. And that we just extend it whether it’s a Negro, whether it’s a Mexican, or who it is.

King, Jr.: That’s right.

President Johnson: [with King assenting] And No. 2, I think that we don’t want special privilege for anybody, we want equality for all—and we can stand on that principle. But I think you can contribute a great deal by getting your leaders and you, yourself, taking very simple examples of discrimination [in voter registration]; where a man’s got to memorize a Longfellow, or whether he’s got to quote the first 10 Amendments, or he’s got to tell you what Amendment 15, 16 and 17.

And then ask them if they know and show what happens and some people don’t have to do that, but when a Negro comes in he’s got to do it.

And if we can just repeat and repeat and repeat. I don’t want to follow Hitler, but he had an idea that if you just take a simple thing and repeat it often enough, even if it wasn’t true, why, people would accept it. Well, now this is true! And if you can find the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana or South Carolina . . . being denied the right to cast a vote and if you just take that one illustration and get it on radio, and get it on television, and get it on — in the pulpits, get it in the meetings, get it everyplace you can. Pretty soon the fellow that didn’t do anything but drive a tractor will say, “Well, that’s not right, that’s not fair.” And then that will help us on what we going to shove through in the end.

King, Jr.: Yes, you’re exactly right about that.

President Johnson:  And if we do that, we will break through as — it’ll be the greatest breakthrough of anything, not even excepting this ’64 act, I think the greatest achievement of my administration—I think the greatest achievement in foreign policy, I said to a group yesterday, was the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But I think this will be bigger, because it’ll do things even that even that ’64 act couldn’t do.

LBJ and former DCI John McCone discussing the administration’s response to the Watts riot.

President Johnson: We are on powder kegs in a dozen places.

John McCone: Is that right?

President Johnson: What we’re ultimately going to have to do . . . You just have no idea of the depth of the feeling of these people [African-Americans]. You see . . . I see some of the boys [that have] worked for me that have had 2000 years of persecution [Jews] and how they suffer from it.

But these groups, they got really absolutely nothing to live for. Forty percent of ‘em are unemployed. These youngsters—they live with rats, and they’ve got no place to sleep. They start—they are all from broken homes, and illegitimate families, and all the . . . Narcotics are circulating around ‘em. And we’ve [whites] isolated them, and they are all in one area, and when they move in, why, we move out.

[Break.]

President Johnson: We’ve just got to find a way to wipe out these ghettoes.

McCone: Yeah.

President Johnson: And find someplace [for] housing, and put ‘em to work. We trained 12,000 last month, and found jobs for ‘em.

—–

Nixon and White House aide Pat Buchanan, discussing how they could exploit the Detroit school busing case for political purposes.

President Nixon: Well, I’ve basically—we’ve got to say that it’s only the extent that it is required by law—

Pat Buchanan: Right.

President Nixon: By a court order, do I think busing should be used.

Buchanan: Mm-hmm.

President Nixon: Don’t you think that’s really what you get down to?

Buchanan: Right. Right.

President Nixon: Because the line, actually, between my line and Muskie’s, is not as clear as—I mean, it’s just the way he said it. He starts at the other end. He says, “Well, I think busing is a legitimate tool—

Buchanan: Yeah.

President Nixon: And then, “but I’m against it.” I start at the other end. I say, “I’m against busing, but, if the law requires it, to the minimum extent necessary, I, of course, will not resist it.”

Buchanan: Mm-hmm.

President Nixon: Right?

Buchanan: Right.

President Nixon: It’s purely a question of tone.

Buchanan: Well, we’ve got to push Muskie’s emphasis up in the headlines; that’s the problem.

President Nixon: That’s right. That’s right. Yeah. It’s got to be—well, I think it probably is going to get some play in the South now—

Buchanan: I think, well, that’s something you could really move by various statements exaggerating his position, and then Muskie would come back sort of drawing it back and it raises—identifies him with it.

President Nixon: Yeah, the thing to do really is to praise him—have some civil rights people praise him for his defense of busing.

Buchanan: Mm-hmm.

President Nixon: That’s the way to really get that, you know. It’s much the better way than to have people attack him for it—

Buchanan: Mm-hmm.

President Nixon: —is to praise him for his defense of busing, see?

Buchanan: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

President Nixon: And I don’t know if you’ve got any people that can do that or not. But I would think that would be very clever.

Buchanan: Mm-hmm. OK.

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