Miller Center

LBJ, Governor Wallace, and Buford Ellington in Selma, Alabama

"The President, the Wildcard, and the Link" by Alice Anne Stephens

"You’re dealing with a very treacherous guy."
LBJ to Buford Ellington, March 18, 1965

In March 1965, several men and women in Alabama tested President Lyndon Johnson’s legendary political skills. Martin Luther King, Hosea Williams, Amelia Boynton, John Lewis, and hundreds of other activists exposed the brutality of white supremacy in Selma, while Governor George Wallace was orchestrating his own responses in Montgomery. As the president struggled to satisfy the demonstrators’ demands for voting rights, the notoriously brutal Al Lingo of the state police and Sheriff Jim Clark of Dallas County (where Selma was the county seat) and the arch-segregationist Governor Wallace made the balancing act even more difficult. In particular, over a two week period, Wallace retreated on his word, made inflammatory statements, and blamed the President for problems.

For Johnson, the struggle began in earnest on March 8—one day after the infamous “Bloody Sunday” march where Alabama law enforcement officials brutally attacked non-violent civil rights marchers on Selma’s Edmund Pettis Bridge. President Johnson recognized the need to contact Wallace to resolve whether another march to Montgomery could actually take place. Nicholas Katzenbach, his attorney general, admitted the problem of getting through to Wallace:

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Katzenbach: I just . . . There’s a way of communicating with George Wallace [Pauses.] If it would be sensible, that would be what would make a difference. There’s no reason why—that I can see—why, circumstances, terms and conditions of these people marching couldn’t be worked out.

[Edit.]

But, I guess Wallace is determined not to, and I don’t know what he’s heading for . . . Oh god. [Pause.]

President Johnson: Do you know Wallace very well?

Katzenbach: Hardly at all, Mr. President. The trouble is that I don’t know if any . . . if anybody—

President Johnson: Who really does.

President Johnson to Nicholas Katzenbach, 8 March 1965, 8:10 a.m. Tape WH6503.03, Citation #7029, Recordings of Telephone Conversations – White House Series, Recordings and Transcripts of Conversations and Meetings, Lyndon B. Johnson Library.

With no way of contacting the governor, the President would be unable to broker a compromise. Katzenbach suggested some channels through attorneys in Alabama, but the President had his own idea:

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President Johnson: This would have to be mighty quiet, but Buford Ellington is a man of extremely good judgment, and he was born in Mississippi, raised there, and then identified with the rural elements of Tennessee. He handles disaster problems and stuff like that on emergency planning. It could be that he knows Wallace. It could be that he could sit down with you, and you could give him some leadership and direction. Might be he won’t talk to him. I’ll ask him if he knows him and how well he knows him, and if f it looks like there’s any . . . he has any confidence, Wallace has any confidence in him, he might be a go-between.

[Edit.]

He has . . . He knows both sides of the coin, and I guess he’s been on both sides.

President Johnson to Nicholas Katzenbach, 8 March 1965, 8:10 a.m. Tape WH6503.03, Citation #7029, Recordings of Telephone Conversations – White House Series, Recordings and Transcripts of Conversations and Meetings, Lyndon B. Johnson Library.

Buford Ellington, then between his two terms as governor of Tennessee, quickly became the indispensable part of the communication apparatus with George Wallace. A few minutes after the Katzenbach call, President Johnson asked Ellington directly to act as a go-between. Ellington accepted:

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President Johnson: We got a little problem. The biggest problem we have in the Alabama situation is communicating with George Wallace. He apparently has his own very strongly held, positive views on just how this thing ought to be handled.

[Edit.]

We…it would improve the situation a good deal if we could speak freely with him with confidence in each other, but we have nobody could do that. Do you think that you have that much standing with him?

Buford Ellington: Mr. President, I talked with George, I guess, 10 minutes Friday about the Appalachian Bill.

[Edit.]

My relationship with George has been very good, but you can’t trust him. You talk to him; you don’t know what he’s going to say that you said and all of these things. But I can talk to him anytime, but it is an element of danger there in talking with George.

President Johnson to Buford Ellington, 8 March 1965, 8:29 a.m. Tape WH6503.03, Citation #7032, Recordings of Telephone Conversations – White House Series, Recordings and Transcripts of Conversations and Meetings, Lyndon B. Johnson Library.

That element of danger would quickly become the predominating factor in dealing with Wallace. Later on the afternoon of the 8th, Lister Hill, the somewhat progressive Democratic senator from Alabama, stressed the unpredictable and often extreme actions of George Wallace:

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Lister Hill: May I say something very confidentially. [Johnson assents.] I think . . . one thing there is, you remember what he did there at the University of Alabama?

President Johnson: Yeah. Yeah.

Hill: [with Johnson assenting throughout] After they had admitted that student at Oxford [James Meredith], they’d sent in the Federal Troops, why and he had a court order to admit one at the University of Alabama. He went there and stood in the doorway and wouldn’t let anybody come in until the federal troops. In other words, he wanted to show the people of Alabama he fought until the bitter end.

President Johnson: Yeah.

Hill: See what I mean? That’s what you’re up against down there.

President Johnson to Lister Hill, 8 March 1965, 4:24 a.m. Tape WH6503.04, Citation #7039, Recordings of Telephone Conversations – White House Series, Recordings and Transcripts of Conversations and Meetings, Lyndon B. Johnson Library.

Wallace’s “till the bitter end” philosophy would soon come into play in Selma. Knowing what they were up against, the President, Katzenbach, and Ellington took precautions to record their conversations with Wallace.

With Ellington’s promise to help reach Wallace, President Johnson and Katzenbach quickly sought a policy to let the marchers continue to Montgomery safely. One complicating factor occurred on March 9, referred to by some as “turnaround Tuesday,” as the Rev. Dr. King ended a follow-up demonstration by turning around at the Pettus bridge to avoid marching without federal judicial approval. That evening, a white Unitarian Minister from Boston was attacked by white thugs, dying a day later. The Supreme Court of Alabama ruled that the march could carry on the set route, and Buford Ellington transmitted the message to Wallace. President Johnson, believing that the limited conditions of the march combined with the cajoling by Ellington would satisfy Wallace, congratulated Katzenbach on their successful policy:

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President Johnson: Ellington did a good job. Didn’t he?

Katzenbach: He did a damn good job. He’s just indispensable.

President Johnson: Well train him. Get him over there and train him. Get your boys to working with him so he can talk to these other fellows ahead of time.

Katzenbach: Yeah.

President Johnson: We’ll keep him on the circuit delivering your . . . your packages.

President Johnson to Nicholas Katzenbach, 10 March 1965, 9:00 a.m. Tape WH6503.04, Citation #7048, Recordings of Telephone Conversations – White House Series, Recordings and Transcripts of Conversations and Meetings, Lyndon B. Johnson Library.

Unfortunately, George Wallace’s tendency to go back on his word caught up with President Johnson sooner than he had thought. The two met for almost three hours in a tense Oval Office setting on March 13, then emerged for a press conference. Two days later, Johnson delivered his powerful “American Promise” speech before Congress and the American public, calling for strong voting rights legislation and promising “we shall overcome. On March 18, in Alabama, a federal judge ruled that a march to Montgomery could proceed, thereby ensuring that the long-awaited response to Bloody Sundy would finally occur.

For Johnson, the triumph was not yet complete. He recorded a conversation with Wallace where he pressed the governor to follow through on preserving law and order. As the conversation progressed, Wallace repeated his insistence that the President ensure an orderly march, while President Johnson continually told him to call up his own state National Guard:

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Wallace: The point I’m making is that we’re going to do the best we can, but we hope that you might use your influence to at least make them have an orderly march. And I know you don’t want anything to happen that looks like a revolution.

[Edit.]

President Johnson: You call up your own [National] Guard into the service of the state, and I would ask our best people to cooperate. Our defense department to provide a group of counselors, advisors to work with them.

[Edit.]

We just got to work together best we can to see that we discharge our duties.

President Johnson to George Wallace, 18 March 1965, 4:33 p.m. Tape WH6503.09, Citation #7094, Recordings of Telephone Conversations – White House Series, Recordings and Transcripts of Conversations and Meetings, Lyndon B. Johnson Library.

Even though President Johnson promised adequate backup for the Alabama State Guard, Governor Wallace balked at the idea. He intimated several times during the conversation that there would possibly be a necessity to nationalize the guard, something the President wanted to avoid at all costs:

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Wallace: Of course, if they want to take . . . if these revolutionaries as I call them want the federal government to take the state over, of course they will probably precipitate a condition that will maybe sometime require that unless we can use the good influence of your office to say you’ve made your march, now let’s . . .

President Johnson to George Wallace, 18 March 1965, 4:33 p.m. Tape WH6503.09, Citation #7094, Recordings of Telephone Conversations – White House Series, Recordings and Transcripts of Conversations and Meetings, Lyndon B. Johnson Library.

After President Johnson presented his case on why Wallace should call up the Guard, the governor told him what he would do. Wallace told him that he would put the Guard on alert and only call them up if the 50,000 strong stayed on after the march. President Johnson was quick to catch Wallace on his trick, and when he realized that his tactics were getting no where, Governor Ellington began to counsel Wallace:

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Ellington: I think this, from our conversation this morning and so forth. I think the wisest move you can make is to put your men back out on the highways and call your Guard. I’ll say it in all frankness because then when they get there, the dispersement of these people is going to be a problem. . . . Yeah, I think this: I think if they know you’re going to call out the Guard then this wild element is not going to come to Alabama.

Wallace: Well, of course I hate to call out the Guard, and you all federalize them the time I call them out. I . . . 

Ellington: I’m not worried about that. You can take my word. I’m not worried about that. I’m standing in front of all these people while we talk.

President Johnson to George Wallace, 18 March 1965, 4:33 p.m. Tape WH6503.09, Citation #7095, Recordings of Telephone Conversations – White House Series, Recordings and Transcripts of Conversations and Meetings, Lyndon B. Johnson Library.

Wallace finally agreed to call up the Guard and protect the marchers, but President Johnson’s victory was again short-lived, as he revealed in his conversation that night with Ellington:

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President Johnson: Well,I thought so too, but you’re dealing with a very treacherous guy, and y’all must just not even come in quoting him anymore because he’s a no good son of a bitch, and I think you know it. He announced tonight he would ask Johnson to provide sufficient officers to protect the Negroes... He said tonight that he would ask Johnson to provide protection for Negroes marching from Selma to Montgomery. [reading] “I intend to call on the president of the United States to provide sufficient officers to guarantee the safety and welfare of citizens in and around the route. The federal government has created this matter, they can help protect them.”

President Johnson to George Wallace, 18 March 1965, 9:13 p.m. Tape WH6503.10, Citation #7124, Recordings of Telephone Conversations – White House Series, Recordings and Transcripts of Conversations and Meetings, Lyndon B. Johnson Library.

The president told Ellington to break conversation with the governor after calling him one last time to ask him:

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President Johnson: “Now why in the hell didn’t you stand up like a man and say what you were going to do to begin with?”

President Johnson to George Wallace, 18 March 1965, 9:13 p.m. Tape WH6503.10, Citation #7124, Recordings of Telephone Conversations – White House Series, Recordings and Transcripts of Conversations and Meetings, Lyndon B. Johnson Library.

Outraged, President Johnson turned to his attorney general to write a blistering press release to contradict Governor Wallace’s treachery. Wallace had suggested that over 6,000 men would be required to maintain law and order. In President Johnson’s reply he stated:

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Marie Fehmer (a White House Secretary): [reading the release] “The Federal Government does not have civilian personnel approaching the figures suggested by Governor Wallace. However, Governor Wallace has at his disposal over 10,000 trained members of the Alabama National Guard, which he could call into service. [Johnson attempts to speak] If he is unable or unwilling to call up the Guard and to maintain law and order for the people in Alabama, I will call the guard up and give them all the support that may be required.

President Johnson: All right. Now then, Nick, I want to designate somebody to contact. I am asking, pursuant to the Governor’s telegram, I am asking Attorney General Katzenbach to contact Captain Painter, and give, and supply him with this information.

President Johnson to Nicholas Katzenbach, 18 March 1965, 10:00 p.m. Tape WH6503.10, Citation #7130, Recordings of Telephone Conversations – White House Series, Recordings and Transcripts of Conversations and Meetings, Lyndon B. Johnson Library.

The press release seemed to work and the march took place peacefully several days later, on March 25, with over 50,000 marchers along the highway from Selma to Montgomery. That night, however, a carload of white supremacists shot and killed a white housewife from Detroit who was ferrying marchers from Montgomery in her car.

These much chronicled two weeks are generally remembered as one of the turning points in 1965 that led to the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act by a bipartisan coalition. The moment is commemorated every year with an identical march. Almost forty years later, it is worth remembering the behind-the-scenes struggles that took place before the final triumphant march. While activists and attorneys were fighting to make the march a legal protest and to bring attention to the lack of democracy in Alabama, a number of political leaders were maneuvering to inject their own influence over the situation. In late March, Al Lingo and his baton wielding state troopers were not drawing the blood of protesters, but Governor Wallace was still trying to spill political blood, as he fought mightily against the restraints put on him by President Johnson. Helping to keep that blood from flowing too heavily in the streets was a phalanx of Johnson’s advisors, especially Buford Ellington. It is worth remembering that the quiet Tennessean helped forge the links that finally kept Wallace in check, proving once again that history is not pre-ordained and that individuals matter. As one of the most indispensable but most overlooked participants in the negotiations, Ellington helped to shift the mythical “moral arc of the universe” that Martin Luther King had talked about on the final day of the march.

Alice Anne Stephens is a Fourth-Year honors student at the University of Virginia with a double major in Politics and French. She is a research assistant with the Miller Center’s Presidential Recordings Program and serves as the chief researcher for Johnson’s Selma and Montgomery tapes. Anne is also a UVA Echols Scholar, a recipient of David A. Harrison III Undergraduate Research Award, and a 2004 finalist for the Truman Scholarship.

Assisting her with this exhibit was Kent Germany, coordinator of the PRP’s LBJ Project and co-author (with David Carter) of the forthcoming Crisis of Victory: LBJ, the Politics of Race, and the White House Tapes.

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