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Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Recordings

Johnson Conversation with Martin Luther King on Jan 15, 1965 (WH6501.04)


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Tape: WH6501.04

Conversation: 6736

Date: January 15, 1965

Details: Martin Luther King


The transcript below covers conversations 6736 and 6737. Click here to listen to conversation 6737.

In responding to Dr. King's suggestion for the appointment of African American to a Cabinet-level post, Johnson laid out his priorities on racial matters, particularly in legislation and in Cabinet-level appointments. Johnson and King discuss the importance of the Voting Rights Act in the context of much broader legislation to help black Americans, especially poor black Americans. 

President Johnson: Hello.

Martin Luther King Jr.: Hello?

President Johnson: This is Lyndon Johnson, I had a call—

King: Who [unclear].

President Johnson: —from you, and I tried to reply to it a couple of times, Savannah and different places, and they said you were traveling, and I got to traveling last night. [Unclear comment by King.] Just got down here to meet the Prime Minister [Lester Pearson] of Canada this morning. And I—I had a moment and I thought maybe we better try to—I better try to reply to your call.

King: Well, I certainly appreciate your returning the call, and I don’t want to take but just a minute or two of your time. First I want to thank you for that great State of the Union message. It was really a marvelous presentation, and I think we are on the way now towards the Great Society.1

President Johnson: I’ll tell you what our problem is. We’ve got to try . . . with every force at our command, and I mean every force . . . to get these education bills that go to those people under $2,000 a year income. A billion and a half [dollars], and this poverty [bill] that’s a billion and a half, and this health [bill] that’s going to be 900 million next year right at the bottom. We’ve got to get them passed before the vicious forces concentrate and get them a coalition that can block them. Then we have got to—so we won’t divide them all and get them hung up in a filibuster.2

We've got to—when we get these big things through that we need, Medicare, Education—I’ve already got that hearing started the 22nd in the House and the 26th in the Senate—your people ought to be very, very . . . uh . . . diligent in looking at those committee members that come from urban areas that are friendly to you to see that those bills get reported right out, because you have no idea. It's shocking to you how much benefits they will get. [King acknowledges.] There’s 8 billion, 500 million [dollars] this year for education compared to 700 million when I started, so you can imagine . . . you can imagine what effort that’s going to be.

King: Yes.

President Johnson: And this one bill is a billion and a half. Now, if we can get that and we can get our Medicare—we ought to get that by February—then we get our poverty [bill], that will be more than double what it was last year. Then we’ve got to come up with the . . . qualification of the voters. That will answer 70 percent of your problems.

King: That’s right.

President Johnson: If you just clear it out everywhere, make it age and read and write. No tests on . . . what [Geoffrey] Chaucer said or [Robert] Browning’s poetry or constitutions or memorizing or anything else.

King: Yes.

President Johnson: And then you may have to put them in the post office, let the Post Master—that’s a federal employee that I control who they can say is local; he’s recommended by the congressman, he’s approved by the senator, but if he doesn’t register everybody I can put a new one in.

King: Yes.

President Johnson: And it’s not an outside, Washington influence. It’s a local man. But they can just all go to the post office like they buy a stamp. Now, I haven’t thought this through, but that’s my general feeling, and I’ve talked to the Attorney General, and I’ve got them working on it. I don’t want to start off with that anymore than I do with 14(b) because I wouldn’t get anything else.3

King: Yes, yes, yes.

President Johnson: Do you—

King: That’s right.

President Johnson: And I don’t want to publicize it, but I wanted—that's—I wanted you to know the outline of what I had in mind.

King: Yes. Well, I remembered you mentioned it to me the other day when we met at the White House, and I have been very diligent if not . . . making this statement.

President Johnson: Well, your statement was perfect about the votes—important, very important, and I think it’s good to talk about that, and I just don’t see how anybody can say that a man can fight in Vietnam, but he can’t vote in the post office.

King: Yes. Yes. Well, this brings in—I'll tell you, the main thing I wanted to share with you really grows out of conversations that I have had with all of the civil rights leaders—I mean, the heads of the civil rights organizations—

President Johnson: Yeah.

King: —as well as many people around the country as I have traveled [unclear]. We have a strong feeling that it would mean so much to, first, the health of our whole democracy [unclear] to the Negro, and to the nation, to have a Negro in the Cabinet. We feel that this would really be a great step forward for the nation, for the Negro, for our international image, and do so much to give many people a lift who need a lift now, and I’m sure it could give a new sense of dignity and self-respect to millions of Negroes who—millions of Negro youth who feel that they don’t have anything to look forward to in life.

President Johnson: I agree with that. I have not publicly shouted from the housetop, but I have had them sit in with me. I—the first move I made was to put one on the [National] Security Council—4

King: Yes—

Excerpt. For several minutes, the two men talk about efforts to place black Americans in Cabinet-level positions.

President Johnson: Every corporation I talk to—and I talked to about 30 of them yesterday--they are looking for Negroes that can do the job that a George Weaver does or a Carl Rowan does, or a fellow like Weaver does.13 If we have some of them, and if you have some of them, and you get them to Hobart Taylor, we can find companies that will use a man of that quality.14 Then when they get in, they can look after the ones below them like you’re looking after your people.

King: Well, I—I think you’re right, and we're certainly going to continue to work in that area.

President Johnson: There’s not going to be anything, though, Doctor, as effective as all of them voting.

King: That’s right. And I think—5

President Johnson: That'll get you a message that all the eloquence in the world won’t bring because the fellow will be coming to you then, instead of you calling him.

King: 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 that and I think professors at 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 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: That’s exactly right. I think it’s very important that we not say that we’re doing this and we’re not doing [this] just because it’s Negroes or whites, but we take the position that every person born in this country, when they reach a certain age, that he have a right to vote, just like he has a right to fight [chuckles], and that we just extend it whether it’s a Negro, or whether it’s a Mexican, or who it is.

King: [Unclear.]6

President Johnson: And number two, I think that we don’t want special privilege for anybody. We want equality for all, and we can stand on that principle, but I think that 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 [Henry Wadsworth] Longfellow, or whether he’s got to quote the first ten amendments, or he’s got to tell you what Amendment 15 and 16 and 17 is, and then ask them if they know and show what happens, and 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 [Adolf] Hitler, but he had an idea—

King: Yeah.

President Johnson: —that if you just take a simple thing and repeat it often enough, even if it wasn’t true, why, people’d accept it. Well, now, this is true, and if you can find the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi, or Louisiana, or South Carolina where—well, I think one the worst I ever heard of is the president of the school at Tuskegee [Institute], 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 on . . . in the pulpits, and get it in the meetings, get it every place you can, pretty soon the fellow that didn’t do anything but follow—drive a tractor, he'll say, "Well, that’s not right, that’s not fair."

King: Yes.

President Johnson: And then that will help us on what we’re going to shove through in the end.

King: Yes. You’re exactly right about that.

President Johnson: And if we do that, we'll break through as—it’ll be the greatest breakthrough of anything, not even excepting this ‘64 act, I think the greatest achievement of my administration. I think the greatest achievement in foreign policy—I said to a group yesterday—was the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

But I think this’ll be bigger, because it’ll do things that even that ’64 Act couldn’t do.

King: That’s right. That’s right. [Unclear] right. Well, Mr. President, I certainly appreciate your giving me this time, and I certainly appreciate getting your ideas on these things, but that I just wanted to share it with you, and I wanted you to know that we have the feeling, but we are not set on any particular person. We felt that Bob Weaver, Whitney Young, or Ralph Bunche—somebody like that could—7

Excerpt. They speak about the Cabinet issue again for several minutes.

President Johnson: But two things you do for us now. You find the most ridiculous illustration you can on voting, and point it up, and repeat it, and get everybody else to. Second thing is please look at that Labor Committee in the House and the Senate. Please look at that Health Committee. Please look at that Immigration Committee, and let’s us try to get health and education and poverty through the first 90 days.

King: Yes. Well, we’re going to be doing that. You can depend on our absolute support.

President Johnson: Whitney’s group can go talking to them, and Roy’s group can, and your group can, and they ought to tell the [William Fitts] Ryan of New York, and they ought to tell so-and-so from Philadelphia, and they ought to tell so-and-so from Atlanta, “Please get this bill reported.”8

King: Yes.

President Johnson: Because I don’t think you have any conception of the proportion of assistance that comes to your people in these bills. I haven’t pointed that out. I haven’t stressed it.

King: Yes. Well, I know they will be—they have been and will be a new support for tremendous efforts and—

President Johnson: You can figure out, though, what $8 billion in education and what $1 billion in health and what a billion and a half in poverty would do if it goes to people who earn less than $2,000 a year.

King: Mm-hmm.

President Johnson: Now, you know who earns less than 2,000 [dollars], don’t you?

King: That’s right. [President Johnson chuckles.] Yes, sir. Well, it will certainly be a great movement. We’ve just got to work harder, [unclear].

President Johnson: And I’m a part of this administration, but we talked about what we going to do [for] three years, and we had to do it the fourth. We passed 51 bills last year. Now, I’ve got those messages up there, the first time any president by January the 15th has ever had a half dozen messages for the Congress. Most of them don’t even have their State of the Union until after the inauguration.

King: Yeah! That’s right.

President Johnson: But they’re there, and they’re ready for them to go to work, and we’re not just going to talk. If they’ll vote, I’m ready. We’ve got our recommendations, and we talked the first three years of our administration. We promised, and we held it up, and people were getting to be pretty disillusioned, I think, when I finally beat the Rules Committee and got Civil Rights out.9

King: Yeah. Yeah, I know.

President Johnson: I think that you might have . . . you might have had a lot more revolution in this country than you could handle if we had had that Civil Rights stay in that Rules Committee under Judge [Howard] Smith.

King: That’s right. Oh, that’s such a disillusioning experience.

President Johnson: Well, we’ve talked about it three years, you know, but we just did something about it, so that’s what we’ve got to do now, and you get in here and help us.

King: Well, I certainly will. You know you can always count on that.

President Johnson: Thank you so much.

King: All right. God bless you. Thank you, Mr. President.

President Johnson: Thank you. Bye.

1. President Johnson had delivered his State of the Union message on 4 January. King was referencing a specific line from the speech. Return to text ↑

2. As with Johnson’s desire to get the tax cut passed before the civil rights bill came up in 1964, he wanted to push forward with much of his major Great Society legislation in 1965 before an anticipated filibuster in the Senate bottled up the agenda. Return to text ↑

3. President Johnson was referring to the labor movement’s desire to eliminate section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act that gave states the authority to enforce anti-union “right to work” provisions. Return to text ↑

4.President Johnson had appointed Carl Rowan to head the United States Information Agency, which was part of the National Security Council. Later in this conversation, Johnson emphasized, as he had done in numerous calls the previous year, that Rowan’s position was the equivalent of a Cabinet post and that Rowan attended Cabinet meetings. Return to text ↑

5. King may say “nothing” here instead of “I think.” Return to text ↑

6. King may say “Yes, sir,” “exactly,” or “that’s it.” Return to text ↑

7. Robert Weaver became the first secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Whitney Young was national director of the Urban League. Ralph Bunche was a longtime official in the State Department and the United Nations who won the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize for his work concerning Palestine and Israel. He was serving as U.N. under secretary general for political affairs. He died in 1971. Return to text ↑

8. On 23 June 1964, William Fitts Ryan [D-New York] had irritated Johnson by accompanying to the White House the parents of two missing civil rights workers in the Mississippi Burning case. Return to text ↑

9. The threat of a likely successful discharge petition forced Rules Committee chair Howard “Judge” Smith to allow his committee to take up the civil rights bill on 9 January 1964. President Johnson had been working closely with his chief legislative liaison Lawrence O’Brien to tabulate support for that petition. The civil rights bill made it to the floor and, on 10 February, passed the House. Return to text ↑