Miller Center

Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Recordings

Johnson Conversation with Martin Luther King on Aug 20, 1965 (WH6508.07)


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Tape: WH6508.07

Conversation: 8578

Date: August 20, 1965

Details: Martin Luther King


President Johnson: Hello?

Martin Luther King, Jr.: Hello?

President Johnson: Yes, Dr. King.

King: Yes, Mr. President, how are you today?

President Johnson: Oh, I'm doing pretty good. I've been . . . I thought you made a mighty good statement yesterday that I saw on . . . last night.

King: Yes, well, we're experiencing a difficult situation here.

President Johnson: Well, it's difficult all over the country. I met with about 600 or 700 of them today here on equal employment and . . . It's . . . It's . . . We've just got so much . . . We've got just so much to do as I told you the other day that I don't know how we'll ever do it, but we've got to get ahead with it.

King: Yes.

President Johnson: I had all day long yesterday and all day the day before. I was having 44 to 44 votes, 43 to 42, and finally I won last night by three extra. Now, my bill's got to go back to the House and go through Judge Smith again and go to conference on my poverty. They're determined to destroy it, to scandalize it. [unclear comment by King] I thought Shriver was about as popular and about as fair a young man as I could do and had a pretty good image, and he was Kennedy's brother-in-law. But they're just raising the dickens in all of these states. In particular all of the governors are upset, and the mayors can't get along, and I got a letter from [Senator Thomas] Kuchel last night. He's a pretty decent fellow.

King: Yes.

President Johnson: I told him I'd get busy in everyone of these programs. I told Lee [White] to tell you that I'm here with a bunch of Latin American ambassadors.

King: Sure.

President Johnson: And they're upset because they want more for sugar, and their people are all starving, but I told him to tell you what . . . Did he go over the Kuchel thing with you?

King: Yes, he went over it with me. He read the letter.

President Johnson: And I will get in... I would get in Shriver if you think that's what we ought to do and do anything that we ought to. I've got each one of these agencies now that have a responsibility in this field. I've sent them Kuchel's letter to me and my letter to him and asked them to prepare for crash action. And I guess that I got a mean letter from Yorty. He says that our people up here said that he wouldn't cooperate. I don't know who said it, if anybody, but he's upset with us, demands that I investigate that. How do you see it?

King: Well, I'll tell you, Mr. President, I have met with, oh, all levels of leadership here. I have talked with people in the Watts area. Now this is really what concerns me very much. Now, I'm not optimistic at this point about the possible outcome of [unclear—this thing]. The Governor's been talking, now Governor Brown has been marvelous in his statements and the moves that he's made. I had a long talk with him—

President Johnson: And by the way, I made . . . You might misunderstand it, but I took your statement you made the other day and one or two others made about "we pass laws to help people and we got to all obey the law and we can't violate it either as a Klansman or either with a Molotov cocktail. That we ought to obey the law." I made that to the equal employment people today and made it pretty strong.

King: Mmmhmm.

President Johnson: But I wound up, I said what we've got to do is take the—a find a cure and go in and correct these conditions where the housing and the ghettos and the rats eat the children and the schools and the hunger and the unemployment and so forth.

King: Yes.

President Johnson: And they're all God's children, and we better get at it.

King: Yes. Yes.

President Johnson: But I want you to know that I'd said that. Pardon me for interrupting, go ahead.

King: That's all right. But in, in my meeting with Police Chief [William] Parker and Mr. Yorty, Mayor Yorty, I just felt that they're absolutely insensitive to the problems and to the needs to really cure the situation. Now, Mr. Parker is a very rude man. We couldn't get anywhere with him. But I just don't see a willingness even on the part of the mayor to grant just a few concessions to make, to bring about a new sense of hope and goodwill. Now what is frightening about it is that you hear all of these [unclear—tomes/tones] of violence and people out there in the Watts area. [unclear] the National Guard [unclear] they're going back. The minute that happens there will be retaliation from the white people this time. Last time there was not, which was wonderful. But, people have bought up guns and, of course, Chief Parker went on the television the other day [unclear] they had a right [unclear] To own/hold a gun.] so that I'm fearful that if something isn't done to give a new sense of hope to the people in that area – and they are poverty-stricken ] --that a full- scale race war can develop here, and I'm concerned about it naturally because I know that violence and a riot [unclear] the other day doesn't help [unclear—anything].

President Johnson: That's right, now what should we do about it? What's your recommendation?

King: The problem is that I think the poverty—If they could get in the next few days this poverty program going in Los Angeles, I believe it would help a great deal.

President Johnson: I'll get him over here in the morning. We'll get at it. Where are you going to be?

King: I'll be in Atlanta in the morning.

President Johnson: All right, we'll call you back. Lee will call you, or I'll call you if I have time and we'll explore this. Is that the net of what you're recommending?

King: That's right.

President Johnson: All right.

King: I think this would be...greatly. This would help greatly.

President Johnson: All right, now you better get your thinking cap on, on this conference because we're going to have to rush it. We don't want to rush it too much, we want to have plenty of preliminary work on the panels and things.

King: Uh-huh.

President Johnson: But you better, you can see here that my Howard University speech wasn't any too early.

King: That's right, that's right. You said it right there. That's right. Well, we, I've been doing some thinking on that—

President Johnson: Well, you refer to that some. In your statement, you just point out that we've seen this national thing, that you've been in here. We were talking about it last week. Wasn't it last week you were here?

King: That's right.

President Johnson: And we were talking about Howard University last month.

King: That's right.

President Johnson: And say that. [unclear comment by King.] And just say that the clock is ticking, that the, the hands are moving and we just—The good Lord is going to allow some time and He's trying to give us some warnings. But the country's got to stand up and support what I'm doing. And I can't have these poverty things hitting me 43 to 43.

King: Yeah, that's right.

President Johnson: 44 to 42. That's just too close for the United States Senate.

King: That's right.

President Johnson: And I've been seeing you on television every night. You make a reasonable and fair, just thing, but I think you ought to say that the President recognized this thing months ago and has talked to you about it and all the leaders. He had all the leaders in here and he talked to them at Howard University and the speech is available and they ought to read it and that we're going to have a meeting, [a] nationwide meeting and try to form it, but we can't wait. We've got to have some of these housing programs, and we've got to get rid of these ghettos, and we've got to get these children out from where the rats eat on them at night, and we've got to get them some jobs. I had a youth job—We've got two million unemployed. I've got 500,000 of them as a goal, and I set up the Vice President and [Secretary of Commerce John T.] Conner and we got all the business men to give them jobs. We reached our goal to 500 so we increased it to 750. And we reached that yesterday, and now we reached 800 yesterday. So today I increased it to a million, so that'll be a million of two million, but I told the crowd today we're just 50 percent. Well, when you bat 50 percent, that's not very good.

King: That's right. That's right.

President Johnson: We, so there's a million still that got no place to go when they get up, these youngsters.

King: Yes. That's right. Well, that's right.

President Johnson: But you put a little of that stuff in your thing.

King: I [unclear].

President Johnson: Refer to that Howard University speech. Nobody ever publicized that.

King: [Unclear] almost every speech I've made because I think it's the best statement and analysis of the problems I've seen anywhere, certainly no President has ever said it like that before.

President Johnson: Well, we're ahead of it and we've got to keep ahead of it, and we're not now unless we do. But they never publicized it any and you have a . . . You're on television, and you ought to make them. Hell, have . . . tell them to read it, write, and get it. Let's get busy and let's get into this housing. Let's get into this unemployment. Let's get into this health. Let's get into this social security situation. Let's get into this education. Let's get into . . . I said this morning, I've spent this biggest part of my life the last four years on civil rights bills, but it doesn't, all of it comes to naught if you have a situation like war in the world or a situation in Los Angeles.

King: Yes.

President Johnson: And I said a man's got no more right to destroy property with a Molotov cocktail in Los Angeles than the Ku Klux Klan has to go out and destroy a life. And what we've got to do is all obey the law, but there's no use giving lectures on the law as long as you've got rats eating on peoples' ki—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 the cancer in the other.

King: Yeah, that's it.

President Johnson: Because they don't have very good judgment.

King: Yeah.

President Johnson: People don't that got that kind of condition.

King: That's right, and they—

President Johnson: And we're not doing enough to relieve it, and we're not doing it quick enough.

King: Yes.

President Johnson: And I'm having hell up here with this Congress.

King: Yes.

President Johnson: I'm supposed to . . .

King: I didn't know the vote was that close.

President Johnson: Oh, I had a tie vote, 43 to 43.

King: Is that so?

President Johnson: And the amendment was to cut me 900 million [dollars] and, no, 791 million, 791 million out of 1.6 billion, just cut me in half. And if the amendment had been adopted, they'd have cut it, but an amendment fails when it's a tie. It's not adopted. So it was a tie. That's how close it was. They're doing the same thing with my other things. They're just . . . they think that I'm getting far away from election and that I haven't got the crowd supporting me anymore, and I carried all but five states. But they say, "Well Goldwater wasn't any good, and Johnson's not either, and he's got Vietnam on his side." They all got the impression, too, that you're against me in Vietnam. You don't leave that impression. I want peace as much as you do and more so because I'm the fellow that had to wake up this morning with 50 Marines killed. But these folks will not come to the conference table and I'm . . .

King: I've said this, Mr. President. I am concerned about peace. I have made it very clear. I think my position is ultimately [unclear]because I have made it very clear that at the present time—two things. First, that it's just unreasonable to talk about the United States having a unilateral withdrawal. On the other hand, you have called 14 or 15 times for unconditional talks, and it's Hanoi. And that's—

President Johnson: That's right, now that . . .

King: [Unclear.]

President Johnson: That's just. That's the perfect. That's the perfect position. That's just exactly the position, and we've got to get you with [US Ambassador to the UN Arthur] Goldberg when you get up here and let him tell you what he's trying to do behind the scenes to shove them some more. And if we've got enough strength out there to hold on, and they get discouraged, and we ever get them to the table, and we've just got to get them to the table because there's no use of shooting when you can talk.

King: Yes, definitely. Well, I got a call from Goldberg I guess two days ago.

President Johnson: Well, that's . . .

King: He wants to talk with me. I'm going to talk with him next week.

President Johnson: I told him last week to go talk to you and to talk to [Dwight] Eisenhower and talk to everybody. Let's don't let this country get divided because . . .

King: Well, I'll be sure to do that next week.

President Johnson: That's good. Thank you and I'll have Lee White . . . I'll have Lee White call you in Atlanta sometime tomorrow.

King: All right, thank you so much.

President Johnson: Now is there any other suggestion you got?

King: Well, that's really the main one.

President Johnson: Well, I appreciate your doing this. [It's] the way to function. You did a good service going out there and trying to give some leadership and then call in to us and report. If you've got any suggestions or recommendations, why, I'm just as close as a telephone if you've got enough money to pay it, if you haven't, why, call collect.

King: [chuckles] All right.

President Johnson: Good-bye.

King: [unclear.]

President Johnson: I want you to get your busy, people busy on this conference though.

King: We're working on it.

President Johnson: All right.

King: All right.

President Johnson: Bye.

The two men hang up, and the phone disconnects. The recorder, however, keeps going and picks up the President, Lee White, and others recapping the conversation.