LBJ and the America Yet to Come

Kent B. Germany, Associate Professor of History and African American Studies, University of South Carolina; Nonresident Research Fellow, Miller Center, University of Virginia

The two currents will finally mingle and rush as one great stream across . . . the America that is yet to come.

—President Lyndon B. Johnson, 6 August 1965, Signing the Voting Rights Act

Few people in politics could wield the telephone as well as Lyndon Johnson. Using a giant avocado-green machine with flashing lights and a massive cord, he could connect himself to almost anyone in almost any place. Sometimes he stood. Sometimes he sat and leaned way back, cradling the receiver in his collarbone. Sometimes he went hands-free and relied on the Oval Office’s desktop “squawk box,” a 1960s speakerphone that made LBJ louder than he ever was. Once, Johnson joked that an adviser probably wished he did not have a telephone. “I’ve talked to him three times in three minutes,” the President declared. “I think he thinks I use it as a toy.”1

When President Johnson died in 1973, he left behind almost 700 hours of secretly recorded telephone conversations from his presidency, most of them etched into palm-sized, plastic Dictabelt ribbons. As artifacts of real-time history, the recordings can virtually transport modern-day listeners back to the 1960s, dropping them inside the White House or the LBJ Ranch. They can hear the second-tallest president breathe and eat and laugh and wheel-and-deal and belch and flush toilets and, in one famous exchange, complain about his pants—so tight they were “just like riding a wire fence.”2 Most importantly, they can hear LBJ talk—a lot. He could bellyache and bully in unforgettable ways. He could be funny and vulgar. He could certainly be conspiratorial. More often, though, he was charming and affectionate. He attempted to ingratiate and to persuade by suggestion and personal connection. He routinely and openly told his friends he loved them, and he frequently made a point to find out how his callers and their families were feeling.

Of all the things revealed through Johnson’s private conversations, one theme stands out: He was astutely professional and had a remarkable ability to stay on task. Systematic and relentless, Johnson devoured his day. With a telephone in hand and a cadre of skilled, loyal aides at his side, he could become the “Master” and the “Giant” that so many people have written about.3 That professional, managerial LBJ may surprise people today who are familiar only with the barnyard version of the man who cussed, swam naked, emptied his bowels without modesty, and talked freely about his “bunghole.” With a stunning grasp of detail, he could cover a dozen different major issues in one day, then come back day after day to do it again. On the phone, he combined 30 years of Washington-insider knowledge with an elephantine memory, an exhausting work ethic, and a fear of being humiliated by the unexpected.

A history of President Johnson on the phone is ultimately a personal history of the 1960s. It is a story of individual relationships that defined national policy. Among the most important relationships with regard to race and civil rights were those he shared with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Senator Robert F. Kennedy, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach (followed by his successor, Ramsey Clark). Johnson’s dialogue with each of them—and with dozens of others—offers a template for identifying how crises on street corners and roadsides appear on the radar of a president and how this particular President mobilized responses to them.

This book, Lyndon B. Johnson and Civil Rights, November 1964–December 1968, uses approximately 160 of Johnson’s secretly recorded conversations to document his approaches to issues of race and civil rights during his only full term as president. Along with the 2018 publication of John F. Kennedy and Civil Rights, 1963, this collection completes a massive narrative of the presidency, race relations, and the civil rights movement from 1962 to 1968. Within the Presidential Recordings Digital Edition lies an epic two-million-word story of race, violence, and national policy during one of the most turbulent periods of racial change in U.S. history. Consider the range and significance of developments that passed through Kennedy’s and Johnson’s recorders in those years:

  • Over a dozen civil rights murders
  • The Ole Miss desegregation crisis and riot
  • Birmingham and the Kennedy transformation on civil rights
  • The Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and murder of four girls
  • The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
  • Careful negotiations with Republicans on a bipartisan civil rights bill
  • The Kennedy assassination and Johnson’s commitment to carry on
  • Southern racial politics and white resistance
  • Multiple local school desegregation incidents
  • Passage and implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
  • Early development of Affirmative Action
  • Increased bureaucratic power to respond to racial inequality
  • Freedom Summer and the Mississippi Burning murders
  • The federal “war” against the Ku Klux Klan
  • Widespread summer civil disorders sparked by police shootings of and brutality toward young black men
  • The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenge and the 1964 Democratic National Convention
  • The 1964 presidential campaign
  • The “New South” Democratic Party coalition
  • Selma and the Voting Rights Act of 1965
  • George Wallace and white defiance
  • FBI surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists
  • Executive restrictions on warrantless wiretapping and surveillance
  • Watts–Los Angeles civil disorders and reaction
  • Creation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development
  • Multiyear maneuvering to put Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court
  • Martin Luther King Jr. and the Chicago movement
  • Dwight Eisenhower’s opinions of Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights legislation
  • Detroit civil disorders and the U.S. Army
  • The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and its aftermath
  • The President’s network of power and management of and responses to instantaneous reports and information
  • Relationships with Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, NAACP director Roy Wilkins, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, Governor Ross Barnett, Governor George Wallace, Thurgood Marshall, Mayor Richard Daley, dozens of southern politicians and big-city mayors, and many others

If one theme stands out in the PRDE civil rights collections, it is that civil rights history is ultimately local history—partly a local history of the Oval Office (or, more accurately, wherever the President was and whoever was around him), and even more so a history of the local events and local people that changed what was happening in the Oval Office. Kennedy’s and Johnson’s stories on tape are studies of crisis management in the 1960s and, in particular, of how direct action protests by civil rights activists and violence by white supremacists (which both administrations defined as “terrorism”) forced the administrations to act, by deciding whether to use existing federal power or to seek legislation to create new options.

President Johnson continued the progressive legislative and bureaucratic agenda that John F. Kennedy had begun, and intensified Kennedy’s attacks on the Klan and other white supremacists. More than Kennedy, he anticipated the possibility that urban civil disorders could escalate out of control, and when that came true, Johnson faced a rapidly escalating series of civil disorders that eventually left him stunned and confused. Those disorders undermined the delicate coalition-building he had engaged in since taking office in November 1963. He consciously tried to rebuild the Democratic Party in the South to accommodate both black voters and moderate whites. The Voting Rights Act was essential for that strategy to work; the long, hot summers and the Vietnam conflict were not.

LBJ and his administration were among the best prepared and tested groups of people in modern America at managing domestic crises, but they proved to be no match for the 1960s. White segregationists repeatedly got away with murder after murder as part of a brutal insurgency in the South. Federal civil rights convictions helped stem the tide, but state-level justice was usually decades away, eroding public faith in the system.4 The crime rate rose. Police conflicts with young black men escalated. In cities, an increasing number of African Americans grew tired of being targets and lost trust in law enforcement. Rebellious civil disorders in the cities stoked fears of revolution and exacerbated racial anxieties. Young people in college and elsewhere kept questioning and challenging authority. Law and order seemed at risk. The message grew after 1964: America was in crisis. Could it hold? Who could keep it together?

November 1964-December 1968

This PRDE volume picks up Johnson’s once-secret civil rights record on 5 November 1964, the day after his election. It begins at the LBJ Ranch with an exhausted Johnson making a series of rapid-fire thank-you calls to key supporters. It ends at the White House family quarters on Christmas Day 1968, with a nostalgic call to former president Harry S. Truman, an accidental president just like Johnson, whose sole elected term paved the way for eight years of a Republican White House. Spanning four critical years, this volume follows LBJ from Selma to Watts to Detroit to Memphis, and to many places in between. On one level, it tells a history of American triumph, illustrating how local people used legal challenges and direct action tactics to mobilize presidential power and to expand the scope of constitutional rights for all citizens. Their efforts helped pass the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Over a longer period, those local people, national leaders, and others did something even more remarkable: They ended the Jim Crow regime. By the mid-1960s, their efforts had shifted the national narrative away from its centuries-long endorsement of white supremacy as central to civic order and economic growth, and toward a new era celebrating inclusiveness as a centerpiece to American democracy. The Selma movement and the Voting Rights Act marked a high point in American racial liberalism and in the transformation of “America” as an idea and an ideal. Those triumphs, however, may eventually turn out to have been anomalies—discontinuities in a longer history of white resistance to changes regarding race and national identity—or at least remain contested.

On that level, Johnson’s phone carried a story of violence, bigotry, and anger. Bombs and bullets in Alabama and elsewhere brought their lethal messages to the President. Body counts at home were lower than those in Vietnam, but both consumed the Johnson administration in their own ways. Incrementally, they revealed the inadequacies of the institution of the presidency itself.

Johnson’s recordings captured aspects of over half a dozen civil rights murders and the movements surrounding them. Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old African American Army veteran, tried to protect his mother after a February 1965 nighttime march and was shot in a restaurant by a state trooper. He died about a week later. (The officer pleaded guilty to manslaughter 45 years later in 2010.)

James Reeb, a white Unitarian Universalist minister, was beaten in Selma by a group of white men two nights after Bloody Sunday. He died two days later. Several white men were acquitted shortly thereafter.

Viola Liuzzo, a white housewife from Detroit, was shot to death by a group of white Klansmen while transporting a black activist on an Alabama highway after the Selma to Montgomery march. The FBI had an informant riding in the Klansmen’s car. Despite the evidence he provided, the men walked free after acquittal in a state murder trial by an all-white, all-male jury, but were convicted on lesser charges at the federal level.

Deputy O’Neal Moore was one of the first two black officers hired to desegregate the sheriff’s department in the Bogalusa area of Louisiana. In June, he was shot to death in an ambush, most likely by a well-known white supremacist. Just before the attack, Deputy Moore and his partner had reported being followed by an old truck with Confederate flag decals. No assailant was ever charged. The Department of Justice recommended closing the case in 2016.5

Jonathan Daniels, a white 26-year-old seminary student from New Hampshire and a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, died that August by shotgun blast in broad daylight while trying to buy a Coke with white and black friends. He had come to the South to be part of the Selma movement and stayed to work as an activist in nearby Lowndes County. His killer, in a familiar pattern, was set free by an all-white, all-male jury.

In January 1966, Vernon Dahmer, a prosperous black businessman and voting rights activist living near Hattiesburg, Mississippi, was fatally burned in a nighttime firebombing and shooting by the Ku Klux Klan. He seared his lungs trying to protect his family and get them to safety. Thirty-two years later, the Klan ringleader who orchestrated the attack finally went to jail after his fifth trial for the crime.

In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. stood still for a moment too long on a balcony in Memphis. Across the way, with a rifle in hand, a man standing in a bathtub in a rundown rooming house looked out an open window and fired.

Widespread civil disorders both preceded and followed these killings. Three of them figure prominently in this volume: In the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1965, 34 people died. In Detroit in 1967, the number was 43. Across the United States after the King assassination, approximately 40 people were killed. Disorders in Detroit, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., escalated and prompted President Johnson to mobilize federal troops to restore order.

But the disorders listed above were only those that Johnson captured on tape. Altogether, over 300 disorders occurred during the Johnson years, and approximately 250 people died—most of them African Americans killed by authorities. Why LBJ did not record more of his conversations during other disorders is not entirely clear. Whatever the reason, the absence of these recorded conversations reflects the fact that Johnson recorded far fewer exchanges after 1965 than he did before that date, regardless of the subject.

An effort to reorganize bureaucratic power in terms of race, poverty, and urban policy formed part of the Johnson administration’s response to the country’s triumphs and tragedies in the 1960s. One reorganization led to clearer limits on the FBI’s use of wiretapping and surveillance, while others included centralizing civil rights initiatives under the leadership of Vice President Hubert Humphrey, creating the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and reshaping the racial and gender makeup of the federal courts and the executive branch. Closely related to it all was Johnson’s prosecution of the War on Poverty.

Johnson’s efforts to rebuild the Democratic Party constituted a longer-term response. The New Deal coalition of white southerners, labor union members, and African Americans was clearly in jeopardy. For Johnson, angry white segregationists were mostly a lost cause. But white moderates were not, and they offered the best shot at building an enduring coalition with African American voters. As explored in the previously published Lyndon B. Johnson and Civil Rights, July 1964–November 1964, that vision led to Johnson’s devious undermining of the predominantly black Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964. His grand strategy to win a massive electoral victory did not include supporting an internal party rebellion at his Democratic National Convention. He liked to talk instead about the “frontlash” of moderate conservatives shifting their loyalty to him and the Democratic Party, instead of the “backlash” of white voters choosing a Republican nominee who opposed the Civil Rights Act. To Johnson, handing the South to the Republicans “for a long time to come” may have been an unavoidable reality—as he famously said to Bill Moyers after signing the Civil Rights Act—but he did not intend to lose the whole South and certainly not the rest of the country.6

Martin Luther King Jr. and others agreed that a potent new political force could emerge. “It would be this coalition of the Negro vote and the moderate white vote that will really make the New South,” King prophesied privately to Johnson in January 1965. Johnson immediately agreed, “That’s exactly right.” It was three weeks before King’s arrest in Selma and two months before Johnson’s famous voting rights speech. That January, the President predicted that they would have a “breakthrough” on voting rights legislation, and it would be “the greatest achievement of my administration.”7 Voting rights were a way to continue carving out not just a “New South” but also a wider national coalition. Put pressure on Republicans in suburban districts, Johnson thought. Make them commit to the administration’s proposals or be seen as opposing American democracy.

By the summer of 1965, the strategy seemed to be working. Johnson thought that he and liberal Democrats were outplaying the Republicans on civil rights. “They [Republicans] are going to quit the Nigras,” he lamented to King in July. “They will not let a Nigra vote for them.” To Johnson, the Republicans “haven’t got that much sense. That’s why they are disintegrating as a party.”8

Voting Rights and the America Yet to Come

The Voting Rights Act signing ceremony was an elegant, historical affair. A century after the end of the Civil War, President Johnson spoke beneath Abraham Lincoln’s statue in the Capitol Rotunda. The United States was finally fulfilling the promise of Appomattox, Johnson told a national audience watching on television. The Union victory in 1865 and the new voting rights triumph were intertwined. Both were victories for “all Americans.” The “Negro story and the American story” could now merge into “one great stream.” Joined together in this new century, they were set to rush across “the America that is yet to come.”9 In the past year, activists in Alabama had used their bodies to explain why they could wait no longer. White southerners had demonstrated just as clearly that they would resist change as long as possible. In response, the Johnson administration and Congress defied tradition and history to take the landmark step of claiming extensive federal control over voting. The Voting Rights Act was their admission that they could not trust locals in the South to carry out a basic function of American democracy.

The short history of LBJ and the Voting Rights Act spans nine months, from November 1964 to August 1965. It began in earnest just before the 1964 presidential vote when widespread reports of black voter intimidation in the South stung Johnson. The ensuing loss of five Deep South states with large black populations hit him even harder. In mid-December, he ordered his Attorney General to get moving on a voting rights bill. “I want you to undertake the greatest midnight legislative drafting that’s happened” since the New Deal, he demanded. Get “the best people you got,” he said, because “we’re going to need it pretty quick.”10

Over the next two months, the Justice Department worked closely—and mostly in private—with Martin Luther King Jr. and others to craft the strategy. So much pressure mounted for Johnson to send his voting rights message to Congress that Republicans moved to preempt him with their own ideas and legislation. The attacks in Selma on 7 March changed the situation. John Lewis, Hosea Williams, and approximately 600 others marched over the Alabama River. Under orders from the governor, state and local police stopped the marchers at the end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The police waded into the peaceful group with punishing violence. Soon, the public outcry against this action forced Johnson to speed the release of his administration’s bill—or, seen another way, it gave him the opportunity to launch the initiative. On 15 March, Johnson announced the bill in a nationally televised speech, entitled “The American Promise.” Two days later, the administration sent the bill to Congress, and a federal judge in Alabama allowed the marchers to continue on to Montgomery. What resulted from the five-day march was one of the most celebrated moments in modern American democracy, as King and others led a group of civil rights activists from Selma under the protection of federal military police and the federalized national guard. On the final day, tens of thousands flowed through Montgomery to the state capitol. In remarks delivered there, King asked how long would they have to wait for access to the franchise.

Meanwhile, a few hundred miles north, in the nation’s capital, Congress heard the message. The Senate began debate on the voting rights bill on 22 April, invoked cloture to end debate on 25 May, and passed the legislation on 26 May by an almost four-to-one margin. On 9 July, the House of Representatives approved its own version of the bill by a greater than three-to-one vote. The Senate and the House reconciled their two versions by 4 August. Disagreement over the best way to end the poll tax caused some worry, but the administration’s plan to beat it in the courts won out. President Johnson’s signing ceremony came two days later. The resulting legislation was relatively simple. It eliminated literacy tests, provided a mechanism to send in federal registrars to oversee local registration, and required local jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to get “preclearance” from the Justice Department on voting matters.

Many dimensions of that story came through on Johnson’s phone. The recordings highlight Johnson’s methods for managing crises and blending them into the legislative process. They document ways that Johnson’s advisers passed along important information to the President, and how he, in turn, carefully reached out to key figures. In that sense, he learned a lesson that he already knew: He had to remind his friends and his enemies that Governor George Wallace of Alabama was “a no-good son of a bitch.”11

Three specific threads dominate the content of these civil rights recordings. One was Johnson’s success at getting the voting rights bill through Capitol Hill. A second thread was Johnson’s response to the campaign of terror conducted by a number of white southerners and condoned by many more. Selma and its aftermath tested him and the federal government’s ability to shut it down. Johnson had been fighting violent white supremacists from the beginning of his presidency (and if one believes Johnson himself, since he was a child in Texas). The Klan and others struck repeatedly, ensuring there would be no turning back. A third and perhaps more notable thread involved the relationship between President Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. The two men flattered and cajoled each other in an awkward process in which the silences of their exchanges were as complicated as the words. They needed each other, but they may have worried even more about needing each other too much, especially in public. Both of them knew that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover despised King and hoped for any opportunity to try to humiliate him, and a package of secret surveillance sent by the FBI to Mrs. King almost succeeded in doing so.

Martin Luther King Jr. and the White House

The relationship between Martin Luther King Jr. and the White House was one of the most significant in the political history of the 1960s. By November 1964, King had emerged as a heroic figure worldwide, a reality affirmed by his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize that October. But the adoration was not universal. King may have been the single-most hated person in the United States, particularly among white residents in the South (and in many other parts of the United States, if George Wallace’s success in the 1964 presidential primaries was any indication). For many, King pushed for too much, too fast. Even former president Harry S. Truman called him “a troublemaker” who probably did not deserve the Nobel Prize.12 King’s most powerful opponents may have come from inside the executive branch, notably at the highest levels of the FBI.

The struggle between King and longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover complicated King’s relationship with Johnson. King had criticized the FBI for not taking civil rights investigations seriously enough. Too many of its agents were white southerners, he suggested, whose viewpoints seemed to impair the impartial gathering of the facts. A week before Thanksgiving, on 18 November, Hoover lashed out in a press conference, declaring King the “most notorious liar” in the United States.13 Two days later, on the phone, Johnson begged FBI assistant director Cartha “Deke” DeLoach to convince Hoover to see the bigger picture. Hoover knew King “better than anybody in the country. . . . And there’s no reason why he ought to get in a fight with—argument with him [King].” After all, Johnson’s strategy since the summer had been to minimize his own public interaction with King. He blew up at press secretary George Reedy in July, two days after signing the Civil Rights Act, because Reedy had told the media that Johnson had been in continuous touch with King. “I haven’t been in touch with him at all and don’t want to be,” Johnson grumbled bitterly. “You know his record.” Johnson even regretted that King attended the signing ceremony. “It was very unfortunate he was there,” Johnson said.14

Johnson’s advice to the FBI assistant director did not matter; the Bureau was already on the attack. One day after that phone call to DeLoach, an agent apparently acting at Hoover’s behest flew to Miami and mailed an anonymous package to King’s offices in Atlanta. According to the 1976 report by the Church Committee (a popular name for the U.S. Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, chaired by Idaho Democrat Frank Church), it contained a hostile letter and an audiotape produced by an FBI specialist under the supervision of FBI assistant director William Sullivan. (Investigators found a copy of the letter in Sullivan’s files in 1971.) The letter accused King of being a “colossal fraud” who had only “one way out” before “your filthy, fraudulent self is bared before the nation.” The audiotape compiled highlights from FBI surveillance and likely included material from King’s stay at Washington’s Willard Hotel in January 1964. Sources conflict about what the tape revealed, with some claiming they had a hard time hearing anything identifiable except room noise and difficult-to-discern conversation. The implication, however, was that the FBI believed they had audio of King engaged in an adulterous affair. A high-level assistant to Hoover testified that Hoover specifically wanted a copy sent to Coretta Scott King “to precipitate their separation, thereby diminishing Dr. King’s stature.”15

The package left Miami, arrived at King’s office a few days later, and lay in a pile of other mail until late December or early January. The Church Committee did not tie President Johnson to this particular FBI plan, though its investigators did find that Johnson clearly knew about the FBI surveillance of King that had begun during the Kennedy administration. They also learned that Johnson had received a warning on 28 November 1964 that the FBI was shopping audio recordings of King to several reporters. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall flew to the LBJ Ranch to tell the President about this potential political bombshell. Marshall reported that Johnson was “shocked” at hearing about the attempted leak, and the three men talked about it as a “very nasty piece of business that had to be stopped.” Neither Katzenbach nor Marshall could say with certainty what Johnson did, but Katzenbach believed that “Johnson’s intervention” ended this particular effort and other “similar activities” for the rest of his time at the Justice Department.16

The FBI’s campaign against King clouded not just the voting rights effort but also a significant part of Johnson’s legislative ambitions for 1965. In the aftermath of his November 1964 election, Lyndon Johnson dreamed of expanding the Great Society to match the impact of the New Deal. He clarified that dream two months later in his State of the Union address, listing nine broad categories for major legislation. He followed that up with over 15 separate messages to Congress outlining the details of his ambitious legislative objectives.17 Johnson wanted Great Society legislation to pass as quickly as possible—as he said to King, “before the vicious forces concentrate and get them a coalition that can block them.”18 Advocacy for voting rights was a clear part of the agenda, but none of those legislative messages in the first two months of 1965 addressed voting.

The absence of a message before the Selma escalation did not mean that Johnson’s administration was skirting the issue. In fact, they were systematically developing ideas and drafts of legislation. They were not, however, doing it aggressively in public. Johnson wanted voting legislation to be bold and meaningful, with enforcement clearly under the authority of the President. The bill needed to be tough enough to withstand intense scrutiny, yet popular enough to actually pass and to prevent a southern filibuster in the Senate from blocking the rest of the Great Society. Most of the action on the legislation in January and February took place behind the scenes at the Department of Justice. The events of Selma changed that calculus and brought the matter into the light.

Conversations from November to March reveal Johnson’s internal efforts at voting rights reform. On 14 December 1964, he pushed Attorney General Katzenbach to do whatever he could to find a “simple, effective method of getting them registered.” It could come from changing laws, making it easier to nullify state laws, or even giving local postmasters the authority to register people to vote.19 Four days later, Johnson welcomed King, his wife Coretta Scott King, and other colleagues to the White House to congratulate King on winning the Nobel Peace Prize.20 While there, they discussed voting legislation and strategies. The Justice Department responded to Johnson’s pressure by developing plans to shift voter registration authority to federal officials and to eliminate literacy tests and poll taxes for nonfederal elections.

On 4 January, President Johnson delivered his first State of the Union message since being elected in his own right. Among many initiatives, it announced his proposal to “eliminate every remaining obstacle to the right and the opportunity to vote.”21 Soon after, on 15 January, he held a long telephone conversation with King, urging him to use his influence in the press to help build support for legislation to address poverty, education, voting, and urban problems. King had called to encourage Johnson to appoint an African American to the Cabinet. Johnson launched into a lobbying effort of his own to have King highlight outrageous voting rights abuses and appeal to members of the Senate and House. Getting more black voters to the polls would solve “70 percent of your problems,” Johnson calculated. “The fellow will be coming to you then, instead of you calling him.”22

Johnson did not want King to “publicize” specifics about the bill until they could figure out a way to avoid a filibuster and a slowdown on the other related Great Society legislation. King replied that he had been “very diligent” in maintaining confidentiality. What the President wanted from King was for him to “get in there and help us,” to which King answered, “I certainly will. You know you can always count on that.”23

Two weeks later, on 2 February 1965, King was arrested in a Selma protest. At a press conference two days after that, President Johnson emphasized a theme that defined his defense of voting rights legislation. “All Americans should be indignant when one American is denied the right to vote,” he explained. “The loss of that right to a single citizen undermines the freedom of every citizen.”24 That day, his administration also won a temporary victory when a federal judge issued an injunction requiring the registrar in Selma to take steps to facilitate black voter registration.

In Selma, local activists were making their own case for the need for aggressive national voting legislation, and they were beginning to attract significant national attention. Fourteen liberal congressmen, led by Michigan representative Charles Diggs Jr., announced that they would travel to Selma on a fact-finding mission. On Capitol Hill, top Republicans were beginning to make public demands for new voting rights measures. Over the telephone, Attorney General Katzenbach updated President Johnson on the situation in Alabama and reported that he expected King to be released from jail.25 On 6 February, White House press secretary George Reedy told reporters that a “strong” message was coming. On 9 February, King met with Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and White House aides before having a brief, seven-minute session with President Johnson. Following the Oval Office visit, King reported that Johnson planned to deliver his message “very soon.”26

Over the next month, protests escalated in Alabama, marked by the 18 February shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson. Jackson’s death on 26 February galvanized sentiment to hold a march to Montgomery, which gained attention after his funeral on 3 March. Prevailing reports in the press were that Johnson’s message and legislation were imminent. On 5 March, two days after King eulogized Jimmie Lee Jackson, he sat down again with LBJ at the White House, this time for almost an hour and a half. King informed the press that Johnson had encouraged him to consult directly with the Attorney General on the language of the voting rights legislation.27

Johnson did not record any calls on 7 March, the day that came to be known as Bloody Sunday. The next morning, though, while having breakfast in bed with Lady Bird, he recorded a call from Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, updating the President on the previous day’s events. Alabama state troopers and a horseback-mounted posse led by Dallas County sheriff Jim Clark had attacked approximately 600 civil rights activists marching peacefully. The worst violence, according to the Attorney General, was inflicted by Clark’s posse.

Katzenbach assured the President that he did not believe the federal government could have done more to protect the marchers. Two arrests had been made of white men who had beaten FBI agents and destroyed their camera. In a later call with White House aide Bill Moyers, Johnson was clearly frustrated with what he called an “absolutely disgraceful” sit-in protest that afternoon at the Justice Department. The lack of respect for the law concerned him, as did television news coverage of Martin Luther King Jr. that made it seem as though King “was in charge of the country and taking it over.”28

The next morning, Moyers gave Johnson some slightly more welcome news: King was not planning to defy the courts with a full second march, but instead would stop at the end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge and “sing and pray for less than an hour and then disperse peacefully.” King did lead a second march, known to many as Turnaround Tuesday. After the procession made it across the bridge, King and others stopped at a line of troopers, knelt, and prayed. They then turned to walk back over the bridge to Selma.29 That night, Boston minister James Reeb was attacked in Selma. On 11 March, he died of head injuries. Word of that incident came to Johnson soon thereafter.30

Hoping to negotiate cooperation from Alabama governor George Wallace, Johnson summoned him to the White House on 13 March. They met at noon. Johnson’s dogs, Him and Blanco, joined in for two of the three hours. Afterward, Johnson and Wallace talked together to the press. The President thought he had worn down the former bantamweight boxer from Alabama.31 He was wrong. Johnson found out just how wrong five days later when Wallace refused to use state resources to provide protection for the eventual march to Montgomery.

On 15 March, the moment came for Johnson. Speaking to a national television audience during a night session of Congress, President Johnson delivered his voting rights message, “The American Promise.” He took almost 50 minutes to finish the address, but 50 seconds of it became the rhetorical highpoint of his career:

But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.32

Reportedly, tears rolled down King’s face as he listened to Johnson’s words.33 In two days, the President submitted his voting rights package to Congress, and Judge Frank Johnson, a former classmate of Governor Wallace, issued a federal decree with terms allowing the march to Montgomery to proceed.

George Wallace was not pleased. The next day, Wallace attempted to delay the march by claiming that the state of Alabama could not afford to pay the costs associated with providing court-mandated protection. President Johnson recruited his director of emergency planning, the former Tennessee governor Buford Ellington, to be a go-between with Wallace.

“You’re dealing with a very treacherous guy,” Johnson warned. Wallace “is a no-good son of a bitch. And I think you know it.” Upset by Wallace’s double-dealing, the President instructed Ellington to tell him, “You ran like a goddamn rabbit! . . . Now, why in the hell didn’t you stand up like a man and say what you were going to do to begin with?”34

To ensure the safety of the marchers, Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard and mobilized the military police. The final march began on 21 March. It ended on the steps of Alabama’s state capitol on 25 March with a stirring speech by King.

That night, Johnson went to bed at eleven o’clock. Twenty-five minutes later, Attorney General Katzenbach called him with news that a female voting rights volunteer from Michigan had been murdered as she drove between Selma and Montgomery.35 Viola Liuzzo was a married mother of five from Michigan who had been inspired to come to Selma. President Johnson recorded numerous conversations with FBI director Hoover and others about the investigation. In one conversation recorded in the early morning hours of 26 March, Hoover offered specific details of the shooting and investigation, revealing that an FBI informant had been in the car that attacked Liuzzo and her African American passenger.36 In another update, the recorders captured Hoover’s vicious attempt to discredit Liuzzo and her family by spreading salacious speculation that Viola Liuzzo was a heroin addict and that the KKK members had killed her because “this colored man was snuggling up pretty close.”37

The Johnson Recordings After Selma

After Selma, Johnson recorded more sporadically. In the late spring and summer of 1965, the Dictabelt machine picked up conversations about wiretapping and the progress of the voting bill through the Senate and the House. In mid-July, there was chatter about creating HUD and about appointing Thurgood Marshall as solicitor general. During early August, the Voting Rights Act implementation occupied Johnson. The crowning achievement had finally come after all of the tragedies and difficulties. Johnson urged the Attorney General to send a tough message to segregationists in the South by sending in teams of federal officials to the nine worst-offending counties. Four of them were in Alabama and three were in Louisiana. Ironically, though, Johnson pleaded with Katzenbach not to send them to the two counties in Mississippi. The governor there was holding a vote to approve constitutional amendments to change some voting regulations and had asked President Johnson to delay the federal registrars to avoid inciting the voters. Katzenbach did delay them, the amendments did pass, and then the feds went in.

A burst of recording activity came during the civil disorders in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Notably, they did not begin on 11 August when the disorders erupted, but on 14 August. As Johnson’s chief domestic aide Joseph Califano has written, the President went silent during that time—and not just on the recorders. Johnson was at the LBJ Ranch in Texas and did not respond to repeated attempts by Califano for guidance on the situation in California. After Califano took the bold step of approving a military resupply order without the President’s approval, Johnson came around and took charge.38 His calls in the aftermath of Watts give rich insight into Johnson’s view of black life in urban America and the reasons that the federal government needed a more intensive response.

“You just have no idea of the depth of feeling of these people,” he tried to rationalize to former CIA director John McCone. They suffered from “2,000 years of persecution,” and “they got really absolutely nothing to live for.” The “youngsters . . . live with rats and they’ve got no place to sleep.” They were from “broken homes and illegitimate families and all the narcotics are circulating around them. And we’ve isolated them. And they’re all in one area. And when they move in, why, we move out.” The time to act had arrived. “We’ve just got to find some way to wipe out these ghettos and find some place, housing, and put them to work.”39

He repeated his anguish to Martin Luther King Jr. “What we've got to do is take the—find a cure and go in and correct these conditions . . . But we can’t wait,” he said, firing away in a classic Johnsonian monologue. “[W]e’ve got to get rid of these ghettoes and we got to get these children out from where the rats eat on them at night, and we got to get them some jobs. . . . But there’s no use giving lectures on the law as long as you got rats eating on people’s kid—children, and unemployed, and no roof over their head, and no job to go to, and maybe with a dope needle in one side, and a cancer in the other.”40

King worried that “that a full-scale race war can develop here.” The best option, to Johnson, was for King to help him get more support in Congress for antipoverty measures. He needed King to work overtime, he said, because “I’m having hell up here with this Congress.” The fight was not nearly over. With the situation in Watts, “the Good Lord” had given them a warning and a chance to figure it out. “The clock,” he warned, “is ticking . . . the hands are moving.”41 His solution, also characteristic for Johnson, was to get together “everybody that’s possible . . . And let’s move in money, marbles, and chalk.”42

From September 1965 to December 1968, Johnson’s civil rights-related recordings covered a wide range of issues, but few of them in great detail. The most frequent were conversations about civil disorders and urban politics. Johnson monitored several moments in Chicago, and he recorded parts of his decisions to send in federal troops to Detroit in July 1967 and to Chicago and Washington, D.C., in 1968 after the King assassination.

Johnson’s efforts to appoint Robert Weaver as the first black Cabinet secretary and Thurgood Marshall as the first black Supreme Court justice comprised the next largest number of recordings. Johnson’s political craftiness and patience were on full display in these conversations, particularly with the Marshall appointment. Arthur Goldberg’s resignation from the Supreme Court in 1965 to become United Nations ambassador gave Johnson the chance to appoint his close friend Abe Fortas to replace Goldberg, avoiding the loss of a Jewish justice. In a related move, Johnson made Marshall the new solicitor general. The next year, Nicholas Katzenbach resigned as attorney general to become under secretary of state, setting in motion a complex series of events. To elevate Deputy Attorney General Ramsey Clark to replace Katzenbach, President Johnson had to eliminate the potential political and legal nightmares posed by having Clark’s father, Associate Justice Tom Clark, continue to serve on the Supreme Court, which he had done since 1949. Judge Clark remedied the situation by agreeing to step down in the near future to help his son’s transition. When the justice followed through in 1967, it opened the way for Thurgood Marshall’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

Over this long period of shifting personnel, Johnson held several calls with advisers, including intricate talks with Justice Abe Fortas, who still served as Johnson’s political adviser and confidant, despite his position on the Court. And so it went in LBJ’s world.


The reduction in the amount of civil rights taping seemed to mimic Johnson’s term in office. A furious, overflowing 1964 and a tight, focused 1965 gave way to uncertainty as Vietnam crowded the days. It was almost as if he could not raise the energy to twirl his fingers to get his assistants to push the record button. The fire had dimmed. It needed, to borrow an LBJ phrase, some dry cedar and a little “coal oil.” This time, though, no flame would come. The crisis of victory, as the august African American leader A. Philip Randolph had called the post-1965 period, had claimed Johnson’s final years. Demoralized, he regretted that he had only raised the grade of conditions for black Americans from D- to C+.43 Martin Luther King Jr., seven months before his own death, had asked, “Where do we go from here?”44 Johnson’s own answer was to return to the land in Texas that gave him life and to wait until it did not.

President Johnson died almost five years after Reverend King. Though not close friends while alive, their lives intertwined profoundly at a critical moment of history. At a high point of that history—in 1965, at the end of the Selma to Montgomery march—King famously assured the crowd that the moral arc of the universe was long but that it bent toward justice. If this is true about the universe, later generations may be able to hear it bend in these powerful voices once saved in a small box on a short belt spinning round and round.



Kent B. Germany and Robert David Johnson, eds., “Lyndon Johnson and George Ball on 10 January 1964,” Tape WH6401.11, Citation #1311, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition (hereafter cited as PRDE) [The Kennedy Assassination and the Transfer of Power, vol. 3] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–),


Lyndon Johnson to Joe Haggar, 9 August 1964, Tape WH6408.16, Citation 4851, Recordings of Telephone Conversations, White House Series, Recordings and Transcripts of Conversations and Meetings, Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library. See also “LBJ Orders Some New Haggar Pants,” Miller Center website,


Robert Dallek, Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961–1973 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998); Robert Caro, Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (New York: Knopf, 2002); Ronnie Dugger, The Politician: The Life and Times of Lyndon Johnson, the Drive for Power from the Frontier to the Master of the Senate (New York: W. W. Norton, 1982); Kent B. Germany, “Historians and the Many Lyndon Johnsons: A Review Essay,” Journal of Southern History 75 (November 2009): 1001–28. The literature on Lyndon Johnson and civil rights is enormous, and picking one publication runs the risk of leaving out a vast number of outstanding works; however, strong starting points are Taylor Branch’s Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963–1965 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999) and At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965–1968 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007). For an essay on the Johnson literature, see Kent B. Germany, “African American Civil Rights,” in ed. Mitchell Lerner, A Companion to Lyndon B. Johnson (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 111–31.


Michael R. Belknap, Federal Law and Southern Order: Racial Violence and Constitutional Conflict in the Post-Brown South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987).


U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, “Notice to Close File: David Creed Rogers, O’Neal Moore,” File No. 144-32-928, 10 March 2016,


Most accounts claim that the President made the “long time to come” statement following the signing of the Civil Rights Act; Bill Moyers claims that Johnson made that remark to him personally. Lady Bird Johnson and Harry McPherson trace the statement to a conversation after the signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. See Bill Moyers, “Second Thoughts: Reflections on the Great Society,” New Perspectives Quarterly 4 (Winter 1987); Jan Jarboe, “Lady Bird Looks Back: In Her Own Words, A Texas Icon Reflects on the Lessons of a Lifetime,” Texas Monthly (December 1994): 117; “Achilles in the White House: A Discussion with Harry McPherson and Jack Valenti,” Wilson Quarterly 24 (Spring 2000): 92. For an example of “frontlash” idea, see Kent B. Germany, ed., “Lyndon Johnson, Walter Reuther, and Jack Valenti on 21 August 1964,” Conversation WH6408-32-5112-5113, PRDE [Lyndon B. Johnson and Civil Rights, vol. 1] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–),


Kent B. Germany, ed., “Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr. on 15 January 1965,” Conversation WH6501-04-6736-6737, PRDE [Lyndon B. Johnson and Civil Rights, vol. 2] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–),


“Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. on 7 July 1965,” Conversation WH6507-02-8311-8312-8313, PRDE [Lyndon B. Johnson: Civil Rights, Vietnam, and the War on Poverty, ed. David G. Coleman, Kent B. Germany, Guian A. McKee, and Marc J. Selverstone] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–),


“Remarks in the Capitol Rotunda at the Signing of the Voting Rights Act,” 6 August 1965. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1966),


Kent B. Germany, ed., “Lyndon Johnson and Nicholas Katzenbach on 14 December 1964,” Conversation WH6412-02-6611-6612, PRDE [Lyndon B. Johnson and Civil Rights, vol. 2] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–),


Kent B. Germany, ed., “Lyndon Johnson and Buford Ellington on 18 March 1965,” Conversation WH6503-10-7124, PRDE [Lyndon B. Johnson and Civil Rights, vol. 2] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–),


“Truman Calls Dr. King Troublemaker, Declares Law Should Wipe Out KKK,” Washington Post, 13 April 1965.


U.S. Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, “Dr. Martin Luther King Case Study,” 79–184, in Final Report: Supplementary Detailed Staff Reports on Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans, Book III (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976) [hereafter referred to as Church Committee Report, Book III]. The quoted material in this paragraph is from p. 156 of the report. This portion of the Church Committee’s report is also available online at and


Kent B. Germany, ed., “Lyndon Johnson and Cartha “Deke” DeLoach on 20 November 1964,” Conversation WH6411-25-6431, PRDE [Lyndon B. Johnson and Civil Rights, vol. 2] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–),; Germany and David C. Carter, eds., “Lyndon Johnson and George Reedy on 4 July 1964,” Tape WH6407.04, Citation #4155, PRDE [Mississippi Burning and the Passage of the Civil Rights Act, vol. 8] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–),


Church Committee Report, Book III, 157–61.


Ibid., 152–53.


Johnson’s congressional messages were in the following areas: Health, Education, Immigration, Foreign Aid, Defense, Budget, Presidential Disability, Home Rule for DC, Agriculture, Wilderness Preservation, Conservation and Natural Beauty, International Balance of Payments, Communications Satellites, Manpower, and Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice.


Kent B. Germany, ed., “Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr. on 15 January 1965,” PRDE,


Kent B. Germany, ed., “Lyndon Johnson and Nicholas Katzenbach on 14 December 1964,” PRDE,


Presidential Daily Diary, 18 December 1964, in Diaries and Appointment Logs of Lyndon B. Johnson, Special Files, 1927–1973, Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library (hereafter cited as Daily Diary). The Daily Diary is available online at


“Annual Message to the Congress on the State of the Union,” 4 January 1965, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1966),


Kent B. Germany, ed., “Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr. on 15 January 1965,” Conversation WH6501-04-6736-6737, PRDE [Lyndon B. Johnson and Civil Rights, vol. 2] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–),




“The President's News Conference,” 4 February 1965, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1966),


Kent B. Germany, ed., “Lyndon Johnson and Nicholas Katzenbach on 5 February 1965,” Tape WH6502-01-6803-6804, PRDE [Lyndon B. Johnson and Civil Rights, vol. 2] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–),


“Katzenbach to Confer with King,” Washington Post, 7 February 1965; John D. Pomfret, “President Promises Dr. King Vote Move,” New York Times, 10 February 1965.


Daily Diary, 5 March 1965; Charles Mohr, “Johnson, Dr. King Confer on Rights,” New York Times, 6 March 1965.


See Kent B. Germany, ed., “Lyndon Johnson and Bill Moyers on 8 March 1965,” Conversation WH6503-04-7044, PRDE [Lyndon B. Johnson and Civil Rights, vol. 2] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–),


Kent B. Germany, ed., “Lyndon Johnson and Bill Moyers on 9 March 1965,” Conversation WH6503-04-7044, PRDE [Lyndon B. Johnson and Civil Rights, vol. 2] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–),


Kent B. Germany, ed., “Lyndon Johnson, Nicholas Katzenbach, and Bill Moyers on 10 March 1965,” Conversation WH6503-05-7054, PRDE [Lyndon B. Johnson and Civil Rights, vol. 2] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–),


Daily Diary, 18 March 1965.


“Special Message to Congress: The American Promise,” March 15, 1965, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1966),


The story of King’s tears is widespread and quoted in scores of works. For audio of John Lewis’s account, aired on Terry Gross’s radio program Fresh Air the day before Barack Obama’s first inauguration, see “Congressman, Civil Rights Icon John Lewis,” Fresh Air, 19 January 2009,


Kent B. Germany, ed., “Lyndon Johnson and Buford Ellington on 18 March 1965,” Conversation WH6503-10-7124, PRDE [Lyndon B. Johnson and Civil Rights, vol. 2] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–),


Daily Diary, 25 March 1965; Germany, ed., “Lyndon Johnson and Nicholas Katzenbach on 25 March 1965,” Conversation WH6503-13-7160, PRDE [Lyndon B. Johnson and Civil Rights, vol. 2] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–),


Kent B. Germany, ed., “Lyndon Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover on 26 March 1965,” Conversation WH6503-04-7162, PRDE [Lyndon B. Johnson and Civil Rights, vol. 2] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–),


Kent B. Germany, ed., “Lyndon Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover on 26 March 1965,” Conversation WH6503-13-7167, PRDE [Lyndon B. Johnson and Civil Rights, vol. 2] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–),


Joseph Califano, The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon B. Johnson (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2000), 59–61.


Kent B. Germany, ed., “Lyndon Johnson and John McCone on 18 August 1965,” Conversation WH6508-05-8550, PRDE [Lyndon B. Johnson and Civil Rights, vol. 2] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–),


Kent B. Germany, ed., “Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr. on 20 August 1965,” Conversation WH6508-07-8578, PRDE [Lyndon B. Johnson and Civil Rights, vol. 2] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–),




Kent B. Germany, ed., “Office Conversation on 20 March 1965,” Conversation WH6508-07-8579-8580, PRDE [Lyndon B. Johnson and Civil Rights, vol. 2] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–),


Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), 320.


Martin Luther King Jr., “Where Do We Go from Here?,” 11th Annual SCLC Conference, 16 August 1967, Atlanta, Georgia,