LBJ’s “Difficult Problem”

The distinguished historian Louis Menand observed that

Johnson was obsessed with the [passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act] bill; he made it a priority from almost the day Kennedy was assassinated. If you tell the story from his point of view, his moves look crucial to the outcome. But there were a lot of moving pieces because there was a lot that could go wrong.[1]

President Lyndon B. Johnson, in a February 6, 1964 conversation with NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins, said that James Blue’s film had created “a real difficult problem” as it threatened the president’s civil rights agenda and the appointment of Carl Rowan as director of the USIA (the first appointment of an African American to a presidential cabinet).

The film had been distributed to 415 locations throughout the world. Attorney General Robert Kennedy was upset that the film did not prominently feature President John F. Kennedy’s work on civil rights issues. According to Johnson, Kennedy had complained about the film’s depiction a white woman and an African American man in a romantic relationship. George Stevens, Jr., who was with Kennedy when he watched the film in early January 1964, said that Kennedy mentioned the scene and said it might prompt concern, but didn’t find it objectionable. The USIA Advisory Committee, headed by Clark Mollenhoff, had voted unanimously to recommend that the film not move into distribution. Johnson was worried that African Americans would protest if he censored the film.

To ensure the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Carl Rowan’s confirmation, Lyndon Johnson set out to negotiate a solution to his “difficult problem.” He decided, over the objections of Stevens and Blue, that Carl Rowan should preface the film with statement linking the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to the causes of free speech and civil rights. Between January 16 and February 25, 1964, he made a series of phone calls to politicians, aides, and other influential people, working step by step to achieve his political goals:

  • January 16, 1964: LBJ calls Sen. John L. McClellan (D-AR) and asks him to go easy on Carl Rowan.
  • January 18: LBJ watches James Blue’s The March with Ladybird. He also calls James Webb for a favor.
  • January 20: LBJ calls Sen. Richard Russell, Jr., (D-GA) about an opening in the State Department.
  • February 4: LBJ calls Dean Rusk to complain about The March and the media storm it created.
  • February 6: LBJ calls Roy Wilkins to ask for his advice on dealing with the controversy.
  • February 8: LBJ fields a call from Bill Moyers and Walter Jenkins. He later calls Gov. John Connally (D-TX) to chat.
  • February 25: The date of Rowan’s confirmation hearing. That afternoon, LBJ calls Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D-MN) to ask how it went.

Below, you can listen to his conversations and read transcripts, courtesy of the Miller Center at the University of Virginia.


January 16, 1964, 4:20 PM: LBJ calls Senator John L. McClellan (D-AR).

 

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Johnson asks Senator John L. McClellan not to “de-nut” Carl Rowan, Johnson’s nominee to head the United States Information Agency. McClellan, a segregationist, was a powerful player in the Senate as a member and later head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and so Johnson knew he had little leverage over McClellan. He frames McClellan as vicious and asks him to show some restraint during Rowan’s confirmation process, shaming him.

View a complete transcript of this conversation at the Miller Center.

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January 18, 1964, 2:55 PM: LBJ calls NASA Administrator James Webb.

 

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Johnson demands Webb, NASA Administrator and Democrat, find something that NASA can offer to Purdue University, located within the constituency of Congressman Charles A. Halleck (R-IN), a key Republican supporter of Johnson’s civil rights bill and the House Minority Leader at the time. Every vote was critical, and Johnson—like many presidents before and since—relied on handing out “pork” (political favors) to garner support and to give cooperative legislators something to show their constituents.

View a complete transcript of this conversation at the Miller Center.

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January 18, 1964, 10:45 PM: The Johnsons view The March by James Blue.

 

Johnson watches The March with his wife Lady Bird. The film, produced by the USIA under the direction of renowned reporter and sitting USIA head Edward R. Murrow, would become a thorn in Johnson’s side as he maneuvered to get Rowan confirmed.

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January 20, 1964, 7:20 PM: LBJ calls Senator Richard Russell (D-GA).

 

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Johnson tries to garner support for Carl Rowan by talking about appointing a Georgian Ambassador to the Dominican Republic. Russell, an ardent opponent of the Civil Rights Movement and a powerful conservative figure in the Senate, was not likely to be talked into supporting Rowan for nothing. Therefore, Johnson floats the idea of appointing a Georgian Ambassador to the DR, asking Russell for recommendations and for details to make the proposal seem more real and, therefore, tempt Russell into supporting Rowan’s confirmation.

View a complete transcript of this conversation at the Miller Center.

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February 4, 1964, 6:10 PM: LBJ calls Secretary of State Dean Rusk.

 

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Johnson and Rusk, whose resignation upon Kennedy’s death Johnson had refused, discuss the political controversy surrounding The March at home and abroad. Johnson states the controversy is being manufactured by Clark Mollenhoff, Washington bureau chief for the Des Moines Register, and Bobby Kennedy to force Johnson into a corner where he would have to suppress the film. This would be bad press for Johnson, particularly in the Black community. Rusk expresses a desire to “update” the film with news of Kennedy’s assassination and the administration’s interest in promoting civil rights.

View a complete transcript of this conversation at the Miller Center.

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February 6, 1964, 12:15 PM: LBJ calls NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins.

 

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Johnson asks Wilkins’ advice in avoiding further inflaming controversy around The March as he seeks to contain it. He lays out the issue, stating that Attorney General Bobby Kennedy was angry that the film showed no signs of recent progress that the Civil Rights Movement had made, and this controversy was being kicked up by Clark Mollenhoff out of a deep-seated personal malice. Johnson mentions he plans to have Rusk and Kennedy deal with the suppression and editing of the film. Wilkins, the moderate and influential leader of the NAACP, agrees that this is his “strongest position,” as “the Attorney General has made this recommendation, and no one can question his credentials in the civil rights field.”

View a complete transcript of this conversation at the Miller Center.

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February 8, 1964, 11:25 AM: LBJ receives a call from Special Assistant Bill Moyers, discusses Baker Scandal with Aide Walter Jenkins.
  

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The bulk of this conversation–a three way chat between Johnson, his trusted aide Jenkins, and his media specialist Moyers–revolves around a brewing controversy centered on Bobby Baker, one of Johnson’s closest aides during his Senate years, and how to deal with the growing media interest in it. After a pause, Johnson asks Moyers about the State Department’s usage of The March; Moyers reports back to Johnson that he talked to Dean Rusk, the Secretary of State, and was informed the embassies will not show the film without permission, but that Johnson shouldn’t be too hasty and recall it, as Rusk had sent out a cable asking for the embassies to view the film and report their thoughts about it to the Department.

View a complete transcript of this conversation at the Miller Center. 

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February 8, 1964: LBJ calls Texas Governor John Connally (D).

 

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Johnson calls Connally, a former aide and long-time friend, originally to check in on the confirmation for a new president for Johnson’s alma mater, Southwest Texas Teachers’ College. In a meandering conversation, he eventually complains about The March, saying it ought to be recalled but that he could not order a recall due to the politics surrounding it, the Civil Rights Movement, and his own Southern roots. Connally expresses no opinion on the film.

View a complete transcript of this conversation at the Miller Center.

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February 25, 1964, 10:30 AM: US Senate Committee for Foreign Relations holds Carl Rowan’s confirmation hearing.

   

Bourke Hickenlooper (R-IA), chairman of the Republican Policy Committee and former US representative to the UN General Assembly, grills the famous journalist and Johnson’s choice to head the USIA Carl Rowan over whether or not he would have ambassadors screen The March, stating that “I can imagine no propaganda weapon that could be so powerful in the hands of Communists as that film, if it were shown.”[2] Hickenlooper’s remarks fuel a minor national media outcry, centered around the beliefs that the USIA was damaging the reputation of the United States abroad and that Rowan, as a Black man and author of books critical of racial inequalities in the South such as South of Freedom and Go South to Sorrow, could not be an unbiased spokesman for the US due to his “emotional opinions” on civil rights.

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February 25, 1964, 12:32 PM: LBJ calls Senator Hubert Humphrey (D-MN).

 

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Johnson asks Humphrey’s opinion on how Rowan’s confirmation hearing went. In doing so, Johnson is also measuring his own success in neutralizing political threats and in garnering support. This is an opportunity to see how much influence he wields in the Foreign Affairs Committee. Humphrey, a civil-rights proponent and the Senate Majority Whip, says that the hearing went well and that Rowan handled himself very well, and that he expects Rowan’s confirmation to go forward without opposition.

View a complete transcript of this conversation at the Miller Center.

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References

[1] Menand, Louis. “How Women Got in on the Civil Rights Act: Uncovering the Alternative History of Women’s Rights” in The New Yorker. Conde Nast, July 21, 2014, web. URL: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/07/21/sex-amendment

[2] “US Senate Report of Proceedings, Hearing Held before Committee on Foreign Relations–Nominations: Carl Rowan, of Minnesota; William S. Gaud, of Connecticut; William B. Macomber, Jr., of New York; Howard E. Hagerud, of Minnesota,” February 25, 1964, Ward & Paul (DC), 19.