Over 800 hours of recently released recordings from the Lyndon Johnson White House reveal how President John F. Kennedy’s successor guided the country through the most difficult stages of the civil rights era.
In the summers of 1964 and 1965, telephone and other conversations Johnson secretly taped, as he spoke with some of the nation’s most influential political leaders on both side of the civil rights cause, illuminate the complex nature of getting the country behind the notion of equality for African-Americans.
The recordings, recently made available by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, include conversations Johnson had with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and other key players who shaped that era.
In the days after he signed the Civil rights Act of 1964, enforcing the law in a defiant South was an undertaking that, in some ways, was much more complex than getting congress to pass it. The violence and intensity of racial tension in Mississippi alone took almost the full attention of the attorney general. These recordings disclose how fractured the country was, and the complexities of every step taken by the Johnson Administration. Protecting civil rights workers, appeasing both white and black leaders, and persuading the South to respect federal civil rights laws required the assistance of Hoover’s FBI and John Connolly, the influential Texas governor who became one of Johnson’s greatest allies in the South.
In one conversation with Hoover, the president is heard discussing the opening of an FBI office in Mississippi as a way to ensure that the South complied with new federal laws without the necessity of sending in federal troops. The two discussed the challenges of appeasing both races in Mississippi, and how to gain intelligence on the growing influence of the Ku Klux Klan.
Connolly is heard explaining to LBJ how to best handle defiant southern governors who were resisting integration. He tells Johnson to stop talking to southern governors about the federal government coming in and enforcing civil rights laws, and to start negotiating with them about “observing” the new statutes.
In another tape, Attorney General Robert Kennedy has a conversation with Johnson about some of the strides made in Mississippi on civil rights enforcement, and how members of the Chamber of Commerce Southern States have decided to abide by the law. Johnson and Kennedy seem encouraged by the progress, but discuss ongoing problems with the governor of South Carolina.
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