KC Johnson

LBJ & Civil Rights Legislation

Audio files:

LBJ was a master lobbyist of Congress. As an example: in early 1964, getting the tax bill passed—and the political benefits it would produced—required some blunt lobbying of Indiana senator Vance Hartke, who wanted a tax break for a musical instruments plant in Elkhart, Indiana.

President Johnson: Vance?

Vance Hartke: Yes, sir.

President Johnson: Can’t you help me on this excise tax thing? You’re going to wreck this damn bill. We’re not going to have any. They’re going to get together this afternoon and try to make a motion to keep all excise taxes in there, and we need your help.

Hartke: [searching for words] Well, I mean, I suppose that way started out—

President Johnson: I know it. And [New Mexico senator] Clint Anderson, though, they all got mad yesterday because you-all screwed up that oil vote. And they’re after the oil companies, and [Delaware senator John] Williams and everything else. Those big oil companies oughtn’t to be raising hell [for] 40 million. They got off with 400 million, and they ought to let you-all off the hook.

But now we’ve got it in a big screwed-up mess, and we—all of us are going down in defeat if we can’t operate any better than that. There’s no leadership in the committee.

So for God’s sake, get in there. Clint Anderson says he’ll change, and you change, and get two or three more and let’s . . .

Hartke: The one big thing in there, the one thing I wanted, was [to cut the tax on] musical instruments.

President Johnson: Oh, well—

Hartke: This is—

President Johnson: What’s important is the big credit to the Democratic Party, and let’s go on. The goddamned band and musical instruments—they won’t be talking about it next November.

Hartke: They will in Elkhart—

President Johnson: What they’re going to be judging us by is: they’re going to be judging us whether we passed the tax bill or not and whether we’ve got prosperity.


President Johnson and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, 21 July 1964, discussing how the Democrats can address the concern of white, ethnic voters about civil rights legislation

Robert Kennedy: A good deal of thought has to go into, as far as these Northern [white ethnic] communities, and these industrial areas—because, you know, what’s going to be done . . .

I think, Mr. President, it’s a major mistake to let him [Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater] choose this battleground, and have the struggle in this election over the question of civil rights. Because if it comes down to the question of civil rights, Democrats are going to have a very tough time. I think we’ve got to get it [the focus of the campaign] off that .  .

President Johnson: Yes . . .

Robert Kennedy: Off that question.

President Johnson: Of course, the difficulty—what we need to get it on is his [Goldwater’s] impetuousness and his impulsiveness and his wanting to turn the bomb over to somebody else. Of course—

Robert Kennedy: Yes. But even more than that, in my judgment, is the economics. I think that that’ll scare people [the nuclear issue], and I think that’s helpful. But it’s difficult for people sometimes to understand exactly what turning the bomb over to the NATO commander—they don’t know whether it’s already in the hands of the NATO commander.

President Johnson: Well, that’s the problem we got.

Robert Kennedy: Yeah. But I think also if you get it also into economics, and what this [the Democratic program] is going to mean, what it’s going to mean as far as your lunch-pail is concerned, what it’s going to mean as far as your family, and what it’s going to mean when you get sick, what it’s going to mean economically.

When the country’s at peace, as it is now, and they’re not concerned about the Russians as much, and they’re not concerned about the . . . There’s not a crisis, like the Berlin Wall [in 1961], or Cuba [in 1962], then they’re going to be thinking—

President Johnson: I don’t know: A mother’s pretty worried if she thinks her child is drinking contaminated milk, or that maybe she’s going to have a baby with two heads [from nuclear fallout] or things like that.

He’s [Goldwater] pretty vulnerable, and I think will take care of himself some.

Robert Kennedy: Yeah.

President Johnson: I think that . . .

But I certainly agree with you, that civil rights is . . .

Robert Kennedy: Is not our thing.

President Johnson: Is something around our neck.


To Johnson’s astonishment, at the Democratic National Convention, even Southern moderates opposed a compromise to ensure the full seating of the Mississippi regulars. 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.”


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.


With the polls still open, the President called Hubert Humphrey, to thank the vice-presidential nominee for his efforts—and to complain about dirty politics from the GOP.

President Johnson: Oh, Hubert, I wish you’d see what these sons of bitches have done. They bought four full-page ads in most papers—some of them have just got 12 pages, some 16—four full pages in this state. And it’s all integrity, and morality—

Hubert Humphrey: I know.

President Johnson:—and [Bobby] Baker, and [Walter] Jenkins, and Billy Sol Estes. And . . .

Humphrey: I know. They had five full pages in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday. Five full pages.

President Johnson: And they’ve got out an instruction from the “Negro Protective League” that says that any Negro that goes [and] votes that the Protective League just wants to inform him, as their friend, that if he’d ever had a traffic ticket, if he’d ever been under suspicion, if he’d ever been speeding, if he’d ever had a parking ticket, if he’d ever hadn’t paid his taxes on time, if he’d ever been discharged from employment, that he’ll have to report right away to the sheriff, and that these things will have to be settled before he can clear his record to vote.

Humphrey: God—

President Johnson: And they put those out in all Southern cities—just the meanest, dirtiest, low-down stuff that I ever heard. Ought to go to jail for it. It’s just inhuman.


President Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr., 21 April 1965, discussing the Voting Rights Act

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.: And it’s very interesting, Mr. President, to notice that the only states that you didn’t carry in the South, five Southern states, have less than 40 percent of the Negroes registered to vote. Very interesting to notice it. I think a professor in the University of Texas in a recent article brought this out very clearly.

So it demonstrates that 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: [with King periodically agreeing] That’s exactly right.

I think it’s very important that we not just say 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 he reaches a certain age: that he have a right to vote, just like he has a right to fight, and that we just extend it to whether it’s a Negro, or whether it’s a Mexican, or who it is.

And number two, I think 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—where a man’s got to memorize a Longfellow [in order to register to vote], or whether he’s got to quote the first 10 Amendments, or he’s got to tell you what Amendment 15, 16, and 17 is. And then ask them if they know and show what happens.

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 [the Southern states of] Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana or South Carolina, where — well, I think one of the worst I ever heard of is the president of the school at Tuskegee [a prominent Historically Black College] or the head of the government department there or something, 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 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.

Rev. King: 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 [civil rights] act. I think the greatest achievement of my administration, I think the greatest achievement in foreign policy, I said it 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.


President Johnson and former CIA director John McCone, 18 Aug. 1965, discussing the aftermath of the Watts riots in Los Angeles, California

President Johnson: We’re on powder kegs in a dozen places. What we’re ultimately going to have to do . . .

You just have no idea of the depth of the feeling of these [black] people. You see . . . I see some of the [Jewish] boys [that have] worked for me that have 2000 years of persecution and how they suffer from it. But these groups [inner-city African-Americans], 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’re all from broken homes, and illegitimate families, and all the . . . Narcotics are circulating around them. And we’ve [whites] isolated them, they are all in one area, and when they [blacks] move in, why, we [whites] move out.

We’ve got some of them in the Army, but we won’t take any of them anymore: 53 percent were rejcted of the total 100 that were brought in. Fifty-three out of every hundred were cut back. A good many of ‘em were Negroes, so the white boys are doing all the fighting [in Vietnam].

They won’t let ‘em go in because their IQ is too low, or their health is too low, or they don’t know how to wash their teeth or shave. [Defense Secretary] Bob McNamara thinks they [the military] ought to be pulling a bunch of ‘em in and letting them do some of the fighting with the others, but they don’t.

We’ve got to find some way to wipe out these ghettoes—

John McCone: Yeah.

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



1964 Election



Atlantic City convention

Atlantic City convention

MFDP leader Fannie Lou Hamer, at the 1964 Democratic convention

MFDP leader Fannie Lou Hamer, at the 1964 Democratic convention


Lyndon Johnson addresses the Congress on the Voting Rights Act, 1965

Robert Kennedy announces the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., 1968


Lyndon Johnson & Fulfilling the Civil Rights Agenda

I. The Civil Rights Act of 1964

1. Lyndon Johnson and American History (Texas background; election to office; legislative skills and “master of the Senate”; personal commitment to civil rights; ethics issues; vice-presidency)

2. Kennedy Bill (focus on public accommodations; indecision about tactics; indecision about constitutional justification; provisions—outlaw racial discrimination in public accommodations, give Justice Dept. authority to file suits for school desegregation in federal court, create EEOC; continued legislative obstacles; Kennedy legacy?)

3. Transition to Johnson (political requirements; personal commitment; path through Congress: Rules Committee expansion; Celler weakness and role of leadership; breaking the Senate filibuster—importance of Dirksen, Johnson counsel; LBJ remark to Bill Moyers)

4. Political Effects (civil rights activists and 1964 efforts: Freedom Summer (Mississippi) and murder of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner; creation of Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party; Southern threats to bolt Democratic convention; LBJ attempts to compromise; long-term effects)

II. Election and Aftermath

1. 1964 and the End of the New Deal Coalition (legacy of FDR; frontlash strategy and wooing of moderate Republicans; black vote in 1964; failure of 1964 as realigning election; California, Rumford Act, and Proposition 14—limitations of civil rights support in “progressive” states)

2. The Collapse of the Civil Rights Coalition (1964 voter intimidation; Democratic victory and desire to address; King and Selma march—grassroots attention; passage of Voting Rights Act, constitutional amendment outlawing the poll tax; King moves North—MLK, poverty and open housing; SNCC, CORE, and black nationalism; King and RFK assassinations)

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