President Johnson’s five years in office brought about critical civil rights legislation and innovative anti-poverty programs through his Great Society initiative, though his presidency was marred by mishandling of the war in Vietnam. Though Martin Luther King, Jr., called Johnson’s 1964 election “one of America’s finest hours” and believed that Johnson had an “amazing understanding of the depth and dimension of the problem of racial injustice,” King’s outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War damaged his relationship with Johnson and brought an end to an alliance that had enabled major civil rights reforms in America (King, 4 November 1964; King, 16 March 1965).
Johnson was born in rural Texas on 27 August 1908. He graduated from Southwest Texas State Teachers College in 1930 and briefly taught in Texas public schools before becoming secretary to a Texas congressman in Washington, D.C. In 1937, Johnson was elected to serve out the term of a Texas representative who had died in office. In 1948 he was elected a senator, becoming Democratic whip, then minority leader. In 1954, Johnson became the second youngest man ever to be named Senate majority leader. From this position of power, Johnson used his political leverage to engineer passage of the 1957 and 1960 Civil Rights Acts.
When John F. Kennedy secured the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1960, he surprisingly chose Johnson as his running mate, hoping the Texas senator would appeal to southern voters. Shortly after winning the election, Kennedy named Johnson chairman of the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. With Johnson’s encouragement, on 11 June 1963, Kennedy framed civil rights in moral terms for the first time during a national address.
Following the assassination of President Kennedy on 22 November 1963, Johnson challenged Congress to pass the civil rights legislation that had been deadlocked at the time of Kennedy’s death. King publicly supported Johnson, saying that Johnson had taught him to recognize that there were “new white elements” in the South “whose love of their land was stronger than the grip of old habits and customs” and expressed optimism that Johnson’s term would benefit African Americans (King, 1964).
On 2 July 1964 Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a far reaching bill he hoped would “eliminate the last vestiges of injustice in America” (Kenworthy, “President Signs Civil Rights Bill”). King stood behind Johnson as he signed the bill into law. A month later they clashed over the recognition of delegates from the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) at the Democratic National Convention of 1964. MFDP sought recognition as the legitimate Democratic Party delegation from Mississippi instead of the all-white “regular” delegation. However, Johnson feared this change would cost him southern Democratic votes in the upcoming election against Republican Barry Goldwater and recommended a compromise that King eventually supported.
Later that year Johnson won a decisive victory in the 1964 election, garnering the widest popular margin in presidential history. King had campaigned actively for Johnson and welcomed the victory, saying, “The forces of good will and progress have triumphed” (King, 4 November 1964). In the first months of Johnson’s elected term, King joined a voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama, where less than two percent of eligible black voters had been able to register to vote. The brutality of white law enforcement during the Selma to Montgomery March stirred Johnson to send a voting rights bill to Congress. When introducing the bill, Johnson reflected publicly on the poverty and racism he had encountered teaching high school to Mexican immigrant children in Texas. King called Johnson’s speech “one of the most eloquent, unequivocal, and passionate pleas for human rights ever made by the President of the United States” (King, 16 March 1965). Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law on 6 August.
During the first four years of Johnson’s tenure as president, he deflected the criticisms of King that were fed to him almost daily by Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director J. Edgar Hoover, who nursed personal animosity toward King. Johnson saw King as a natural ally for his civil rights agenda, soliciting King’s advice on civil rights matters and collaborating on tactics for pushing legislation through Congress. This relationship, coupled with Johnson’s civil rights record, made King initially hesitant to speak out against his administration’s policies in Vietnam. When asked his opinion by journalists in March 1965, King cautiously stated that he was “sympathetic” to Johnson’s predicament but did not believe that “violence can solve the problem” (King, 2 March 1965). In late 1966 King’s last phone call to Johnson was made to discuss Vietnam.
In the months that followed, Johnson attempted to meet with King on two occasions, but King canceled both engagements. Johnson was bewildered and asked his aides to find out why King was avoiding him. On 4 April 1967, the answer was revealed to Johnson in a speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” that King delivered at New York’s Riverside Church in conjunction with Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. In his speech, King said that he was moved to “break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart” against the war in Vietnam, and in a devastating indictment of Johnson’s policies, King called the United States government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” (King, “Beyond Vietnam,” 141; 143). Shocked by King’s address and feeling personally betrayed, Johnson caved in to Hoover’s pressure and asked his press secretary to distribute the FBI’s information about King’s ties with alleged Communist Stanley Levison to reliable reporters.
A year later, at a press conference for the Poor People’s Campaign, King announced that he would not support Johnson in the 1968 presidential election. “I was a strong supporter,” King recalled. “I voted for President Johnson and saw great hope there, and I’m very sorry and very sad about the course of action that has followed” (King, 26 March 1968). On 31 March 1968, Johnson shocked the nation by declaring that he would not seek reelection, and pledged that he would spend the remainder of his term seeking “an honorable peace” in Vietnam (“Transcript”).
Four days later, on 4 April 1968, King was assassinated. Johnson wrote in his memoir that he had rarely felt a “sense of powerlessness more acutely than the day Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed” (Johnson, 173). Less than a week later, Johnson invoked King’s memory when he signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Among other provisions, the bill barred discrimination in federally funded housing and created new penalties for threatening or injuring persons exercising their civil rights. In his final year as president, Johnson halted bombing in North Vietnam and pressed for peace talks. He would not, however, live to see peace in Vietnam; he died of a heart attack at his Texas ranch on 22 January 1973.
Branch, At Canaan’s Edge, 2006.
Henry with Curry, Aaron Henry, 2000.
Johnson, Vantage Point, 1971.
E. W. Kenworthy, “President Signs Civil Rights Bill; Bids All Back It,” New York Times, 3 July 1964.
King, “Beyond Vietnam,” in A Call to Conscience, ed. Carson and Shepard, 2001.
King, Press conference on the Poor People’s Campaign and the 1968 presidential elections, 26 March 1968, MMFR.
King, Press statement on Johnson, 16 March 1965, MLKJP-GAMK.
King, Statement on election of Johnson, 4 November 1964, MLKJP-GAMK.
King, Statement on President Johnson, 1964, MLKJP-GAMK.
King, Statement on Vietnam, 2 March 1965, MLKJP-GAMK.
Kotz, Judgment Days, 2005.
“Transcript of the President’s Address on the Vietnam War and his Political Plans,” New York Times, 1 April 1968.