Miller Center

Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Recordings

Johnson Conversation with Martin Luther King on Jul 07, 1965 (WH6507.02)

Tape: WH6507.02

Conversation: 8311-8312-8313

Date: July 07, 1965 8:05PM

Details: Martin Luther King

This recording is a combination of tapes 8311, 8312, and 8313. The recording highlights Dr. King and President Johnson discussing legislative tactics and King tries to explain his public criticism of the Johnson administration's conduct of the Vietnam War.


Martin Luther King, Jr.: Hello?

President Johnson: Yes?

King: Yes, President Johnson?

President Johnson: Yes.

King: This is Martin King.

President Johnson: Yes.

King: How do you do, sir?

President Johnson: Fine.

King: Fine. [I’m] glad to hear your voice.

President Johnson: Thank you.

King: I was ve[ry] . . . I was calling because we are very concerned about the [William] McCulloch amendment in the House, and I want to get your advice on this and see what we can do to really block this serious development which will stand in the way of everything we’ve tried to get in the voting bill. I talked with the Attorney General [Nicholas Katzenbach] earlier this morning, and he had some concerns about the possible closeness of the vote. We are very much concerned about it because this would be a very serious setback. I’m sure you’re familiar with the the ramifications of this.

President Johnson: Yes, I, if I can speak to you in confidence. I don’t want to . . I don’t want to be in the position of trying to influence or pressure anyone, but—

King: Sure, of course.

President Johnson: I’d be glad to. All right, I think that we are confronted with the realistic problem that we have faced all through the years, a combination of the South and the Republicans. The Republicans have got new leadership. They have kicked out [Charles] Halleck, and there is a great challenge to that leadership between [Gerald] Ford and a fellow named Melvin Laird of Wisconsin who is [Barry] Goldwater’s choice to be chairman of the platform committee. Those people have got a substitute which is a very dangerous one. They tried in the Senate to get a big fight started over which way to repeal the poll tax. There were two ways, and we . . . [Nicholas] Katzenbach felt one of them would be constitutional because he thought he could get it in Alabama and Mississippi and Louisiana and Texas by challenging them in the courts, and he couldn’t get it in Vermont. So, if he had a blanket repeal it would all go out, but if he had an individual thing, he could get rid of it. I told him to get rid of the poll tax any way in the world he could constitutionally without nullifying the whole law. I didn’t want them to say I wrote a bad law that wouldn’t stand up. So they got some of them started over there, and they got a challenge to it, and some of the boys wanted to go a little further and help a little more. Really, it was the best judgment we had. Instead of helping more, it would help less.

But anyway, finally we got it solved in the Senate, and it was acceptable. It worked out. Now it got over to the House, and they’ve tried every way in the world they could. The first thing they did is they went to the forces that are on our side and said well, you’ve got to go . . . You’ve got to repeal the poll tax outright, which means you repeal Vermont. Vermont is not a discriminatory tax., Therefore, the court wouldn’t hold it, and you wouldn’t do any good. But they got McCormack and they got the real friend that we have to go all the way, hoping that that would get the job done for them later on and would hold up the legislation.

I think the Civil Rights leadership is coming around now to see the problem that we all have. If they don’t have much confidence in the Attorney General, they’re going to be in trouble anyway because he’s the man we have to try to rely on to help us. I picked him for that problem because he and [John] Doar and the others had demonstrated that they had the confidence of the leadership. But we got back then to the big question. What do . . . How do we avoid this combination? Judge Smith held it for a while, and we had to file a 21 day rule. There’s been nobody really around here shoving it. I’ve done the best I could, but they’re hitting me on different sides, and the press is kind of . . . Vietnam or the Dominican Republic or some mistake here or some mistake there. I’m getting kind of cut up a little bit. Wilkins is having a national convention, and you were somewhere else. I called George Meany to ask him to help. He’d gone to Europe. I called [Walter] Reuther. He won’t be back until August. I called Joe Rauh and said, “For God’s sakes you try to get in here before it’s too late.” We [are] all off celebrating and doing something else, and they’re going to put a package together that I can see forming. And I called [Andrew] Biemiller, and I got him to agree to go send some, and they got a wire sent from Roy [Wilkins] to all the Republicans.

But the Republicans are going to hold pretty well. They’re not going to . . . They’re going to quit the nigras. They will not let a nigra vote for them. They just . . . every time they get a chance to help out a little they’ll blow it. They could help out here, and they could elect some good men in suburban districts and in cities, but they haven’t got that much sense. That’s why they are disintegrating as a party. So they’re going to wind up being pretty solid. Then they’re going to get the southerners, and they put the two together. It’ll probably be within ten votes of counting. Now, when I went up with my message, I could have probably passed it by 75. But it’s deteriorating. The other day they almost beat my rental . . . my rent subsidy which is very important to the working groups and the poor people because—

King: [unclear.]

President Johnson: —When a man pays 25 percent of his income for rent . . . We’ll say a man makes 200 [dollars] a month in New York City working in a bakery shop. Why, he pays $50 a month rent, and his rent costs him maybe 67 [dollars]. The government will come in after 25 percent which is $50 of his 200. They’ll pay the other $17.50 themselves. It’s the most modern idea we’ve had, and it takes care of lots of families. But they’ve beaten me . . . I beat them 208 to 202, but I had to work all night the night before. We called 90 people, and it was just a struggle of a lifetime. The labor people who were supposed to be supporting it, they were off, and I couldn’t get them to help.

What they’ve done is just kind of taken a victory, Doctor, and not been concerned. Now Smith comes out and says my bill has had a lot of venom in it, and I have a great hatred for the South, and I’m like a rattlesnake. I’m trying to punish them and all that kind of stuff. So he gets the Congressmen from the 13 old Confederate states, and he puts 100 with 150 Republicans. That gives him 250, and 250 is a good majority of 435. So we get some of them away from him. I’ll get a few from Texas away from him, and we’ll get a few from Tennessee away from him, the Confederate states . . . But he’ll still get 70, 80 of them, and unless we can pull some of the Republicans away, why we’re in trouble, and we’re dangerous. Even if we do, we get a bill in conference.

Now when it gets in conference with this House insisting on repealing (blanket) the poll tax, repealing it in blank. We think the Court would not uphold us in that. We think that’s unconstitutional. We’ve said so, but we can’t avoid it because our own friends have bought it, and they want to be stronger for the Negro than Nick Katzenbach is. So, we’ve got to pass it that way. Then it goes to conference. When it gets to conference you can’t, you can’t pass that way in the Senate because the Senate will not take it. They know that it’s unconstitutional, and they’ve got six year terms. They’re good lawyers, and they’re not going to vote for it. So they get in an argument, and that delays it, and maybe nothing comes out. But if something does come out, then you’ve got to go back to Judge Smith again, and you’ve got to get a rule from him, and he won’t give you a rule. He . . . So you’ve got to file a petition and take another 21 days.

Now the smart thing to do—if we had people that would all stay with us and follow leadership and get in and when the ball goes through the center or around the end, [they] would follow it—would be to get some language that the Leadership Conference would agree on. Go in and see McCormack and our friends and say, now, let’s take this language that the Senate will accept without it going to conference so we can go on and get this bill passed and start registering our people and get them ready to vote next year. That’s what we need to do. But we . . . They’re playing us, and we’re not parliamentary-smart enough.

If you want to be honest now, you ask[ed] for my advice, I’m just telling you. You all are either going to have confidence in me and in Katzenbach, or you ought to pick some leader you do have and inform him. Now, I started out on this voting bill last November right after the election. I called them down and told them that I was going to do it. I called you down here and told you what I was going to do. I went before the Congress and made a speech and asked them to work every weekend. Then we all went off, and they haven’t had any heat except from me. They’re getting tired of the heat from me. They don’t like for me to be asking for rent one day and poverty the next day and education the next day and voting rights the next day. They know I can’t defeat them out there in their district in Michigan, or some other place. So I’m just fighting the battle the best I can. I think I’ll win it, but it’s going to be close, and it’s going to be dangerous. I have notified the labor people. I’ve asked Lee White to talk to you and talk to Roy and talk to any of them that call him . . . Whitney Young.I talked to a fellow named Proctor from New York in here today that . . . with the Council of Churches. I tell them all that this is a very dangerous thing. I’ve been at this business 35 years.

I got a wonderful response on my speech at Howard. I’ve had it printed. I’ve sent it out to all the leaders over the country. I’ve got them writing their Congressmen and their Senators, but I cannot influence the Republicans. Now the people that can influence the Republicans are men like the local chapters of CORE or NAACP or your group in New York and in Illinois, downstate Illinois, and in Pennsylvania and in Ohio and these states where you got a good many Negro voters. And you’ve got to say to them, “Now we’re not Democrats. We’re going to vote for the man that give[s] us freedom. We don’t give a damn whether it’s Abraham Lincoln or Lyndon Johnson. We’re going to know, and we’re not—We’re smart enough to know, and we’re here watching you. And we want to see how you go through that tally vote, and we want to see how you answer on that roll call--Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, California.”

And do it. Now that’s what we need. We need it Wednesday and Thursday and Friday and maybe, maybe even Saturday if they run over. And I told Joe Rauh that, and I said, “Now, don’t come back to me after it’s defeated and say well the President didn’t give us leadership because I’m sounding warning.” UP [United Press] put out a story Sunday. That story says that there will be less than a dozen votes difference. Now, they counted a good many Southerners voting with us. We think we’ll lose some of those dozen that they give us. So . . . but we’re going to try to pick up some more Republicans. That’s where you’ve got to pick them up. No use trying to pick up a fellow from Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, [or] those places. We’ll pick up one or two from Florida. We’ll pick up something from Texas. But the place you’ve got to pick them up is Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, New York. You’ll get a fellow like [John] Lindsay. He’s running for mayor, and he’s going to be with us. But you won’t get a dozen Republicans, and we’ve got to get . . . We ought to get 25 of them, or they ought to be defeated.

King: Well, I duly appreciate your [?niceness] but I’m . . . I’ve been ] very much concerned about this. I have [a surreal/] job first of [unclear] the South. I guess this amendment came out before I really realized the extent of it and the real danger of it, and I just [unclear] equaled my [?espousals] going back down into the Black Belt of Alabama [unclear—and other cities] that are trying to register and can’t register. It means that there’s a lot of demonstration on our hands that we really can’t control. This is my great concern. It gives a psychologically very [unclear], and I see the voting bill as our way out.

President Johnson: It is.

King: And this is why I have taken the position that I’ve taken now. Something should be done to avoid a long battle in the conference between the House and the Senate because this again complicates the problem. This makes it much more difficult for us to control the work we have going on in . . . that we have in Lowndes [County] today. Our work is in 84 counties now, and the whole summer [unclear] . . . the whole summer program’s predicated on passing the voting bill, which we all have been involved with. [If] we get bogged down for the rest of the summer, there’s a danger of an amendment which keeps [unclear] automatically triggered in there. This would mean we have a very complicated problem on our hands.

President Johnson: We sure do. We’re back—We’ve lost a good deal of the gain we made last November. I don’t know. I have the problem . . . You know my practical political problem in the Senate. The Attorney [General]—Bobby Kennedy and Teddy were for the bill, the blanket repeal of the poll tax—I told the Attorney General to repeal it any way in the world he could as quickly as he could, that I would like for them to vote at 18, and I would like for him to repeal the poll tax. He came up with his lawyers, and he says that best way to repeal it is to establish discrimination. I can establish it in all the states but Vermont. But they’ll bring the case on Vermont, and that’ll be the case that they’ll take to the Court. They will not hold that it’s discriminatory in Vermont because it’s not. It doesn’t even apply to the poor.

King: Yes.

President Johnson: And he said I’ll lose it there. Now these boys are not good lawyers, and they just . . . It won’t stand up. So, I have to take his judgment. But I didn’t get out and quarrel about it one way or the other, but the Senate finally followed the Attorney General. They understood it, and even the boys themselves did. And that passed the Senate.

King: Yes.

President Johnson: But while they were talking about it, McCormack was afraid that somebody would be stronger for the Negro than he was. So he picked up the Kennedy argument they had made in the Senate over in the House. So he came out red hot for a complete repeal. So he and the Attorney General are on opposite sides now. But the Attorney General has got no choice because the Speaker is going to put it in there so that’s going to be a different bill from the Senate bill.

King: Yes.

President Johnson: So then if we beat off McCulloch . . . If we win with him, we[‘ve] still got one bill in the Senate and one in the House. That’s what the Southerners that are smart parliamentarians want us to do. They want your wife to go one direction and you to go the other.

King: Yes.

President Johnson: Then the kids don’t know which one to follow. [King chuckles] So they’ve got to . . . They’ve got that happening. Then we go to a conference. Suppose we get them all in a room, and you come and talk to them, and everybody else talks to them and say, “Please get your agreement. We’re willing to follow the Attorney General.” You get them agreed on it. Then they’ve got to go back to Judge Smith to get him to give a rule to get the conference report of it. That just makes it we ought to never have to do that because he won’t give it. So then we’ve got to notify him and then give him 21 days notice. They want to get out of here Labor Day, and they plan for that time. Now they’ve been doing that for 35 years that I’ve been here, and I’ve been watching them do it. The only times that we’ve beat them was when I beat them in ’57 and when I beat them in ’60 and when I beat them in ’63. This year we’ve got to beat them again, but that’s what they’re doing. You can’t beat them unless you know what they’re doing.

King: Yes.

President Johnson: And that’s about it.

King: Yes.

President Johnson: So I would say there are about two things that ought to be done. You ought to have the strongest man that can speak for you—and the most knowledgeable legislative-wise—authorized to speak and authorized to tell people like the Speaker what you want. And you don’t want this fight going on, and you ought to find out who you believe you can trust, if you can trust me, if you can trust the Attorney General. If you can’t trust us, why, trust Teddy Kennedy or whoever you want to trust and then get behind them and see that they take the thing because I’ll give every bit, ounce of energy and ability of any that I have to passing the most effective bill that can be written.

King: Well, I certainly appreciate this, Mr. President because as I said, I [unclear—, Lyndon,/, the amendment, I am confident that you] [unclear] the whole voting bill. [unclear] would be [unclear] Alabama.

President Johnson: You sure have and . . .

King: [unclear.]

President Johnson: Well, you helped, I think, [to] dramatize and bring it to a point where I could go before the Congress in that night session, and I think that was one of the most effective things that had ever happened, but you had worked for months to help create the sentiment that supported it.

King: Yes.

President Johnson: Now the trouble is that fire has gone out.

King: That’s right.

President Johnson: We’ve got a few coals on it. And we’ve got to put some more cedar back on it and put a little coal oil on it.

King: Yeah. Well, I’ll get right to work, and I’ll be talking to Roy and some of the others [unclear]

President Johnson: Roy sent them a wire yesterday, but they just put a wire in their file. What they’ve got to do is have you and Roy and Whitney Young and Phil Randolph and [James] Farmer and some of these fellows, any of you that can work together, to come sit in a hotel room and talk to your people and get your reports and watch it for a day or two and be able to talk to men like Speaker McCormack and like the Majority Leader [Mike Mansfield] and tell them what you want them to do. Because this morning the Vice President, now he is very, very strong for you, and his heart and soul is in this. Now he said, “Please men, let’s don’t go to conference and let Judge Smith keep this another twenty-one days. Let’s don’t get into a fight among ourselves. The Attorney General is right and let’s get language. The Leadership Conference is ready to go along on modified language, and I’ve got it here in my pocket.”

But McCormack said, “Oh no, they’ll do it when we—do it and then they’ll come in [and] blame me, and I’m going to go for the strongest thing I can go for so nobody can blame me.” I said what are you going to do when the Court holds it’s no good and throws it out? Where are you going to be? Well, that’ll be down the road a long time from now. So that’s where we are.

King: Yes.

President Johnson: So I think . . . My recommendation would be that you get the best lawyer that you and Roy and the rest of you have and get him to talk to Katzenbach, and if he has confidence in Katzenbach, follow Katzenbach’s legal judgment and come in here and follow my political judgment and see if we can’t get a bill passed.

King: OK. Well, this has been very sound, and I certainly appreciate it very much. Now there’s one other part that I wanted to mention to you because it has, again, concerned me a great deal. In the last few days, [unclear—in fact/back to] last week I was making a speech in Virginia where I made a statement concerning the Vietnam situation, and there have been a number of press statements about it, both from a reporting and editorial point of view, and I wanted to say to you that this is in no way an attempt to engage in a destructive criticism of the policy of the administration. I was speaking merely as [?innocent] [unclear—minister of the gospel?/a [person] interested in the gospel].

As you are, I’m gravely concerned about the problem of war and the possibilities of nuclear annihilation, and I think that the press unfortunately lifted it out of context and made it appear that I made a statement saying that we should unilaterally withdraw the troops from Vietnam, which I thought [unclear—was] very unreasonable and that the Civil Rights Movement should take on the whole peace struggle of foreign policy issue [unclear] part of this whole struggle. This was totally out of context, and I felt that this would eventually come to your attention. I wanted you to know exactly what I said, which is merely a statement that all citizens of good will [unclear] be concerned about the problem that faces our world, the problems of war and [unclear]. [unclear] have a debate on these issues. And I was just speaking generally in that area, and many of these [unclear] were [unclear—explicit in the] context. So, I just wanted to say that to you [unclear—convincingly/because] I felt that eventually they would come to your attention. [President Johnson attempts to interject.] I know the terrible burden and awesome responsibilities and decisions that you have to make are very complicated, and I didn’t want to add to the burdens because I know they’re very difficult.

President Johnson: Well, you, you, you’re very . . . helpful, and I appreciate it. I did see it. I was distressed. I do want to talk to you. I’d welcome a chance to review with you my problems and our alternatives there. And I not only know you have a right, [but] I think you have a duty as a minister and as a leader of millions of people to give them a sense of purpose and direction. I . . . You have an obligation to do that, and I’ll just welcome an opportunity to give you my views and problems I have because for 20 months I have . . . Well, the Republican leader who had a press conference this after noon. Ford demanded I bomb Hanoi.

King: [Unclear.]

President Johnson: I have tried to do my best to . . . I’ve lost about two hundred and sixty-four lives up to now, and I could lose two hundred and sixty-five thousand mighty easy. I’m trying to keep those zeroes down and at the same time not trigger a conflagration that would be worse if we pulled out. I can’t stay there and do nothing. Unless I bomb, they run me out right quick. That’s the only pressure we have, and if they’ll quit bombing, if they’ll quit coming in, if they’ll quit tearing up our roads and our highways and quit taking over our camps and bombing our planes and destroying them, well, we’ll quit the next day if they’ll just leave the folks alone, but they won’t do it. So the only pressure we can put on is to try to hold them back as much as we can by taking their bridges out, delaying them and taking out their ammunition dumps and destroying them, by taking out their radar stations that permit them to shoot down our planes. Now that’s what we’ve been doing. A good many people, including the military, think that’s not near enough, that I ought to do a lot more. I’ve tried to keep it to that so I won’t escalate it and get into trouble with China and with Russia, and I don’t want to be a warmonger. At the same time, if I didn’t do that, I’d stay it as long as I could the other way. I held up until February after I came in in November. I went from November to November, and from November to February. But they kept coming. They just kept coming, and I couldn’t stand it any longer. I had to get out or do it. Now I’m doing it with the restraint and with the best judgment that I know how.

King: [Unclear.]

President Johnson: If I pulled out, I think our commitments would be no good anywhere. I think that we’d immediately trigger a situation in Thailand that would be just as bad as it is in Vietnam. I think we’d be right back to the Philippines with problems. I think the Germans would be scared to death that our commitment to them was no good,and God knows what we’d have other places in the world. I think it’s the situation we had in Lebanon, I think it’s the situation we had in Formosa. I think it’s the situation we had in Greece and Turkey and Iran, and Truman and Eisenhower and none of these people allowed them to go in and take these peoples’ freedom away from them. And I’m trying . . . I didn’t get us into this. We got into it in ’54. Eisenhower and Kennedy were in it deep. There were 33,000 men out there when I came into the presidency. I don’t want to pull down the flag and come home running with my tail between my legs, particularly if it’s going to create more problems than I got out there, and it would according to all of our best judges. On the other hand, I don’t want to get us in war with China and Russia. So I’ve got a pretty tough problem, and I’m not all wise. I pray every night to get direction and judgment and leadership that permit me to do what’s right. But when you come in, I’ll just welcome a chance to have the Secretary of State talk to you, the Secretary of Defense or any of our people. I’ll give you all I know, and I appreciate very much your attitude and your desire to be helpful, and I know that is your desire, as it always has been in our dealings together.

King: Yes. Well, I certainly appreciate your position, and the breadth of your concern, I feel was . . . represents true leadership and true greatness. [unclear] and we all think it.

President Johnson: No . . .

King: I don’t think I’ve had the chance to thank you for what I consider the greatest leap that any President has made on the quest for civil rights. The [unclear] [?same for Vietnam] the depth, the grasp, and the sensitivity and everything [unclear] Howard [unclear].

President Johnson: Well, as soon as I have some new copies printed, I’ll send you some of them. [I] got one with your picture in it. I’ve got one of our leadership meetings here. [unclear comment by King.] I put some pictures in the printed copy. I’ll send you some.

King: Well, I [unclear]—

President Johnson: If you’re up this way anyway, you let me know and talk about it. I hope that you do talk to Roy and you all see what can be done quick because tomorrow’s Thursday, [unclear comment by King] and this thing will be decided Thursday and Friday.

King: Well, I’ll get right to work tonight.

President Johnson: OK. You let me know, and if I’m not available . . . in a security meeting or anything call Lee White.

King: All right, Mr. [President]—

President Johnson: Anytime you have any problems, call him anyway.

King: Thank you.

President Johnson: You know that, don’t you?

King: Fine, of course.

President Johnson: All right, OK.

King: All right.

President Johnson: Bye.

King: Bye.