KC Johnson

LBJ, MLK, and Voting Rights

Civil Rights and 1964 Democratic Convention

Tensions in Mississippi confronted LBJ with a political problem at the convention. Although there were no contested votes (LBJ and Hubert Humphrey were unopposed), civil rights activists had organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the credentials of the segregated regular MS Democratic Party. Eventually LBJ orchestrated a compromise in which the regulars would be seated along with (as at-large members) two MFDP delegates. And from 1968 onwards, segregated delegations would be ruled out.

To Johnson’s astonishment, at the Democratic National Convention, even Southern moderates opposed this 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.”


President Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr., 21 April 1965, discuss 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.


Bipartisanship and the Voting Rights Act of 1965

In this conversation, the President and Minority Leader Everett Dirksen discuss scheduling for the measure, and reveal the differing institutional perspectives of a chief executive and a key senator–but also their willingness to cooperate.

President Johnson: How are you?

Everett Dirksen:  I’m all right; how are you?

President Johnson: Oh, a little bit grinding away.

Dirksen:  I am bushed. This goddamn voting rights bill . . .


Dirksen:  I hated like hell to leave some of them [senators] in the dark [about pending legislative strategy] because we had [South Carolina senator] Strom [Thurmond] this morning, and [Mississippi senator] John Stennis. We’ve modified this very substantially to make damn sure that we’ll be on good constitutional ground.

President Johnson: Yeah?

Dirksen:  But I couldn’t say it to ‘em. Now, they’re going to have to have a little time to look it over, and peck around. And I think if we work it out that way, that’s going to be all to the good, and it’s going to save us time in the end.

President Johnson: It is if we don’t get into another situation [like] Selma while we’re waiting.

Dirksen:  Yeah.

President Johnson: That’s the damn danger.

Dirksen:  Well—

President Johnson: Now, these boys—Strom and John are going to be as strong against it when they end, stronger than they are when they start. You got no chance there. And I sure don’t want to have to send another—go through a Selma, because we got through it locally pretty good.

Dirksen: Yeah.

President Johnson: But if they think we’re dilly-dallying, and off for Easter, why, it creates a hell of a lot of problems.

Dirksen: When you stop to consider the amount of staff work we’ve done on that damn bill, the senators are entitled to some time to have a good look-see; and that’s all the more reason, I think, why we ought to take that Easter recess as planned.


 After passage of the bill, the President and Sen. Dirksen commemorated the occasion–in a conversation that unintentionally reveals the difference between the congressional environment of the 1960s and today.

President Johnson and Illinois senator Everett Dirksen, 4 August 1965, 6.58pm

                Dirksen: Hi.

                President Johnson: How are you, my friend? Glad to hear you!

                Dirksen: I’m all right; how are you?

                President Johnson: You and Mike [Mansfield] up there fraternizing together?

                Dirksen: Yes, sir.

                President Johnson: That’s wonderful, that’s good. How you feeling, Everett?

                Dirksen: I’d have felt better if you’d have hustled me a half a dozen votes [on the conference committee report].

                President Johnson: Well, you didn’t want me to. You told me you didn’t want me to do anything but sit there. All I’d have done is just stirred up 10 more against you. You—

                Dirksen: Well, I wanted you to interfere on the right side—that’s what I was saying. [Both laugh.]

                President Johnson: Well, you did a—

                Dirksen: We got the Voting Rights bill out.

                President Johnson: You ought to be proud of that, my friend.

                Dirksen: We are proud of it. And I—

                President Johnson: You had a lot to do with that, and—

                Dirksen: Give [House Judiciary chairman Manny] Celler a compliment. That House really abused him over there, when they had that—

                President Johnson: All right.

                Dirksen: [continuing] They cracked him for turning cold shoulder, not supporting the House position on the poll tax.

                President Johnson: All right, I will.

                Dirksen: They gave Manny a rough time.


                President Johnson: You must have made a helluva speech there today. The ticker’s made me wish I was there listening to you.

                Dirksen: Well, why weren’t you here?

                President Johnson: Well, because—you know I can’t have any fun anymore. [Dirksen chuckles.] They just lock me up. I can’t even drink Sanka. I just have to drink this damned old root beer.

They won’t let me get out. If I could get you and come and visit you, I’d do it nearly every night.

                Dirksen:  Well, why don’t you come right up here now, and I’ll pour you a drink? A good stiff bourbon.

                President Johnson: Well, if you and Mike will stay there about 10 or 15 minutes, I might do it. I’m a little lonesome and I’d like to see you.

                Dirksen: Are you kidding?

                President Johnson: No, I’m not kidding.

                Dirksen: All right, we’ll stay.

                President Johnson: All right. OK.

                Dirksen:  All right. My office.

                President Johnson: All right.

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