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LBJ Tapes Capture Echoes of Ferguson

President Lyndon B. Johnson (seated behind desk) discussing 1967 Detroit crisis with L-R: Joe Califano, Sec. Robert McNamara, Sec. Of the Army Stanley Resor (obscured), Sec. Ramsey Clark, George Christian, Justice Abe Fortas, Marvin Watson (back to camera).

The shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri police and the militarized police response to protestors angry over Brown’s death has brought the issue of police brutality to the forefront of national attention. It has also raised echoes of the urban rebellions of the 1960s. Although more than four decades separate these events, the issues involved are in many respects the same. The White House recordings of Lyndon Johnson capture one small aspect of such connections, raising questions about the extent to which the core racial challenges of the 1960s have truly been transcended today.

On July 30, 1964, Johnson spoke with Philadelphia Democratic Party chairman Francis “Frank” Smith in an effort to build support for his pending War on Poverty legislation. The two discussed the implications of rising racial tensions in the city, and Smith recounted a disturbing story about a recent police killing in his city. (Listen at http://bit.ly/1rcv1B3.)

President Johnson: Now, they tell me that we're not going to do as well there as [President] Kennedy did in '60. Is there anything to that?

Smith: Well, you've got to be a stargazer to figure that one. If you can get them to do something beyond parading and rebelling and put their talents to work, we'll do equally as good.

President Johnson: Mm-hmm.

Smith: My big--my problem is just one thing.

President Johnson: Mm-hmm.

Smith: That's the racial disturbances.

President Johnson: Mm-hmm.

Smith: If we can keep that under control and avoid the so-called white backlash, we're in great shape.

President Johnson: Mm-hmm. Are you having any disturbances in Philadelphia?

Smith: We had a shooting yesterday of a young 16-year-old boy by a policeman that was no good.

President Johnson: Mmm.

Smith: But they've kept calm about it. And I'm hopeful that nothing breaks out today and will be handled in an orderly fashion. Now, we did have disturbances, and of course the Chester [Pennsylvania] thing was right at our backdoor.

President Johnson: Mm-hmm.

Smith: But we've had sensible people. Now, I had a meeting yesterday with 15 of the outstanding Negroes, and they speak just as vigorously as you or I do about retaining order.

President Johnson: Mm-hmm.

Smith: And using intelligence and getting their people registered. They want to voice it through the ballot box, and that's what I want them to do.

President Johnson: Did … What--did the policeman just lose his head?

Smith: [sadly] Yes. Quick.

President Johnson: Mmm.

Smith: Quick with the revolver.

President Johnson: Kill him?

Smith: Yeah. Right through the chest. Right through the heart.

President Johnson: What was the boy doing?

Smith: Larceny, robbery. Sixteen-year-old, unarmed. It's just a terrible thing.

President Johnson: Did he threaten him or anything?

Smith: No. He hollered to him to stop, and the boy ran, and he fired. Killed him.

President Johnson: Mmm, mmm. Frank, have you got any influence--any of your friends or associates--with any of these Republicans in the House of Representatives?

A month later, Philadelphia would experience its largest riot – or rebellion, depending on one’s perspective – of the 1960s. Lyndon Johnson had little true understanding of conditions facing urban African Americans in the north. His desire to help was a general one, and based on an assumption that problems could be easily solved by congressional passage of legislation, and, in particular, his anti-poverty bill. This can be seen in Johnson’s reaction to Smith’s description of the killing, as he shifts the focus of the conversation from police actions in the streets of Philadelphia to the potential for policy action in the halls of Congress.

In 1964, Johnson’s presidency remained characterized by optimism that such easy policy fixes remained. By 1967, with his popularity diminished, his presidency plagued by the Vietnam War, and his domestic agenda mired in the complexity of the challenge facing the country at home, Johnson himself had adopted a far bleaker view. Mystified by the unwillingness of urban African Americans to give him credit for his Civil Rights achievements and frustrated by the political toll that the urban upheavals were taking on his presidency, Johnson sought only to maintain control.

In July of 1967, significant upheavals swept through cities across the country, most notably in Newark and, less than a week later, in Detroit. Like many before them, the spark for both the Newark and Detroit conflicts came from anger over police brutality against African Americans in the two cities. Working with New Jersey’s Democratic Governor Robert Hughes, Johnson avoided sending federal troops to Newark. In Michigan, however, the president had to deal with Republican Governor George Romney, who many political observers at the time saw as the leading contender for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination. Johnson believed that Romney wanted to force him to send federal troops to Detroit and then blame him for anything that went wrong. Although he acceded to the governor’s request for troops, Johnson engaged in a tense struggle to insure that Romney bore at least equal responsibility for the troop request – and for any violence that ensued. More than anything, Johnson now simply hoped that none of the troops would shoot anyone on the streets of Detroit. On the morning after the Army arrived in Detroit, Johnson spoke with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and expressed his relief that such an outcome had, at least, been avoided:

President Johnson: And I gather that things went pretty good after our statement last night. [Cyrus] Vance and [Warren] Christopher and they reported about, oh, 6:30 and then again at 7:30 this morning that no federal troops had shot anybody, that they went in right, and the General had cautioned them carefully and that they had fully briefed them and that your men and the Justice men and the Army men were all working 100 percent. All agreed at the same time. No divisions among them and that they insisted the troops be told what the situation was and be given good orders. And if they were fired upon, to fire back, but--

Hoover: But they didn't have to do it.

President Johnson: --they didn't kill anybody.

Hoover: No.

President Johnson: The federal troops didn't, and they didn't get any of them shot at.

Hoover: That’s very true.

President Johnson: And the incidents dropped after they went in. And after our statement, they dropped from about 30 some-odd to five per hour.

Hoover: My word from out there this morning is that the business offices are open. General Motors is open. All the automobile factories are open, and people are getting back to work.

While the president’s concern for the automobile factories reflected his desire to restore order, his emphasis on the lack of shooting demonstrated how little remained of the grand ambitions he once held to resolve the problems of the urban United States.

Forty-seven years later, police have again shot an African American male on the streets of a U.S city (an event, sadly, that is of course far from unprecedented in the interim). Another sort of military presence – local, rather than federal – has merely exacerbated tensions in Ferguson. Further, this violence occurs in a context in which a now-decades long “War on Crime” and “War on Drugs ” has replaced Johnson’s War on Poverty and produced little more than a crisis of mass incarceration among African American males – and a deep sense of alienation and increasing anger. President Obama may be more fortunate than President Johnson in that he is unlikely to have to call federal troops into Ferguson. Nonetheless, his comments about the crisis on Thursday betrayed a similar unwillingness to probe the underlying conditions that have produced the anger on the streets of Ferguson and now, many other American communities. Americans too often see the 1960s as closed and finished history, and think of the challenges of that period as having been resolved by uplifting speeches and heroic legislation. This week has showed how much difficult work still remains.

Guian McKee is an associate professor of public policy at the Miller Center and the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. He is the author of The Problem of Jobs: Liberalism, Race, and Deindustrialization in Philadelphia (Chicago, 2008) and is the editor of three volumes of the Center’s series The Presidential Recordings of Lyndon B. Johnson (published by W.W. Norton and The University of Virginia Press).

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