Lady Bird - Portait of a First Lady
At the Epicenter
Her Early YearsA Political WifeAt the EpicenterShattered DreamsWinding DownResources
Additional FeaturesAt the Epicenter November 1963 - January 1965
Lady Bird in New Orleans
Lady Bird speaks in New Orleans, the last city on her whistle-stop tour of the south to bolster support for Lyndon's 1964 presidential campaign.


At the Epicenter

A closer look at the assassination of President Kennedy.

Part III: At the Epicenter

Selections from Lady Bird's Diary on the assassination of President Kennedy.

LBJ addresses Congress following JFK's assassination.

President Johnson's speech on the Great Society.

LBJ's Courtship (section I.)

JFK's Assassination (section III.)
The Whistle-Stop Tour (section III.)
The Beautification Campaign (section IV.)
Her Wildflower Center (section V.)

It was the fall of 1964. The November presidential election was looming as parts of the country still seethed over the Civil Rights Act President Lyndon Baines Johnson had signed into law just a few months earlier. The new legislation eliminated the so-called "Jim Crow" laws and guaranteed blacks access to all public accommodations and the right to equal employment opportunities.

Many white southerners and politicians considered the law an assault on their way of life. Southern Democrats threatened to bolt as racial politics threatened to splinter the party and cost Mr. Johnson the election.

It was during this tumultuous time that Lady Bird Johnson showed the country just how much she could contribute to her husband's presidency. In a four-day, 1,628-mile campaign trip aboard a train dubbed the Lady Bird Special, the First Lady traveled through eight southern states that were in such racial turmoil it had been deemed unsafe for President Johnson to go there himself.

The whistle-stop tour was key to garnering support for the president among rural southerners, and it propelled Lady Bird into the spotlight as an activist First Lady.

Born and raised in the deep, traditional South, Lady Bird understood the shock felt by southerners as they saw their lives altered by a distant government in Washington. She hoped to ease their anger and unrest by showing them that the end of segregation would improve the economic condition of the South and help move it into the modern world.

Lady Bird had grown up as a white woman of privilege accustomed to black maids whose husbands worked her father's fields and whose children were her young playmates. As she contemplated her campaign in the South, Lady Bird felt the conflict between her loyalty to her southern roots and her belief in her husband's vision.

"I knew the Civil Rights Act was right and I didn't mind saying so," Lady Bird said, "but I also loved the South and didn't want it used as the whipping boy of the Democratic party."

This compassion for southern tradition allowed Lady Bird to advocate her husband's political goals and defend the idea of civil rights without alienating the southern voters.

Lady Bird liked the idea of a train ride through the South because it would allow her to visit the rural landscape so often ignored by politicians. She said she wanted to go "to the land where the pavement runs out and city people don't often go." Her sentiment reflected earlier campaign advice that her husband had received from a former president. Harry S. Truman once told Johnson, "There are lots of people in this country who don't know where the airport is, but they do know where the depot is. Go find them." Lady Bird was going to do just that.

After the 1964 Democratic convention, Lady Bird set about planning the trip with the help of her staff and other political wives. It was the first time a First Lady would hit the campaign trail without the president, and Lady Bird planned and executed every detail of the trip without any help from her husband.

The campaign had its skeptics. Ken O'Donnell, special assistant to Johnson, did not think that Lady Bird or the other wives would be able to organize the event. Some southern governors were not supportive of the whistle-stop idea because they feared Lady Bird's trip might push southern voters toward segregationist politicians and bolster support for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.

Others worried that state leaders could not guarantee the first lady's safety. Responding to concerns about assassination attempts, Lady Bird said, "I don't think assassination is part of my destiny." Still, organizers arranged for a separate engine to precede the Lady Bird Special by 15 minutes to clear the track of potential bombs.

On September 11, Lady Bird called every governor, senator and congressman in the eight southern states she planned to visit. Perceived by the public as soft and gracious, Lady Bird used those perceptions to attract the southern politicians to her train. "I'm thinking of coming down and campaigning in your state and I'd love your advice," Lady Bird would tell them in her soft southern drawl.

While most of her calls were successful, several politicians turned down Lady Bird's invitation to join her on the Lady Bird Special. Among those who refused were Sen. Willis Robertson of Virginia, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, Governor Dick Russell of Georgia, North Carolina governor nominee Dan Moore, and Louisiana governor John McKeithen. Lady Bird did not bother to call Alabama governor George Wallace, the country's most vehement opponent to civil rights. "There was no use in calling Governor George Wallace," she said in her diary. "I doubt it would even be courteous to do so."

On October 6, Lady Bird boarded the 19-car train with her husband, and embarked on her four-day whistle-stop tour. After the 15-minute ride to Alexandria, Va., the president disembarked from the Lady Bird Special, and the First Lady was on her own. At each stop, 15 hostesses would escort local politicians and supporters of President Johnson on to the train for a brief meeting with the First Lady and to pose for photos.

She often used southern cuisine to win people's affection, serving state specialties and distributing recipes for particular southern dishes. Her appeal to the southern appetite worked to identify her with her southern roots. In Wilson, North Carolina, a local politician introduced Lady Bird by saying she was "as much a part of the South as tobacco, peanuts, and red-eye gravy."

"For me this trip has been a source of anxiety and anticipation," Lady Bird said at the start of the whistle-stop. "Anxiety because I am not used to whistle-stopping without my husband; anticipation because I am returning to familiar territory and heading into a region I call home."

As she had expected, but had hoped to avoid, Lady Bird encountered angry southerners protesting her husband and his civil rights agenda. She continually found herself having to placate people who called her husband a "nigger-lover" without condoning their racism. As she pulled into Richmond, Va., Lady Bird was greeted by a big banner that read "Fly Away Lady Bird. Here in Richmond, Barry is the Cat's Meow." In Columbia, South Carolina, people booed and heckled Lady Bird during her speech so that she could not be heard. The state hosts were unable to quiet the hecklers, but with a raised, white-gloved hand and a firm voice, Lady Bird silenced the crowd.

"This is a country of many viewpoints," she told the Columbia crowd. "I respect your right to express your own. Now it is my turn to express mine. Thank you."

Years later, Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham reflected on Lady Bird's success on her southern tour, noting that "she talked with such authority because she belonged there."

But Lady Bird's appeal for respect failed in Charleston, South Carolina, where the boos and catcalls did not stop. The organizers knew that the people of Charleston would voice significant opposition to Johnson, but had included it in the tour because Lady Bird did not want to shun the towns typically avoided by Democrats.

Lady Bird "wanted to go where other Democrats weren't going," said Liz Carpenter, Lady Bird's press secretary. "In 1964, anybody could go to Atlanta and speak out for civil rights and still get out with their hides on. She told us to give her the tough towns. And so we took Charleston."

As the Lady Bird Special crossed into northern Florida, the Secret Service received an anonymous report that the train might be bombed. FBI and other law enforcement officers swept a 7-mile bridge that the train was scheduled to cross, while a security helicopter and several boats escorted the train across the bridge.

Despite the opposition, media reports widely praised Lady Bird's whistle-stop trip, and credited it with having a profound impact on President Johnson's prospects for victory. An editorial in the Atlanta Constitution said that the whistle-stop tour reminded southerners that the president was "the son of a southern tenant farmer and that he asks for the vote of this state not as a distant theorist but as a native southerner who understands his kin." The editorial asked its readers, "Can Georgia turn away… from the first southern president in a century? That question goes deep, and so did Mrs. Johnson's visit."

As the Lady Bird Special pulled into New Orleans on Oct. 9, a huge multiracial crowd joined President Johnson in meeting Lady Bird at the end of her tour. Mr. Johnson was there to thank her for her tireless and courageous efforts. In four days, Lady Bird had made 47 speeches in 47 towns to approximately 500,000 southerners.

Speaking to the crowd at the train terminal, Lady Bird said, "I am aware that there are those who would exploit the South's past troubles to their own advantage, but I do not believe that the majority of the South wants any part of the old business."

Lady Bird had embarked on her political tour at a time when only 30 percent of married women had jobs, and only 20 percent of women with children were employed. She demonstrated the political prowess women were capable of before feminism became a mainstream force in American society.

After Lady Bird's tour ended, syndicated columnist Max Freedman wrote that the whistle-stop campaign made clear that Lady Bird was "no passive partner" in her marriage. "Perhaps this marks the emergence of women as central figures in a national contest instead of being on the edges of a campaign," Freedman wrote.


Production of Lady Bird had been funded in part by the generous support of The Brown Foundation, Inc., Houston; The Belo Foundation; The Marian and Speros Martel Foundation, Inc.; Mr. Ralph S. O'Connor; The Marjorie Kovler Fund; and The Ms. Foundation For Women.

Lady Bird is produced by MacNeil/Lehrer Productions and KLRU - Austin.

Copyright 2001 All Rights Reserved