Civil Rights Historians Discuss Martin Luther King Jr.

January 17, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, to Jeffrey Brown for a Martin Luther King Day, new book conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: This year marks the 40th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a key piece of an immensely fertile period of civil rights activity and legislation. Two figures towered over that period: Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon Baines Johnson. A new book titled “Judgment Days” tells the story of these two leaders and of what it calls the laws that changed America.

Its author is Nick Kotz, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and writer. Also joining us is Roger Wilkins, professor of history at George Mason University. He served in various posts in the Johnson administration. Nick Kotz, the first words of your book are “they were unlikely partners.” Why don’t we start there. Why unlikely?

NICK KOTZ: They were unlikely for a number of reasons. Johnson was a man of Washington. To him, power was exercised from Washington and if you wanted to do business in Washington, you came there and petitioned the government. Dr. King was not only a preacher, he was a great organizer of people in the streets.

He put pressure on the government by arousing public sentiment for things that he wanted changed. Johnson, Kennedy before him, disliked more than anything else street demonstrations because they were volatile, they could produce very up certain… uncertain results. And despite many, many dissimilarities between these two men, King said to Johnson that they did have something deeply in common, and that was a love for the South and their southern roots. But the most important thing they had in common was a passion for equality.

JEFFREY BROWN: Roger, obviously they were brought together by an historical moment.

ROGER WILKINS: The moment consisted of more concerted energetic civil rights action than this country has ever seen. And King became the voice for all those people in the streets in the South, but as important as he was, we can’t forget that there were just all kinds of wonderful young people in the South so what brought these men together where both of them were being moved by this enormous pressure in the streets and the great talent that had been drawn to the civil rights movement.

JEFFREY BROWN: So when they were brought together and with their different personalities, what was it like between them? What was their personal relationship?

NICK KOTZ: Their personal relationship was always very formal. These two men were never friends. During this particular battle in almost like a ballet, Johnson and King behind the scenes learned to adjust to each other’s moves. And if they had not done so, Selma and the Voting Rights Act could have turned out very differently.

We could have had incredible violence and bloodshed. We could have had Johnson being forced to send in federal troops which he feared would be a second reconstruction. And it was because Johnson and King knew when to push, knew when to pull back, that they were able to bring this off in a peaceful way.

JEFFREY BROWN: We have a short exchange of a taped conversation between the two of them. It’s from 1965. They’re talking about building up the black vote. Why don’t we listen to that.


LYNDON B. JOHNSON: There is not going to be anything though, Doctor, as effective as all of them voting. That will get you a message that all the eloquence in the world won’t bring because the fellow will be coming to you then instead of you calling him.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: And it’s very interesting, Mr. President, to notice that the only states that you did not carry in the South – the five Southern States – had less than 40 percent of the Negroes registered to vote.

That was very interesting to note. I think a recent article from the University of Texas brought this out very clearly so it demonstrates that it is so important to get Negroes registered to vote in large numbers and it would be this coalition of the Negro voter and the popular white vote that would make the new South.

LYNDON B. JOHNSON: That is exactly right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Roger, what I hear is a little bit of the formality that Nick Kotz was talking about but the sort of practical “how do we get things done?”

ROGER WILKINS: Johnson was more at ease with King than the Kennedy people because they just… these New Englanders just didn’t get the kind of rhythm and the cadence and the biblical spirit that King brought even to the most intimate tables where he had discussions with the government.

Johnson had grown up in the South and he knew black people, knew poor people, and so despite his history in the Senate, he was much more at ease with this man and this kind of conversation, but he’s also wary of him because as Nick said, we in Washington– even those of us who were pushing from the inside for more vigorous action and wanted the demonstrations to continue — understood that they were a real problem for the politicians who were our bosses.

NICK KOTZ: The nuances in that conversation, including parts that we didn’t have time to play, here was the president of the United States who intensely disliked these demonstrations coaching King on how he could make the points of or dramatize the points of this horrible discrimination against blacks trying to vote, and here was Martin Luther King telling Lyndon Johnson how to win the 1968 election.

And the final line in that exchange, where King is telling Johnson if we can get black Americans registered to vote, those black Americans and modern… moderate white Americans can create a new South. They both believed in that vision.

JEFFREY BROWN: They would have a major falling out over Vietnam. But how do you sum up the legacy of what they did in the period that you’re describing?

NICK KOTZ: The legacy that they accomplished was to abolish official government authorized segregation and discrimination in this country. That was so important. What they could not accomplish– and despite the differences over Vietnam– Johnson and King were both… it was a tragic ending to this story because neither Johnson nor King could deal with riots, could deal with the horrible problems in the cities which required far more than simply ending segregation laws. They were both very frustrated about that.

ROGER WILKINS: Certainly, the jewel in their crown of these men was the Voting Rights Act. The tragedy is that Nick’s book talks about a conversation between Sen. Russell of Georgia and Johnson early in Johnson’s presidency when Johnson acknowledges to Russell that the Vietnam War, he believes, is a mistake and not winnable.

Those of us in the government didn’t really understand. I think the people in the country didn’t know that Johnson knew that and was dealing with this tragic thing. So when King, who he had helped, turned on the war, he felt utterly betrayed.

NICK KOTZ: I agree with that. At the very end, although they had broken, they were very bitter about each other, Johnson did the day after King died used King’s death and that horrible tragedy to get yet another civil rights law through the Congress, which was the 1968 fair housing law. So no matter which kind of personal animosities existed between him and individual black or white leaders, Johnson was devoted to the goal of equal rights.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Nick Kotz’s new book is called “Judgment Day.” Mr. Kotz and Roger Wilkins, thanks very much.