Narrator: 1960. After eight years of Republican leadership under Dwight Eisenhower, America must choose a new president. For the Republicans, the candidate will be the vice-president, Richard Nixon. The Democratic Party will nominate a Senator from Massachusetts, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. And Kennedy will choose Lyndon Baines Johnson to run with him – a Texas Senator who had challenged Kennedy for the nomination. The combination of politics from North and South produced an odd presidential ticket…
Harris Wofford (Special Assistant on Civil Rights to JFK): He wasn’t thinking North or South. He was thinking ‘how do I win this election?’ And carrying part of the South would be a part of winning the election. He also had an assessment of Johnson as very skillful with his fellow senators, and John Kennedy was not that confident that he had that skill. I think he thought that Johnson shored him up with the Senate and helped him win the election.
Doris Kearns Goodwin (Author, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream): They were very different people. I mean John Kennedy was cool, rational; he could be close to people but he would never have had the Johnson treatment of standing up in front of somebody, never had the ease of loving to talk to congressmen and senators the same way. Johnson was warm, passionate, outrageous, not as dignified perhaps as John Kennedy was; but, in a certain sense, John Kennedy in some ways prepared the country, through his words, for some of the changes that LBJ was able to implement. Together they form an important moment in our history that either one, alone, would not have been as strong as.
President John F. Kennedy, Inauguration Speech, January 20, 1961 (Archival): Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans…
Todd Purdum (Author, An Idea Whose Time Has Come): Lyndon Johnson’s journey on Civil Rights was an extraordinary journey. He was from Texas, which was not the moonlight and magnolias Old South of plantation myth, but it was the South all the same. And, when he came to Washington, in Congress and the Senate particularly, he knew that, in order to get along with his fellow Southerners, he would have to toe the line on race. But as his aspirations for national office grew he realized that he could not be tied to the narrow prejudices of the South. So Johnson’s changing attitudes were an unusual mix of political reality, and, also, an apparent moral journey of his own.
Luci Baines Johnson (Daughter): He often referred to the fact that everybody was so poor in the Hill Country, where he grew up, that poverty didn’t even have a name. It was just a way of life. But when he was in college, and got an opportunity teaching school at Mexican school down in Cotulla, Texas where he encountered poverty on another level that he had never witnessed before. And he often referred to it saying, "You don’t know what poverty really is until you’ve seen it in the eyes of a child." It was a full circle for him. And I think the commitment to the Civil Rights movement was bound to his compassion for those who were impoverished; because the fact that you are a person of color meant, automatically in our country, that you had less of a chance.
Rep. John Lewis (Chairman, SNCC 1963-1966): People couldn't be seated together on a bus, or on a train travelling through the American South. People could not eat together in a restaurant, at a lunch counter. When you stood up and said "no" to segregation, and racial discrimination, you would be arrested and sometimes receive a long sentence in a jail or in a prison. I think many of us were prepared and willing to die for what we believed in. We felt that somebody had to stand up; someone had to speak up and speak out. We did it by sitting down, sitting in, standing up, riding on those buses, and marching with our feet.
Narrator: Dr. Martin Luther King emerged as the leader of the Civil Rights movement – with his policy of non-violent demonstration, inspired by Gandhi. Non-violence in the face of beatings, arrests and bombings, of houses and churches.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Archival): We know that what happened here came from somebody who had the strange illusion that they could block the aspirations of the Negro people for freedom and justice…
Narrator: As the Ku Klux Clan marched, many Americans were troubled…but looked the other way. Re-elected in 1962, the Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, famously told the crowd at his inaugural, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!" And it was what happened in Alabama – in Birmingham in May 1963 – that finally forced John Kennedy to do something about Civil Rights
Todd Purdum (Author, An Idea Whose Time Has Come): Kennedy himself famously said that Bull Connor, the Public Safety Director of Birmingham, had done more for civil rights than anyone. And it was those horrific scenes on television, and newsreels, and still photography, of the police dogs lunging at protestors and children, fire hoses knocking people to the ground, tearing their clothes off; that pricked the conscience of the country. It aroused strong feeling in areas of the country that had not really paid any attention to civil rights before and it aroused strong feelings and a sense of deep unfairness in Kennedy himself. And I think he knew after that point, after the spring of 1963 – no matter how reluctant he was – he had no choice but to act, and he did.
Narrator: At last, Kennedy had accepted that this was a 'moral issue.' His was a strong civil rights bill and it included public accommodations. Could it have come sooner? Some thought so. For, in the two years that has passed, the man who knew best how to get the bill through Congress – Lyndon Johnson – had been all but ignored by the Kennedys. Where was he? Travelling the world with his wife, Lady Bird, meeting and greeting; a goodwill ambassador sent overseas by Kennedy – some thought – to get him out of the way.
Todd Purdum (Author, An Idea Whose Time Has Come): Johnson had firm views about what should be done on the question of civil rights and he actually had become a fierce supporter of the idea and he was far out ahead, in some ways, of where President Kennedy wanted to be. In Memorial Day of 1963, Johnson went up to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania – the scene of the great Civil War battle – and made a speech that was considerably stronger on civil rights than anything Kennedy had ever said to that point.
President Lyndon B. Johnson, Gettysburg Speech (Archival): The Negro today asks justice. We do not answer him – we do not answer those who lie beneath this soil – when we reply to the Negro by asking, "Patience."
Luci Baines Johnson (Daughter): "Until justice is blind to color, until opportunity is unaware of race, until education is not concerned with the color of men's skins, emancipation will be a proclamation but not a fact." Those words came from that 1963 Gettysburg speech and it was a commitment that my father felt so strongly was within our grasp and we needed to do it not just to be on the right side of history, but to be right.
Rep. John Lewis (Chairman, SNCC 1963-1966): When we heard and read the speech that he gave at Gettysburg, the leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., sent the word out, that we could work with Lyndon Johnson, that he was going to be okay. And that's all we needed. That's all we needed.
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Archival): "The legitimate goal is for every American to receive exact and even and equal justice regardless of his race or his color."
Narrator: Now, as Vice President, Johnson had finally broken with his colleagues. All through his life, he'd played the political game – said what people wanted to hear in order to make his way up the ladder. But, at the top of that ladder, he left his political friends to speak out for all those in America who were downtrodden; the very people he'd taught in Cotulla, Texas. The youngsters for whom he'd bought books and clothes – out of his own pocket. This, said his supporters, was the real Lyndon Baines Johnson
Walter Cronkite (Archival): President Kennedy is dead of an assassin's bullet in the 46th year of his life…
President Lyndon B. Johnson, Speech at Andrews Air Force Base, November 22, 1963 (Archival): This is a sad time for all peoples. We have suffered a loss that cannot be weighed. For me, it is a deep, personal tragedy. I know that the world shares the sorrow that Mrs. Kennedy and her family bear. I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask for your help…and God's.
Todd Purdum (Author, An Idea Whose Time Has Come): It's as if Johnson were born to take command in the way that he did. He knew exactly what to do. He knew to consult with the leaders of Congress, he knew how to re-assure fellow world leaders, he knew how to reach out to Martin Luther King. He had an instinctual understanding of what the country would expect from its new leader…and he delivered it.
Narrator: A nation paused. The world grieved. And, two days after John Fitzgerald Kennedy was buried at Arlington, Lyndon Johnson revealed how he would keep alive the legacy of JFK…
President Lyndon B. Johnson, November 27, 1963 (Archival): No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the Civil Rights bill for which he fought so long.
Doris Kearns Goodwin (Author, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream): To say, "No memorial will matter more for John Kennedy than the passage of the Civil Rights bill that he wanted so badly to pass" … What that meant was that he was staking his entire first year – knowing that he'd have to be nominated and elected if he were going to run on his own – on something that seemed almost impossible, to have a Civil Rights bill passed.
President Lyndon B. Johnson, November 27, 1963 (Archival): We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for a hundred years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law.
Luci Baines Johnson (Daughter): My father was a student of the United States political process. He had grown up in it, literally. Every step of the way, from being an assistant to a congressman, to being a congressman, to being a senator, to being minority leader, majority leader, vice president, president. He had had all of that preparation. And he knew that, if he did not seize the moment that was handed to him, after the agonizing assassination of President Kennedy, to try to make great things happen, he might never have those moments again.
Narrator: It was not just words. We know now, from secret White House tapes, that just a few hours after John Kennedy's funeral, Lyndon Johnson picked up the phone to Martin Luther King…
WHITE HOUSE TAPES: November 25, 1963
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Actor): I've been locked up in this office and I haven't seen it but I want to tell you how grateful I am and how worthy I want to try to be of all your hopes.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Archival Audio): Well, thank you very much. I'm so happy to hear that and I knew that you had just that great spirit and you know you have our support and backing…
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Actor): Well…
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Archival Audio): …because we know what a difficult period this is.
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Actor): It's a – it's just an impossible period. We got a budget coming up – well we got nothing to do with it, it's practically already made. We got a civil rights bill that hadn't even passed the House. And it's November and Hubert Humphrey told me yesterday everybody wanted to go home. We got a tax bill they haven't touched. We've just got to let up – not let up on any of them and keep going… I guess they'll say I'm repudiated. But I’m going to ask the Congress Wednesday to just stay there until they pass them all. They won't do it. But we'll just keep them there next year until they do, and we won't give an inch.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Archival Audio): Uh-huh. Well this is, this is mighty fine. I think it's, er, it's so imperative. I think one of the great tributes that we can pay in memory of President Kennedy is to try to enact some of the great, progressive policies that he sought to initiate.
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Actor): Well, I'm going to support them all, and you can count on that. And I'm going to do my best to get other men to do likewise, and I'll have to have you-all's help. I never needed it more than I do now.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Archival Audio): Well, you know you have it…
Doris Kearns Goodwin (Author, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream): History provides opportunities for people to show their best qualities. He really did show an historic understanding of the opportunity he'd been presented and he made the best of it. And that's where greatness comes.
Narrator: Over the following six months, Johnson would flatter and cajole, argue with and try to outwit his opponents. He and his aides would spend Christmas 1963 at his ranch in Austin, Texas. But, before he left Washington, the new President picked up the phone.
WHITE HOUSE TAPES: December 23, 1963
Geraldine Whittington (Actor): Okay, I’ll get it! Hello? Hello?
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Actor): Gerri, where are you?
Geraldine Whittington (Actor): I'm at home. Who's this?
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Actor): This is the President.
Geraldine Whittington (Actor): Oh!
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Actor): What are you doing?
Geraldine Whittington (Actor): Oh, I think someone's playing with me.
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Actor): No, no, they're not. I want to talk to you about our work, honey. Where are you – at home?
Geraldine Whittington (Actor): Oh, yes I am.
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Actor): Are you busy?
Geraldine Whittington (Actor): No, I'm not.
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Actor): Can you come down here immediately?
Geraldine Whittington (Actor): Oh, I'd be glad to.
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Actor): Come on down. I've got Jack Valenti here and we want to talk to you about a little reassignment.
Geraldine Whittington (Actor): Oh, yes, sir.
Narrator: Geraldine Whittington was 32. She'd been working for one of President Kennedy's aides. But at 10 p.m. the night before Christmas Eve, she took a call that would change her life.
Jack Valenti (Archival Audio): Mr President, Miss Whittington here…
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Actor): Oh, come in honey, pull up a chair!
Geraldine Whittington (Actor): My apologies for taking your call lightly.
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Actor): Have you got the names of these that ought to go out?
Jack Valenti (Archival Audio): Yes, sir.
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Actor): Now, Gerri – you don't mind if I call you that do you?
Geraldine Whittington (Actor): No, sir
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Actor): Gerri, I've just got off the phone with Mr. Hatcher and Mr. Wilkins – you know Mr. Wilkins don't you?
Geraldine Whittington (Actor): Well, sir, I don't know him, but I know of him…
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Actor): They say you've got good ability and good character and that you're respected by Mr. Dungan and they agree with me that I should have you in my office. What do you say?
Geraldine Whittington (Actor): I'd be honored, Mr. President
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Actor): It will be longer hours than you're used to. I've got the tax bill, I've got Civil Rights – all backing up. Can you handle it?
Geraldine Whittington (Actor): I'm sure I can, sir
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Actor): Where did you go to school, honey?
Geraldine Whittington (Actor): Annapolis. Wiley Bates High, Class of ’48…
Alma Cropper (Schoolfriend): He opened the door. What Geraldine did and what she had to do; her opportunity was just an opportunity for all of us. Most of us may not have thought about doing anything until then; saying to ourselves that we can do this. We can do these things. We can better ourselves.
Narrator: So, Geraldine Whittington would become the first African American secretary to the President. And a bright student at the segregated Wiley Bates High in Annapolis, vice president of the Class of ’48, loved and admired by friends and family alike, had her life turned upside down.
Gladys Holt (Cousin): We all was calling everyone who had a phone at that time to let them know that Geraldine is now in the White House. She's with President Lyndon Johnson. It was an exciting time. She was still Geraldine. It didn’t take her out of where she came from and who she was.
Narrator: Johnson took his White House team to Texas for Christmas because there was no time to be lost. He was physically and emotionally exhausted. The ranch was where he could gather his thoughts – and make a plan for 1964.
Since its arrival on Capitol Hill in June, Kennedy's strong Civil Rights Bill had languished in the many committees that had the right to consider – and delay it – before it made it to the floor of the House.
Lyndon Johnson knew there was a chance the bill would be passed by the House of Representatives because the House Republican leader, William McCulloch, had given John Kennedy an assurance that he would support it, as long as it wasn't watered down.
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Actor): Yep, but remember; Bill McCulloch has given us his word that he'll rally his troops, if we hang firm…
Narrator: But when – if – the Civil Rights Bill made it to the Senate, it would be a very different matter. Lyndon Johnson knew better than anyone else that his old friend, Dick Russell, was determined to force a debate on whether the law should even be debated – Richard Russell, the man who was implacably opposed to civil rights.
Roger Mudd (Congressional Correspondent, CBS News, 1964): Richard Russell was feared and respected, for the same reason: his mastery of the rules. He was the keeper of the folk-ways of the Senate. I remember the first time I interviewed him, I said, when the interview was over; "Well, thank you Senator." "No, no, no, no. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Mr. Mudd." He was that polite, but he was a white supremacist, and he opposed any and all civil rights legislation.
Narrator: But Richard Russell knew the game was changing. Kennedy was gone. Now, he faced a much more formidable opponent.
Joseph Califano (Special Assistant to LBJ): When President Johnson became president, there's that wonderful statement by Richard Russell, his mentor in prior years, who said: "We could beat Jack Kennedy, but Lyndon knows how to beat us."
Narrator: The President was the new advocate of civil rights and he wasn't shy about it. On New Year's Eve, 1963, he sent a signal to America, and the world, that the old order must change. Johnson had been invited to the Forty Acres Club on the campus of the University of Texas, reserved for whites only.
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Actor): Bill, call Horace to say we're coming.
Narrator: When it was time to leave, Lady Bird Johnson was too tired to go but insisted that her husband take his secretaries.
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Actor): Tell him about Lady Bird and say I don't know how long we'll stop at the club. Gerri, tell the chopper pilot we'll be there in five minutes…
Geraldine Whittington (Actor): Yes, Mr. President.
Narrator: It had all the makings of a public relations disaster. The President of the United States was about to condone segregation. Or so it seemed.
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Actor): Here, honey; take my arm!
Geraldine Whittington (Actor): Do you think that's wise, Mr. President?
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Actor): I sure do!
Joseph Califano (Special Assistant to LBJ): There are very few things he did without calculation. He waltzed in on New Year's Eve to a totally white club. Shocked everybody in the club and, in effect, de-segregated that club.
Todd Purdum (Author, An Idea Whose Time Has Come): A law professor at Texas asked Johnson's aide, Bill Moyers, "Does the President know what he's doing?" And Moyers replied, "He always knows what he's doing." And what he was doing was, in a single stroke, sending the strongest possible signal that he could that this kind of Jim Crow segregation had to end. And the next day, when the law professor called the club to ask if he could bring a black guest to lunch, the answer was: "Yes, sir! The President de-segregated us on New Year's Eve."
Johnson knew, in again that sort of pitch-perfect way, what a signal this would send. And, for all his flaws, for all his ego, for all his outsize ambitions, he was a remarkably sensitive man about human nature. And he knew that people would respond to this small gesture in a visceral and human way. And that’s precisely what he intended to happen and it's what happened.
Narrator: The Forty Acres Club was just the beginning. Back in Washington, Lyndon Johnson gathered Senator Hubert Humphrey, the Democrat who had championed civil rights as far back as 1948; the Majority Leader in the Senate, Mike Mansfield; all those who would fight for the bill in Congress. And they took their lead from LBJ: Don’t accept amendments that will weaken the bill. Stand firm all the way through. It will be Jack Kennedy's Civil Rights Bill – or no bill at all.
On February 10th, when the final vote on the Civil Rights Bill was taken in the House of Representatives, it passed by 290 to 130. Speaking to Robert Kennedy, the President was elated…
WHITE HOUSE TAPES: February 10, 1964
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Actor): Bobby?
Attorney General Robert Kennedy (Archival Audio): Hi, Mr President.
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Actor): Congratulations.
Attorney General Robert Kennedy (Archival Audio): Yes, it was very nice, wasn't it?
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Actor): I thought it was wonderful, 290 to 130. You can't do better than that.
Attorney General Robert Kennedy (Archival Audio): I would think that would put a lot of pressure on them in the Senate, wouldn't you?
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Actor): Yes. Now you get with Larry and Mike Mansfield in the morning to work out procedure.
Narrator: Such a large vote in favor of Civil Rights gave the White House hope. But the real fight was only just beginning… With his long years of experience, Johnson knew just how the Senate debate would go. And to lay the groundwork, he talked to his mentor Richard Russell, the man who was implacably opposed to civil rights. Russell warned the President that, if he won the debate, the Democratic Party would lose the South for a generation. But Johnson was prepared to sacrifice white voters in the South – his homeland – in exchange for civil rights.
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Archival): It may, I pray it won't, but it may take all summer. It may take sessions around the clock, but I promise you here and now that we’re going to pass a Civil Rights Bill.
Narrator: Richard Russell and his Southern senators were using one of the oldest tricks in the book: the filibuster. They would speak for so long that the Senate would run out of time. 1964 was an election year and the party conventions were coming up in the summer. Congress would automatically recess in July. That was five months away, but the Southern senators were prepared to talk on for weeks, months, a year – if that's what it took to help Russell frustrate the Civil Rights Bill.
Roger Mudd (Congressional Correspondent, CBS News, 1964): When the Civil Rights Bill came over from the House and was on the Senate floor, he knew he was not going to defeat it. And, so the filibuster was designed to wear the Senate down so that it would be in a mood to compromise. And that was the best he thought he could do: a compromise, to soften the impact of the bill. But I don't think he really ever thought that he would be able to maintain that filibuster until the liberals in the Senate surrendered, because they were too well organized for that.
Narrator: All the President's men in the Senate – and their aides in the corridors of power – were organized. They ensured that false "facts" were corrected, procedural points were challenged, and they printed a daily newsletter with helpful facts and figures about the plight of black Americans – to pierce the conscience of those senators who might yet be persuaded to support civil rights.
Staffer 1 (Actor): I think we should give some solid examples of discrimination in the South. Justice sent me this from the City Ordinance in Birmingham. Might make people think… "It is against the law for any restaurant to serve Whites and Negroes in the same room unless they are separated by a solid partition extending from the floor upward to a distance of seven feet or higher, and unless a separate entrance from the street is provided…"
Staffer 2 (Actor): It's the same as at the circuses – separate entrances are mandatory in Louisiana and South Carolina.
Staffer 3 (Actor): What about something really weird? There's a good example in Oklahoma. The telephone companies have to provide a separate phone booth!
Staffer 4 (Actor): OK, OK, we'll put all those in tomorrow's newsletter. All of these might help…
Narrator: Three weeks after the start of their filibuster, Russell's team made a procedural error. A vote was taken – and the Senate agreed to debate the law itself. Russell told reporters he had "lost a battle" but would go on to "win the war." It was March 26th, 1964. The Civil Rights Bill, first laid down by President Kennedy almost a year earlier, was finally up for debate. But Richard Russell started a second filibuster – on the law itself.
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Actor): They can filibuster until hell freezes over. I'm not putting anything on that floor 'til this is done.
Narrator: While the opposition talked, the President's team was recruiting – using political favors. Political preferment here, a long-awaited irrigation scheme there, federal funds and presidential patronage of one scheme or another for senators who needed to look good back home. And, then, the biggest catch of all…
At the start of the debate, the Republican leader, Senator Everett Dirksen, from Illinois, had warned the chamber: "They're remaking America and you won't like it." In April he proposed his own amendments to the bill. Dirksen was sympathetic to civil rights. But LBJ had known it all along.
Doris Kearns Goodwin (Author, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream): Johnson knew that there were too many Democrats in the South who would vote against the Civil Rights Bill, who would vote for the filibuster.
And he knows that the Republican Minority Leader, Everett Dirksen, is the key. So, he starts out right away with Dirksen. Now, the great thing is the political culture in those days: you knew these people. They played poker together, they drank together on weekends. There were friendships across party lines. So, he didn't have to go a stranger when he went to Everett Dirksen. And he promises him everything – you know, you can have public works projects, you can have dams, you can have this navigation thing you want. But, then, he also understands, it's not just trading with Dirksen; that Dirksen, too, wants to be remembered by history. So, finally, you know, he says to him, the great line, you know: "Everett, you come with me on this bill and 200 years from now schoolchildren will know only two names – Abraham Lincoln and Everett Dirksen." How can Dirksen resist?
Narrator: While Russell's troops talked on, Robert Kennedy huddled with Dirksen and his staff to work through his amendments. But they could not allow the bill to be weakened. So, they changed the language. What emerged – after nearly two weeks of bargaining – was almost the same Civil Rights Bill … with the words in a different order. It was a political sleight of hand. But, it meant Everett Dirksen could sell himself as co-author of the law, and take his fellow Republicans with him.
Now, the whole nation was restless. Opinion polls showed increasing support for the Civil Rights Bill. Religious leaders came to Washington to pray for its success, and to petition their senators. The pressure was building.
Roger Mudd (Congressional Correspondent, CBS News, 1964): The first I heard about my assignment to cover the filibuster came from Fred Friendly, who was the president of CBS News at the time. Once the bill was before the Senate, and the South began its filibuster, then it was simply a matter of finding out how soon they would try to choke off the debate – that's called "cloture."
To shut off a filibuster required two thirds of the Senate – which was 67. Not two thirds of those present and voting but two thirds of the membership. It was at that point that the story took on an intense political suspense – who was going to vote to close off the debate, who was going to vote to keep it going.
WHITE HOUSE TAPES: June 9, 1964
Operator (Off-Camera Voice): Senator Humphrey on Line 1…
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Actor): Hubert, tell me, do you have a reliable count on your cloture?
Senator Hubert Humphrey (Archival Audio): Ah, yeah, I think that my reliable count shows a minimum of 68 votes, and I'm just going to go over it again here with one of the staff fellows, because we're going to be in session practically all night. I guess we got some boys who are going to hold us in session.
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Actor): But do you think we're safe?
Senator Hubert Humphrey (Archival Audio): Yes, sir. As I see it now, we have 68 votes.
Newsreel (Archival Audio): It's the day of decision on Capitol Hill as the U.S. Senate clears the way for the Civil Rights Bill…
Narrator: Wednesday, June 10th. The longest filibuster in the history of the United States Senate finally comes to an end. At 11 o'clock, the motion for closure is put.
Roger Mudd (Congressional Correspondent, CBS News, 1964): The Senate, the galleries, were filled, packed, standing room only – every senator in his seat. I was outside with a great big easel with the names of all the senators on it. When each senator would vote, the gallery employee watching from his perch, would say into his telephone: "Aiken votes aye."
Staffer 1 (Actor): Aiken: AYE
Roger Mudd (Congressional Correspondent, CBS News, 1964): My producer off the floor would then repeat into my ear, "Aiken votes aye." And then I would say, "George Aiken of Vermont has voted aye."
Staffer 1 (Actor): Bartlett: AYE. Bayh: AYE. Beall: AYE. Bennett: NAY.
Todd Purdum (Author, An Idea Whose Time Has Come): It was a swelteringly hot day.
Staffer 1 (Actor): Bible: NAY.
Todd Purdum (Author, An Idea Whose Time Has Come): Every senator was present, including Clair Engle of California who was dying and could not raise his hand to vote, could not speak.
Staffer 1 (Actor): Engle: …hold on, there's a problem
Todd Purdum (Author, An Idea Whose Time Has Come): So he raised his hand towards his eye and the clerk finally interpreted that as a yes vote, meaning aye.
Staffer 1 (Actor): I think Engle has voted AYE. Yes, Engle, Democrat, California – that's a vote in favor
Doris Kearns Goodwin (Author, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream): The idea that you know that when that filibuster is broken that you are going to pass a piece of legislation that's going to change the face of the country. They'd never done it before. They'd never broken a filibuster of civil rights.
Staffer 1 (Actor): Long: NAY. No surprise…
Doris Kearns Goodwin (Author, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream): They knew, and that's what he wanted them to know, that if they passed this bill, they'd be able to tell their children and their grandchildren years later: "We were there when this happened. We made this happen."
Staffer 1 (Actor): 42 votes. Walters: NAY. Williams – that's Harrison Williams of New Jersey – hold on, hold on… AYE.
Staffer 3 (Actor): How many more votes do we need?
Staffer 4 (Actor): Just need one more. Hopefully it's a Republican!
Staffer 1 (Actor): Williams….
Roger Mudd (Congressional Correspondent, CBS News, 1964): When John Williams of Delaware – "Whispering Willie" – cast the 67th vote, there was this enormous [exhale] in the chamber, just absolute silence.
Staffer 1 (Actor): AYE. Hold on. They're still voting… Yarborough: NAY.
Roger Mudd (Congressional Correspondent, CBS News, 1964): Then everybody realized that this was the first time this had ever happened.
Staffer 1 (Actor): Young, from Ohio: AYE.
Staffer 2 (Actor): That's AYE 71, NAY 29
Roger Mudd (Congressional Correspondent, CBS News, 1964): All 550 people, however many were in that Senate, still remember, "I was there when they did it."
Narrator: The finally tally was 71 votes in favor of closure, 29 against. The longest filibuster in the history of the United States Senate was stopped. It had lasted 534 hours, 1 minute and 51 seconds. Nine days later, the Senate voted on the bill itself and passed it by 73 votes to 27. It was June 19th 1964 – one year to the day that John Kennedy had sent it to Capitol Hill.
President Lyndon B. Johnson, July 2, 1964 (Archival): I am about to sign into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964…
Narrator: The 1964 Civil Rights Act was the greatest advance in American equality for a hundred years. But it was not enough. African Americans were free to vote and had been since 1870 – in theory. In practice, white officials did everything possible to prevent them entering their names on the electoral roll. Those who celebrated the President's signing of the Civil Rights Act at the White House on July 2nd, including Martin Luther King – especially Dr. King – knew that an even greater battle lay ahead. And it would be played out in Selma.
Reverend C. T. Vivian (Archival Newsreel): …it’s a matter of facing your sheriff and facing your judge. We're willing to be beaten for democracy.
Rep. John Lewis (Chairman, SNCC 1963-1966): Selma, this little town in Alabama, selected herself. In Selma, Alabama, black people stood in an unmovable line. They had to try to pass a so-called "literacy test." They were asked to count the number of bubbles in a bar of soap, the number of jelly beans in a jar. Day in and day out, people would line up and go to the courthouse to take the test. And, they all would fail the test.
Reverend C. T. Vivian (Archival Newsreel): This is a national issue. When anyone does not have the right to vote then every man is hurt. I am hurt because these people cannot register. You are the sheriff of this county because they're not registered and that's one reason you don't want them to register.
Narrator: While Sheriff Clarke in Selma continued to deny black citizens the right to vote, Lyndon Johnson stood for president – in his own right – in November 1964, against the Republican challenger, Senator Barry Goldwater. Johnson won by a landslide, though many Southern states deserted him – as Richard Russell had predicted.
And, now, there was a political calculation: should the newly-elected president do something about voting rights? And then the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement decided to stage a symbolic march: from Selma to Montgomery, the capital of the state of Alabama.
Rep. John Lewis (Chairman, SNCC 1963-1966): The march from Selma to Montgomery is as fresh as the morning dew in my mind. We got within hearing distance of the state troopers. One of the young men leading the march with me said, "Major, give us a moment to kneel and pray." And the major said, "Troopers advance!"
They came towards us, beating us with nightsticks, bull whips, trampling us with horses, and releasing the tear gas. I was hit on the head by a state trooper with a nightstick. I thought I was going to die. I thought I saw death.
The photographs from Selma on that day went all over America and went around the world. The American people couldn't stand what they saw. And they demanded that the President and the members of Congress act.
Narrator: The day John Lewis and others were beaten became known as "Bloody Sunday." The marchers tried again two days later, by which time hundreds of supporters had come from all over the country to join them.
They called it "Turnaround Tuesday" because Martin Luther King agreed to march to the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, then stop. The protestors would pray, get up, and go back to Selma. Some of them were angry at his decision, but King was anxious not to flout a court order which had delayed the main march. So, there was no violence on Turnaround Tuesday. But that night, three white ministers who had come to lend their support were attacked by the Ku Klux Klan and one of them, the Reverend James Reeb of Boston, died from his injuries.
Newsreel (Archival Audio): This Alabama town will go down in the history books as a turning point in the civil rights drive. From the halls of Congress to the smallest crossroads hamlet, people can understand the plea that no American can have freedom and justice unless there is freedom and justice for all. In Selma there is a lesson to be learned.
Narrator: The President announced that he would address a joint session of the Houses of Congress. He would move voting rights to the top of his agenda. And he would ask Richard Goodwin to write the speech of his life.
Richard Goodwin (Special Assistant to LBJ): He had to give the speech that night to a joint session of Congress. So it was a big moment for him, too. Johnson never bothered me all day long because he knew it wouldn't do any good to put me under increased pressure. The pressure of having to do it that fast was enough.
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Actor): I speak tonight. I speak tonight for the dignity of man…and the destiny of democracy…
Richard Goodwin (Special Assistant to LBJ): I wrote it, then he went up to Congress and delivered that speech, now known as the Voting Rights Speech, and it was a great success.
Narrator: Richard Goodwin accompanied the President to Capitol Hill. The ink was barely dry on the speech. But, like many speechwriters, when he was put under pressure, Goodwin had produced spectacular results.
President Lyndon B. Johnson, Address to Congress, March 15, 1965 (Archival): I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy…
Richard Goodwin (Special Assistant to LBJ): …at time history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord, so it was at Appomattox, so it was last week at Selma, Alabama."
President Lyndon B. Johnson, Address to Congress, March 15, 1965 (Archival): It is wrong, deadly wrong, to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country. There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.
Narrator: Inside Congress, the atmosphere was electric. Outside, the speech was being watched on television by 70 million Americans. Just a few hours before – locked away in the White House – Richard Goodwin had had an inspiration. In this most important of speeches he would include the words "We Shall Overcome."
Richard Goodwin (Special Assistant to LBJ): Of course, I knew the "We Shall Overcome" song and which they had been singing in the streets, and so I put it in the speech, because he was adopting for his own, then, the anthem of the black movement in America. When did it occur to me to do that? Who knows? In the process of writing it came out of the typewriter.
President Lyndon B. Johnson, Address to Congress, March 15, 1965 (Archival): What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it's not just Negroes, but really it's all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.
Richard Goodwin (Special Assistant to LBJ): He said, "And we shall overcome," and the place went wild. They all cheered him and some of the congressmen from the North jumped to their feet, and some of them ended up having tears streaming down their face. Because everybody knew what he was doing, as did I when I wrote it.
Doris Kearns Goodwin (Author, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream): The thing that was so incredible about the speech was not only how dignified it was and how passionate it was but, when a president takes up the anthem of the outside movement, that's the moment when something really happens in society, when a social movement is able to link with the people in power. So, when he finally said, "And we shall overcome," I mean we all just started cheering and crying because there was a sense of, "My God, he's recognizing the Civil Rights Movement."
Rep. John Lewis (Chairman, SNCC 1963-1966): That was the first time hearing an American president using the theme song of the Civil Rights Movement. I looked at Dr. King. Tears came down his face. He cried. And we all cried a little. And he said, "We will make it from Selma to Montgomery. And the Voting Rights Act will be passed." And he was right. And the Voting Rights Act changed everything.
Narrator: President Johnson sent his Voting Rights bill to Congress. And, a judge ruled that the protestors could legally march to Montgomery. As they walked, so the numbers swelled until 25,000 men, women, and children arrived at the state capitol.
Harris Wofford (Special Assistant on Civil Rights to JFK): We marched with the "We Shall Overcome" speech, you know, being repeated on the loudspeaker. After the three days getting to Montgomery, going up to the capital of the Confederacy – "How long? Not long!" was King’s great speech.
And we got on planes and buses and trains to go home thinking this is, you know, total victory. A peaceful march. The President of the United States saying "we shall overcome." And got home to find that Viola Liuzzo – a white woman from Michigan – had been assassinated, had been killed, as she took one of the marchers back to Selma.
Narrator: Viola Liuzzo was killed by the Klan. She was not the first and would not be the last. After 100 years, the South would not change overnight. But, the story of Selma – the violence, the naked hatred, the bigotry, as the President put it – all played out on television screens across the nation – helped to ensure the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Joseph Califano (Special Assistant to LBJ): He knew that was the most important piece of legislation – and that has certainly changed the country.
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Archival): The right is one which no American, true to our principles, can deny…
Todd Purdum (Author, An Idea Whose Time Has Come): The achievement of the civil rights legislation – not only the Civil Rights Act of 1964 but the Voting Rights Act – really stand as two of the very most important laws that Congress ever passed. And I don't think that they could have happened in the way they did without Lyndon Johnson's presence in the White House and without Lyndon Johnson's skill and determination to see it through.
Newsreel (Archival Audio): With a battery of pens and before witnesses like Negro leaders Martin Luther King, Roy Wilkins and James Farmer, who were watching the climax of the campaign to which they devoted years of will and energy, the President signed. President Johnson moved the next day to implement the bill. So far the strongest link in the legislative chain which the President titles The Great Society, the Voting Bill promises a profound effect upon the future politics of the entire nation.
Doris Kearns Goodwin (Author, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream): What if the South were still segregated? What if black Americans didn't have the right to vote? It's hard to imagine an America today without those things in place. There's a sense that those two people together – Martin Luther King and LBJ – they were made to work together just as Winston Churchill and FDR. It's very lucky when history provides that. Because, if Martin Luther King hadn't had that outside pressure and the brilliance of the non-violent movement and then the Selma demonstrations, perhaps the country itself wouldn't have been open for Civil Rights Act of '64 or Selma in '65.
Rep. John Lewis (Chairman, SNCC 1963-1966): We have made so much progress. We have come a distance. But, we're not there yet. The scars and stains of racism are still deeply embedded in American society. We must never, ever forget what happened, and how it happened, so our children – and their children – will not repeat the dark past.
Narrator: Geraldine Whittington would never forget. Through all this – the re-making of America – she was there.
Alma Cropper (Schoolfriend): I think the expression of what was happening at that time – it was just too, too heavy to grasp. We are really doing this? This is happening to us as a people! And I think that was a great day for the world, for the nation, and for the African American community. All of this stuff that reflected back into our lives. We had so much to look back on and so much to hold onto. But then there was so much that we had to release and let go – because there were some things that would never, never change. But change came. Change came.
Narrator: Today, for many, it is as if those achievements never were. Instead, Lyndon Baines Johnson, 36th President of the United States, is remembered as the man who fought a war against the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia, eight thousand miles from home. Vietnam would cost nearly 60,000 American lives, soak up billions of dollars, damage the social programs which were so close to LBJ's heart, and lead, in 1968, to his surprise announcement not to seek re-election.
President Lyndon B. Johnson (Archival): I shall not seek – and I will not accept – the nomination of my party for another term as your president.
Harris Wofford (Special Assistant on Civil Rights to JFK): Now, looking at Lyndon Johnson, I think history happens to agree with me. Namely that he was a great president with one of the greatest tragic mistakes that this country ever made – which was Vietnam. And it undermined, without question, the unity of the country or the majority force together moving forward. He did so much on civil rights and on ending poverty in this country. To have that side of him forgotten is bad history.
Doris Kearns Goodwin (Author, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream): I think there's no question now, with the passage of these five decades, that we can put into perspective the extraordinary accomplishments and achievements of that first year and a half, two years of his presidency. It's a wonderful thing, I think, when history finally catches up and can look back and recognize that he was a giant during this period of time. I only wish he had lived to see that happen.
President Lyndon Johnson retired to his ranch in Texas.
He died in 1973, aged 64.
Geraldine Whittington suffered a stroke at the age of 38.
She died in 1993, aged 61.