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Tapes reveal LBJ's support of civil rights

October 16, 1996
Web posted at: 9:10 p.m. EDT

Editor's Note -- Correspondent John Holliman takes us into the Lyndon Johnson White House to see -- and hear -- how the president and his advisers wrestled with critical decisions facing the nation in the 1960s. In this, the second of a five-part series, we hear LBJ's determination to advance civil rights in America.

From Correspondent John Holliman

AUSTIN, Texas (CNN) -- After being an outspoken critic of the civil rights movement during the 1950s, Lyndon B. Johnson championed the cause during his presidency, promoting African-Americans to key government positions and ordering his administration to stay away from segregated meetings.

Newly released audio tapes demonstrate that Johnson clearly believed in civil rights. In one conversation, the president pushed for columnist Carl Rowan to become the first black man to head the U.S. Information Agency.


On January 15, 1964, shortly after his inauguration, Johnson -- who refers to African-Americans as "colored" and "negroes" on the tapes -- began working the phones with southern Democrats, informing them of his decision to select Rowan.

The president started by phoning Alabama Sen. John McClellan, who laughed and made it clear he would never support a black man. (20 sec. /224K AIFF or WAV sound)icon

Johnson persisted and told McClellan to go easy on Rowan. "I don't want you to cut his guts out because he's a negro. And I've seen you operate with a knife and I've seen a few people get de-nutted," he said.

The conversations are included in 80 hours of tapes from early 1964, released by the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and the National Archives. The tapes were secretly recorded by Johnson.


Historian Michael Beschloss, who is working on a book based on the tapes, said the president knew he could win the civil rights movement if he acted shortly after taking office.

"...We might never have had a civil rights bill in 1964. That was one of the most important and best moments of American history," Beschloss said.

Johnson also would not allow representatives of his administration to speak to segregated audiences. He ordered NASA administrator James Webb to back out of a speech to a Mississippi group which refused to let blacks attend. (15 sec. /160K AIFF or WAV sound)icon


The same rules applied to the first lady. Lady Bird Johnson was to give a speech in Georgia, provided that the audience was not segregated. The president telephoned Georgia Sen. Richard Russell, whose niece had invited the first lady, to ask for some help.

"I can't have her at a segregated meeting. But if you ever have any integrated, where they can have just one partially colored girl," then the first lady will attend, Johnson said.


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