The context: while congressional liberals wanted to include a poll-tax abolition in the Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department and (more important) Minority Leader Everett Dirksen balked, arguing that the matter could be handled only through a constitutional amendment. The President sided with Dirksen, and had Sanders’ support.
President Johnson: These fellas just say, “By God, you oughtn’t to have any poll tax, and you can’t have any.” And Katzenbach said, “If they say, well, if you can’t have a poll tax, they can say you can’t have a gas tax, or a cigarette tax, or anything else.” The federal government’s telling the states—pretty tough what their business is.
Now, you can say that it can’t discriminate, but I’ve got to prove that it discriminates, and I can’t prove it in Texas. There are more Negroes there than there are white votes. And more of ‘em buying poll taxes than there are white votes. A higher percentage of them. And I can’t show that the literacy test discriminates that against [them], because they haven’t got any. They got no test a ’tall! Just, by God, anybody that can get up and pay a dollar and six bits can vote.
So let’s let me do it the right way. If Alabama won’t let a Negro vote because of the poll tax, and I can show that, and prove it, I’ll go into a three-judge court, and I’ll go right direct to the Supreme Court.
Carl Sanders: That’s right.
President Johnson: But that’s not good enough for ‘em. Forty-five of the—most of ‘em Democrats, 39 of ‘em were Democrats. A majority of my party went against me in the Senate, and they make me look like, by God, that I’m trying to—
Sanders: Uphold some—
President Johnson: –I’m trying to go back to [Theodore] Bilbo. They want to make a Bilbo out of me!
President Johnson: And the head of the ticker tonight says, “Speaker McCormack gave Johnson a big jolt today when he came out.”
So that’s the heat—
Sanders: I feel—
President Johnson: –of the thing. And it’s not going to bother me. I mean, I can take it out. What I don’t want to happen—and I very much don’t want this to happen, because . . . We know that [George] Wallace has his views, and we know that [Mississippi governor Paul] Johnson has his. He’s been pretty good. I have had no problem dealing with Johnson. But we know the poor people that live in those states, and we know that they’re good people, and we know that they’re God-fearing people. And we know if we ever want to go up Mt. Sarachi, or put that goddamn flag on the top of a hill, we know who’s going to be there with it. It’s going to be some old boy from Alabama, or Mississippi, or Georgia, or Texas, or somewhere else. The rest of ‘em are going to be—some of ‘em are 4-F’s—
President Johnson: And I just don’t want to make ‘em so damn made that they can’t get self-respect to hold their head up.
President Johnson: I just–that’s my problem. And it’s hell for me—
Sanders: I want to help you. That’s what I’m trying to do.
Lady Bird Johnson: Time’s on your side; the world . . . You’re going to get the acclaim you deserve for taking a very courageous and very difficult course. And I’m just so grateful to you, and so proud of you.
Sanders: Well, I told him [the President] we’re coming up there Tuesday to have a little meeting with the congressmen. I didn’t want the President . . .
What I’m trying to do, Lady Bird, is keep a muzzle on a few folks down there who are just trying to stir up their people and say, “Go out here and have defiance and revolt.”
Lady Bird Johnson: Mm-hmm.
Sanders: I think—I’m walking a very tight tightrope, and of course when you’re defending the middle ground, you’re going to catch hell from the left and the right.
Lady Bird Johnson: Mm-hmm.
Sanders: —as you and I both know, and I’m—
Lady Bird Johnson: I’m well-acquainted with the hard position of the man in the middle. [Chuckles.]
Sanders: That’s right.