LBJ vs. MLK: The truth about Johnson's twisted approach to civil rights

The so-called collaboration between Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr was brief and contentious

Published April 3, 2018 6:00PM (EDT)

President Lyndon B Johnson discusses the Voting Rights Act with civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King Jr. (Getty/Hulton Archive)
President Lyndon B Johnson discusses the Voting Rights Act with civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King Jr. (Getty/Hulton Archive)

Winston Churchill famously said, “History is written by the victors.” Truth is often the first casualty in the aftermath of conflict. The creation of mythological stories about real-life historical figures has become entrenched in every facet of American culture for a very long time. It can be argued that the legacies of many of the founders and early presidents—from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln—have been written in such a way as to hide or minimize their less noble acts and highlight their most glorious accomplishments.

Likewise, the same phenomenon has prevailed with modern-day politicians fortunate enough to succeed to the highest offices. In the case of mid-twentieth-century leaders, it has taken nearly five decades for truth-seekers to sift out the myths — composed of subtle deceits and brazen lies — from the basest pure truths. President Lyndon Johnson and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover are the clearest examples of how the tension between myths and truths is still being wrought, in a continuing cultural movement that has no end in sight.

Three days before the opening of the movie "Selma," the self-described “historian” Mark Updegrove (the previous director — and recently named president — of the taxpayer-financed Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library), having seen a preview, then wrote a critical review, as if to prove Churchill’s original point. His article, published in Politico (“What ‘Selma’ Gets Wrong,” December 22, 2014), stated that the movie distorted the relationship between President Johnson and the civil rights leader. Ironically, Updegrove claimed that the movie misrepresented historical truth when in fact it is Updegrove’s narrative that repeats the sanitized, mythical “history” of what was, in reality, a highly fractured, poisoned, and extremely short relationship between LBJ and MLK as their narrow mutual goals briefly intersected with their individual pursuits. Updegrove wrote:

Selma misses mightily in faithfully capturing the pivotal relationship—contentious, the film would have you believe—between King and President Lyndon Baines Johnson. In the film, President Johnson resists King’s pressure to sign a vot­ing rights bill, which—according to the movie’s take—is get­ting in the way of dozens of other Great Society legislative priorities. Indeed, Selma’s obstructionist LBJ is devoid of any palpable conviction on voting rights. Vainglorious and power hungry, he unleashes his zealous pit bull, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, on King, who is determined to march in protest from Selma to Montgomery despite LBJ’s warning that it will be “open season” on the protesters. This characterization of the 36th president flies in the face of history. In truth, the partner­ship between LBJ and MLK on civil rights is one of the most productive and consequential in American history.

Mr. Updegrove went on to describe how Johnson then instructed King on what steps he needed to take with his followers to inform the public about the worst cases of voter discrimination (as if King’s many followers had not already thought of that, and in fact had already spent much time informing the national public of such bigotry, widely and repeatedly). Throughout his article, Updegrove portrayed the Johnson-King relationship as uniformly friendly and positive, as when he quoted President Obama on that point: “Like Dr. King, like Abraham Lincoln, like countless citizens who have driven this country inexorably forward, President Johnson knew that ours in the end is a story of optimism, a story of achievement and constant striving that is unique upon this earth . . .” President Obama, a gifted wordsmith, can only emulate some of his predecessors, including the master debater himself, Lyndon Baines Johnson.

As with so many other “historical” stories, the narrative of the Johnson-King relationship has been twisted, parsed, and skewed over the years from what was originally described by the actual participants. One account of that came from Andrew Young, then working side by side with King, as described by Dr. Gerald McKnight in his book "The Last Crusade": “. . . there were ugly scenes in the Oval Office late in the war-ruined Johnson administration when the president, in one of his Texas-sized towering rages, referred to King as that ‘goddamn n***er preacher.’ Young recalled the deceptive signals emanating from the Johnson White House: ‘on the surface we were being smiled at and granted grudging support; below the surface we were distrusted, resented and undercut.’” (Emphasis added.)

Preeminent King biographer Taylor Branch, in his last book of a trilogy, "At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965–68," compared Martin Luther King Jr. to Moses, who saw the promised land, Canaan, from Mount Nebo looking across the Jordan River; Moses died there, as King died in Memphis, in both cases just after having “seen” the promised land. Branch stated that Johnson’s treatment of King was “unpredictable,” often going from “shared dreams” to a “towering, wounded snit.” Branch described the tension between them in August 1965, after a telephone conversation about the Watts race riot the previous week. Each recognized that the other man could not be relied on to achieve their own goals, yet to accomplish their narrow immediate objective, they had to get along and not let their distrust of the other become public: “Their skittish, intimate consultation left few clues that it would seal the last words on record between King and Lyndon Johnson. Unwittingly, they were saying goodbye.”

The fact that the period of their “collaboration” came to an end only months after it had begun, according to Branch, has not been widely reported, but it is essential for an understanding of the larger point regarding the short length of time that transpired before the “partnership” that Mr. Updegrove overly extolled came to an end. It had started in March 1965, shortly before King led the 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery; it quickly chilled a few weeks later and was effectively over after only five months of existence in August, 1965, after the Watts Riots in Los Angeles.

Moreover, Branch wrote, after Johnson hung up the phone at the end of their last conversation in 1965, he and the aides who had attended and overheard all of it laughed about King’s refusal to back the presidential call for patriotic loyalty in the face of wartime conditions (the point had been discussed only briefly, as both seemed to walk on eggshells around that subject). They mocked King for “wobbly judgment and dubious political loyalty,” which, combined with the 1965 riots that had just occurred in the Los Angeles ghetto of Watts, had raised the specter in their minds of an outrageous betrayal by the very group that should have been praising Johnson’s policies. In the days after that telephone call, White House aides leaked false stories to news reporters about how strongly the president confronted Dr. King on his Vietnam position. This narrative from Branch reveals more of the true nature of that “collaborative” period: it was one of distrust, derision, and mockery on the part of Johnson, whose real agenda was highly personal and selfish, never at all consonant with the noble aspirations of Dr. King.

On April 4, 1967, precisely one year before his murder in Memphis, when Dr. King delivered his speech at New York’s Riverside Church about LBJ’s Vietnam misadventure, they officially became bitter enemies. By that point, Johnson wouldn’t even talk to him and often referred to him in the most vulgar and derisive language imaginable, as referenced in the previous paragraphs.

Taylor Branch’s account, based upon his scholarly work that includes references to contemporaneous comments of Andrew Young as noted above, accurately portrays the real context of the Johnson/King relationship throughout the brief period of their collaboration to achieve their narrow and temporary mutual goals, but for opposite reasons. King’s motives were noble, pure, and righteous. Johnson’s goal was driven by his habitual cunning and guile, his basest instincts, which were anything but sincere or noble — because LBJ’s motive was derived merely from his desire to create a contrived “presidential legacy” that would hide his deepest secrets. It was the natural result of his single greatest trait, as described by his own preeminent biographer, Robert Caro, who wrote that Johnson hungered for power “. . . in its most naked form, for power not to improve the lives of others, but to manipulate and dominate them, to bend them to his will . . . it was a hunger so fierce and consuming that no consideration of morality or ethics, no cost to himself—or to anyone else—could stand before it.”

Furthermore, Caro was told by a former aide to Johnson that there was never anything altruistic about Johnson’s motives and that he had no real empathy for any of the causes he espoused, certainly not the civil rights of minorities, whom he disparaged and ridiculed. That aide (who spoke to Caro on condition of anonymity) stated that above all else, Johnson was a pragmatist who would do whatever was required to accomplish his own highly personal agenda of the moment. The aide then added: “There’s nothing wrong with being pragmatic. Hell, a lot of us were pragmatic. But you have to believe in something. Lyndon Johnson believed in nothing, nothing but his own ambition.”

The actual, and historically accurate, Johnson/King relationship can only be understood if it is considered in the context of Lyndon Johnson’s lifelong record of being a racist and segregationist. Throughout his career, he had aggressively resisted numerous attempts to eliminate the poll tax and literacy tests during the twenty-three-year period he served in the House and Senate. He then blocked every piece of meaningful civil rights legislation that had found its way into the Senate when he was its powerful majority leader. It was Lyndon Johnson who neutered the 1957 Civil Rights Act with a poison pill amendment that required violators of the act to be tried before state (all white), not federal, juries.

Many contemporary liberals such as Joseph Rauh, the president of Americans for Democratic Action, and A. Philip Randolph, a black vice president of the AFL-CIO, called the bill worthless, and “worse than no bill at all.” As vice president, Johnson orchestrated southern congressional opposition to JFK’s civil rights agenda and repeatedly warned JFK to go slow on the civil rights, voting rights, and open housing legislation that Kennedy had promised in his 1960 campaign. There was a reason that Johnson had resisted this overdue reform all those years: he was reserving these initiatives for himself, as he repeatedly cautioned President Kennedy to wait “until the time is right.”

On Capitol Hill, throughout the years of his vice presidency, Johnson continued to lobby his “establishment” friends to stall that same legislation. This point was validated, ironically, in the November 22, 1963, issue of the Dallas Times Herald. The headline read: “Senior Senators Shrug off Attack—Thwarting JFK, Liberal Charges.” The article stated, in part: “Sen. Joseph S. Clark’s new charge that the ‘Senate establishment’ [of which Johnson was still in control, having upstaged the shy and professorial Mike Mansfield] is staging a sit-down strike against major Kennedy legislation left the targets of his attack unruffled today. The Pennsylvania liberal told the Senate that Democratic Leader Mike Mansfield, Mont. was not responsible for so many key bills still being in committees. Clark said the impasse should be blamed on a ‘Senate establishment’ of senior, conservative senators.” (Emphasis added.)

Immediately upon JFK’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson made a 180-degree turn the moment he became president, as he began pressing his Senate “establishment” friends to finally pass the Kennedy slate of legislation that he had previously impeded. He did it because now that he was president, finally, “the time was right.” A record number of 104 bills had by then been stalled in Congress, some as long as twenty years in the case of Medicare for the elderly. As president, Johnson knew that his eventual “legacy” would require that his reputation be reframed with a visage similar to that of the “great presidents” like Washington, Lincoln, and his personal idol, Franklin Roosevelt; he wanted to be seen as a man of vision, whose name would reflect a character known for his brilliance, and as a generous, magnanimous, erudite leader of all American citizens. In other words, he wanted future generations to think of him as being a person who was opposite of his real attributes.

Yet in fact, Johnson only pressed Congress remotely and did none of the personal arm-twisting for the 1964 Civil Rights Act himself; he left it to Sen. Hubert Humphrey — then the putative vice-presidential candidate-in-waiting — to round up the votes, but he did give him detailed lobbying instructions by going through a list of every congressman and senator, explaining their strengths, weaknesses, and personal vulnerabilities. Hugh Sidey, the syndicated Time magazine columnist, had gotten the story from Humphrey and wrote about what he had been told: “‘Johnson knew how to woo people,’ remembered Humphrey . . . ‘He was sort of like a cowboy making love . . . He knew how to massage the senators.’ Johnson knew whom to nurture, whom to threaten, and whom to push aside. The whole chamber seemed subject to his manipulation. ‘He played it like an organ. Goddamn, it was beautiful! It was just marvelous.’” (Emphasis added.)

Even though they tried, neither Johnson nor Humphrey could deliver all Democrats to vote for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, arguably the most important legislation of the twentieth century. In fact, some of the most famed liberals of their day voted against it, including Tennessee senator Al Gore Sr., Arkansas senator J. William Fulbright, and West Virginia senator Robert Byrd (Byrd even filibustered the bill on June 10, 1964, for over fourteen hours in his passionate attempt to derail it). It only passed because of the vigorous support of Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen and twenty-seven Senate Republicans; in the House, only 59 percent of Democrats voted in favor of the legislation, while 78 percent of Republicans supported it. Johnson had stripped the voting rights section—which had been in Kennedy’s original bill—out of the 1964 bill, saving it for still another bill in 1965 so it would add yet another “bullet” for his legacy.

Of the many statements that demonstrate incontrovertible evidence of Johnson’s true attitudes, none can match a comment he made to visiting governors, in explaining why the civil rights bill had become so important for him: “I’ll have them n***ers voting Democratic for two hundred years.”

Excerpted with permission from Who REALLY Killed Martin Luther King Jr.?: by Phillip F Nelson. Copyright 2018 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc. Available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound.

By Phillip F. Nelson

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