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Remembering Lady Bird Johnson’s whistle-stop tour for civil rights

Fifty years ago, in October 1964, less than a month before the presidential elections, Lady Bird Johnson boarded a train in Washington to stump through eight Southern states -- a gamble to help win back disaffected voters after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Judy Woodruff explores a lesser-known part of the legislation’s history with a look at the first lady’s influential whistle-stop tour.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Finally tonight: President Lyndon Johnson wasn't the only member of his family to become a champion of civil rights. Lady Bird Johnson undertook her own campaign to save the landmark law, a whistle-stop tour of the South that began 50 years ago today.

    Judy Woodruff has that lesser known part of the story.

  • LADY BIRD JOHNSON, Former First Lady:

    I'm going into the South on this whistle-stop trip because I'm proud of the South and I'm proud that I am part of the South.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    In October 1964, less than a month before the presidential elections, Lady Bird Johnson boarded a train in Washington to stump through eight Southern states.

    It was a gamble to help win back disaffected Southern Democrats to President Lyndon Johnson's camp after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The president's aides were not sold on the usefulness of such a trip, including to historian Mark Updegrove, director of the Johnson Presidential Library.

  • MARK UPDEGROVE, Director, LBJ Presidential Library:

    The president's advisers dissuaded Lady Bird Johnson from making the trip through the South, because they thought the Southern states were a lost cause.

    But Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson felt it was very important as Southerners to state their case to their fellow Southerners, even if they didn't vote for them.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Lady Bird was joined on the train for part of the trip by the Johnsons' then 20-year-old daughter, Lynda.

  • LYNDA JOHNSON ROBB, Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation:

    Well, mother very much wanted the do the whistle-stop tour because she wanted the people of the South to know that even if they didn't agree with everything that daddy had done — and the civil rights bell was one of the things — that we loved the South and we felt — she felt herself very much a part of the South because her family had come from Alabama.

    She wanted everybody to know that she wanted their votes and that we wanted the South to know that we respected them, and we thought that they were worthy of our attention.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Over a four-day period, she spoke to crowds that gathered at railroad stations in 47 cities from Virginia to New Orleans.

  • LYNDA JOHNSON ROBB:

    It was the first — one of the first trips where a first lady campaigned without her husband, and I think that's something to be said in mother's favor.

    Mother didn't like public speaking. She took a course to try to conquer her fears, because she just felt nervous.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Her safety and that of her staff was a constant worry.

  • MARK UPDEGROVE:

    There were great security concerns along the nearly 1,700-mile journey through the South. There were a number of bomb threats and there was such concern among the Secret Service that there was a car that preceded the Lady Bird Special, so that if there was a bomb on the tracks, it would affect the car in front of the Lady Bird Special, and not the Lady Bird Special itself.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Indeed, some towns were not always welcoming.

  • MARK UPDEGROVE:

    There were epithets thrown at Lady Bird Johnson throughout the trip. There were placards that people held up, some that said things like "Black Bird, go home."

  • LADY BIRD JOHNSON:

    My friends, this is a country of many viewpoints, and I respect your right to express your own. Now it's my turn to express mine. Thank you.

  • LYNDA JOHNSON ROBB:

    She didn't bait them. She didn't fuss at them. She didn't rise to their level. She — but she spoke from her heart.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The half-a-million people who crowded the stations to hear Mrs. Johnson were not all opponents by any account.

  • LYNDA JOHNSON ROBB:

    We also need to think about all the heroic people from those towns who came out and witnessed, knowing that on Sunday they would be going back to their church and some of their friends would be saying, oh.

    We were going to come through that little town, or that big town, or wherever, and then we're leaving. But they were going to be there all the time. And they were going to be staying there and facing, for good or bad, the people who opposed their views.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    When the Lady Bird Special arrived in New Orleans, LBJ was waiting. And, later, it appeared the trip may have paid off politically.

  • MARK UPDEGROVE:

    The Lady Bird Special traveled through eight states, only three of which Johnson got in the 1964 landslide election. He was actually surprised that he got Florida and Virginia. He also got North Carolina, which he largely expected. But I think it was a successful journey because it showed the South that the president and the first lady still cared about them.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    With her husband at her side, Lady Bird told the crowd in New Orleans: "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."

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