President Lyndon Baines Johnson and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. were virtually co-conspirators in the critical months leading to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act according to Nick Kotz, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting while a reporter for The Washington Post. Kotz spoke about the relationship between the two leaders, the subject of his book “Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Laws That Changed America,” Feb. 23 at the invitation of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy and the Black Law Students Association.
The popular view of Johnson as “a wheeler-dealer who got us into Vietnam and then lied to us about it is so simplistic,” said Kotz. “The complete LBJ has been lost to history.” Similarly, the public remembers King as a great orator, he said, and fails to appreciate him as the “cool, rational, tough, pragmatic politician” who was the “the field general and tactician” of the movement. Kotz followed their relationship day-by-day to see how they interacted. His talk included taped conversations between the two and slides of their meetings and events of the day.
"In the 1960s we went through a civil rights and a social revolution in two years,” Kotz said. The 1964 Civil Rights Act dismantled official segregation, but the change provoked “a period of terrorism,” he said, that saw 2,000 black churches burned in two years and, in Virginia, the shutdown of public schools and state defiance of U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Kotz’s book examines the years between President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 and the assassination of King in April 1968. “I tried to look at the interrelationship between the civil rights movement and laws,” he said. That period of social legislation also saw the creation of federal college loan programs, the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, the immigration act of 1965 (which allowed non-Europeans equal access to the United States) and the creation of a national health care system with advanced regional medical centers, Kotz said.
“In a two-month period in 1965 instead of bloodshed and a national disaster we got the Voting Rights Act,” said Kotz, whose remarks focused on the behind-the-scenes contacts of the two leaders during the march from Selma to Montgomery.
In a critical phone call on King’s birthday in 1965, Johnson advised King to hammer on examples of outrageous discrimination in his speeches, such as requirements that blacks be able to recite passages of the U.S. Constitution before being allowed to register, a feat Johnson doubted any white voters would believe they could perform. King suggested to Johnson that the South could retain its Democratic Party affiliation, recently shaken by the 1964 election in which the Deep South states went for Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate, if a coalition of blacks and moderate whites could be united over the racial integration agenda.
“In effect they are conspiring together,” Kotz said after the tape was played. “There is so much enthusiasm. After this conversation, King is building pressure in Selma, Alabama, to create very specific situations that will create change” in the segregated South.
“King was putting on a Christmas season passion play,” designed to visually present the injustice of racism to the American people. “He had to show pure evil,” Kotz explained. When King added children to the marchers that would go from Selma to Montgomery to petition the state government for voting rights, a worried Robert Kennedy called him to say he was endangering the children’s lives.
March 7, 1965, the day the 58-mile march was to begin, was a moment of crisis, Kotz said. King had chosen opponents who were ideal for the roles he needed them to play. Selma sheriff James “Bull” Clark liked to dress in a paramilitary style and wore a button that read “Never!” George Wallace, the new governor, had been in office less than two months after running on stridently racist rhetoric: “Segregation yesterday, segregation today, segregation forever!”
John Lewis, then King’s aide, now a congressman from Georgia, carried only an apple to eat on the way because none of them expected to walk even a quarter mile. At the far end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge a “sheriff's auxiliary” of mounted Ku Klux Klansmen paced under restraint. Clark warned the marchers that they had one minute to disperse and then sent the horsemen charging across. The marchers scattered as the Klansmen rode among them swinging batons, clubbing them down.
Victory: the television news cameras were rolling. “King had produced the tableau that enraged the rest of the nation,” Kotz said. It was reported as “Bloody Sunday” that night. The public demanded that the U.S. Army protect the marchers, raising the prospect of armed federal troops confronting armed Alabama state troopers.
King was under pressure from supporters to renew the march two days later. Meanwhile, Judge Frank Johnson issued a temporary restraining order that forbid King from marching. “Do another march and we’ll put you under the jailhouse” was the threat that came to King, according to Kotz. King didn’t want to violate the order but was under intense pressure as supporters flooded Selma to join the march.
LBJ flew aides to Selma with a plan for King to consider: march to the middle of the bridge, kneel and pray, and walk back. Johnson pledged that Wallace would not attack the marchers and Judge Johnson would issue an order to not interfere with them. King did it and was excoriated by furious supporters who felt betrayed.
Meanwhile, LBJ called Wallace to the White House for what Vice President Hubert Humphrey called one of LBJ’s trademark “nostril inspections.”
“These always ended with Johnson appealing to his target’s better nature,” Kotz said. “George,” LBJ asked, “how do you want to be remembered on your gravestone? George Wallace: He Hated?”
Wallace later said, “If I had stayed in there another five minutes, I would have become an integrationist.” Five days later he wrote Johnson to say that the Alabama state police were too burdened by their other duties to protect the marchers and invited the feds in. Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard, and King and 8,000 others completed the march.
In a speech before Congress shortly afterward, one of the greatest in American history, Kotz claimed, Johnson described the civil rights movement as “the effort of American negros to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause. We must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry. And we shall overcome.”
“LBJ adopted the theme song of the civil rights movement for himself,” Kotz summed up.
King and Johnson coordinated tactics to defeat a proposed poll tax in the voting rights bill—King from podiums and Johnson with his full-nelson approaches to legislators, Kotz said. The bill passed to their satisfaction in August but four days later the Watt Riots, the worst race riots ever in America, broke out in Los Angeles. Johnson and King were stunned after all they had done to avert violence, Kotz said, but the realization came to them that “the easy part was done and the hard part was starting: dealing with the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. The American public was not interested in ghettos.”
Kotz described FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover as “Iago to LBJ’s Othello. Hoover was always pouring poison in Johnson’s ear about King’s extramarital affairs,” and any other item that he might turn into scandal. Kotz said both leaders were “defeated men in the end,” Johnson by the ghastly war in Vietnam and King by the rise of younger militant black radicals such as Rap Brown, famous for his slogan “Burn, baby, burn,” and the leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coodinating Committee, which had earlier organized volunteers for the Selma march and the Freedom Riders. Four days after a haggard Johnson announced that he would not run for the presidency again, King was murdered in Memphis.
Asked if the personalities of civil rights leaders or the strategies they chose were more important to the movement’s success, Kotz answered that personalities were, but added that the movement was really “bottom-up people action.” Two days after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Birmingham bus, 40,000 blacks had begun a boycott of city buses and within two weeks of the first lunch counter sit-in the tactic was being employed all over the South, he pointed out.
What made the collaboration between LBJ, a white Southerner raised
in the Jim Crow culture, and MLK so successful was that “they
were people who knew how to take advantage of an opportunity,” Kotz
said, “and Kennedy’s assassination created a chance.”