"Just the Meanest, Dirtiest, Low-Down Stuff That I've Ever Heard": Lyndon Johnson, Voter Intimidation, and the 1964 Election
In this election year, many citizens may take for granted their right to vote. While allegations of minority voter disenfranchisement persist from the controversial 2000 election, and fears about errors in touch-screen voting machines continue to cause worry among many, the public can generally expect to cast their ballot without incident. Yet exactly forty years ago, events surrounding the election of 1964 place our present definitions of voter suppression and racial discrimination in stark perspective. The Democratic Party was irreparably fragmented due to the disparate visions held by Northern liberals and Southern Democrats on the issue of civil rights. In August 1964 at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, the overwhelming majority of the ‘lily-white’ state delegations of Mississippi and Alabama stormed out, resentful of the party’s civil rights platform. Their departure left scant few loyalists to declare for President Johnson. Other southern states such as Louisiana and Arkansas sympathized with the ostracized delegations and threatened to walk out in protest as well.
Voter registration drives throughout the Freedom Summer of 1964 exacerbated racial tensions across the South. Although many local organizations engaged in registration efforts, the most dangerous activities occurred in the rural Deep South, especially in Mississippi and Alabama. The most prominent enterprise was run by the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) in Mississippi, which brought together civil rights groups such as SNCC, CORE, SCLC, and the NAACP. One of the outgrowths of their efforts was the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. A conservative coalition rose up in retaliation, featuring the Ku Klux Klan, the Citizen’s Councils, segregationist politicians such as Governor George Wallace of Alabama, and local law enforcement. This coalition terrorized the black population mercilessly, targeting black demonstrators and student activists using threats, economic repercussions, arrests, and ultimately violence to prevent their gaining a voice in government. These tactics were especially effective in Mississippi, where out of a total black population of 450,000, only 28,000 were registered to vote in 1964. The night of June 21 in Neshoba County Mississippi stands as one of the most publicized incidents of racial violence when the local Sheriff arrested three civil rights workers for speeding, and incarcerated them pending ‘further investigation.' Suspiciously, after the three COFO workers were released, Klan members immediately confronted them and executed them, burying the bodies in a cattle pond dam. The FBI∇ later uncovered a conspiracy between the Klan and the Sheriff’s department, and arrested 21 suspects including the Sheriff and Deputy Sheriff of Neshoba County.
The most extreme cases of racial tension were found in the Deep South; but even in Georgia, the Carolinas, and President Johnson’s home state of Texas, white supremacists attempted to stymie the enfranchisement of the black population. In the three following conversations, President Johnson expressed his outrage at their tactics. A few weeks before the November election in a call to Charles Guy, an editor of the local Lubbock Avalanche Journal, President Johnson bemoaned the continuing adversarial attitude of the South. A day before the call, Lady Bird had concluded her historic whistle-stop tour of eight southern states—on a train dubbed the Lady Bird Special—where she gave almost fifty speeches in almost fifty different towns. At several train stops, such as Charleston South Carolina, hecklers booed Lady Bird so loudly that her speech was inaudible.
Charles Guy : How’re you . . . How is Mrs. Johnson? That trip all right?
President Johnson : [with Guy assenting periodically] She had to . . . Oh, they heckled her a lot. There were pretty ugly in South Carolina, and so forth. But it was a wonderful trip; it was just a great one. We didn’t want those people to think that we didn’t care, we didn’t want them to think they were left out. When a child gets to feel like he’s hurt and mistreated, he goes off from home and he don’t come back, and we didn’t want that to happen. And . . .
So we love those people. We just thought the only thing to do was go to tell them we loved them. Even though they can’t vote for you in Alabama; they won’t even put our name on the ticket. We didn’t cause this; they had that damn bill before I ever came in there! Kennedy submitted this bill, and it already passed the tough . . . part: the Judiciary Committee and the Rules Committee. So I just sat there and when it was approved, signed it. I haven’t interfered with anybody. I’ve talked to every governor before I’ve done anything. I’ve integrated their schools.[i] We’ve had not one incident since I’ve been in: I think I know how to handle the South. I haven’t caused them any trouble, or sent in any troops, or ordered in any…They killed three people, which was just the most aggravating…
Guy : Yeah, that was pretty bad.
President Johnson : …thing in the world, in Mississippi. But then I sent in a bunch of little Navy boys a blouse on—looked like women. And they worked with the Governor, and he was just as happy with it as he could be. The FBI boys, they didn’t have a pistol on but they uncovered it, and it was the Klan. And this Klan and [John] Birchite thing is awfully bad.[ii] We’ve got some terrible things on the Birch Society. They’re almost advocating overthrow.
Guy : Is that right?
President Johnson : They’re just [unclear]—Oh yeah. Its running deep and they’re getting worse. And last week CBS exposed that Goldwater∇ had taken a position with them, and gone on their summit committee to keep Eisenhower from giving away the country to Khrushchev! And he admitted it! [Guy coughs] And [Robert] Welch called him and got him to do it! So he’s tied right in with them, and you’ve got a cancer here but the people don’t know it. I haven’t been exposing it because I don’t believe in getting in personally.
Tape WH6410.08, Citation #5874, Recordings of Telephone Conversations – White House Series, Recordings and Transcripts of Conversations and Meetings, Lyndon B. Johnson Library. Draft Transcript for the forthcoming book, Crisis of Victory: Lyndon B. Johnson, the Politics of Race, and the White House Tapes, 1964-1966, edited by Kent Germany and David Carter ( Auburn University).
[i] For discussions of integrating public schools in Alabama, see conversations between President Johnson and Robert Kennedy∇ and Burke Marshall, 4 and 5 February 1964, Citations #1881 and #1892,Tape WH6402.05,
[ii] Founded by Robert Welch, the John Birch Society was a virulently anti-communist, right-wing organization named after a Baptist missionary reputedly murdered in China. They were ardent critics of President Johnson and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and they entertained a mutually beneficial relationship with Goldwater in his presidential campaign. See Jonathan Schoenwald, A Time for Choosing: The Rise of Modern American Conservatism ( New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).
Johnson’s concern about the Goldwater campaign’s use of racial propaganda and intimidation continued. Almost two week’s after the Charles Guy conversation, the President updated McGeorge Bundy, the special assistant for national security. Johnson was incensed by a political ad that claimed the Civil Rights Act could be used to discriminate against the white workforce, targeting the white laborer or small business owner. Goldwater’s propagandists often successfully exploited the racial issue to undermine the working class support of Democrats. This message galvanized many white employers in the South, who on November 3 kept black employees working overtime to prevent them from casting their ballots.
President Johnson: Pretty good, I would say so-so. We’ve got troubles in Tennessee, but we may make it unless the segregation thing gets a lot [unclear]. They’re getting real mean. They—
Bundy: I bet they are.
President Johnson: They’ve got a[n] ad out in Texas today that we got them to kill like the film.[i] They’ve got a nice, fine looking—
Bundy: Is this the black boy taking the white boy’s job?
President Johnson: Yeah, did you see that?
Bundy: I read about it in the tickers. They got [unclear]—
President Johnson: It’s the most revolting thing in the world. If we have a publicity department worth a good God-damn, it’d be on the front page of every paper! [reading] “LBJ’s Civil Rights Bill and You: Employees Read This.” Then they’ve got a fine-looking, honest, clean, pink-cheeked boy. They’ve got “Fired” under him in a square, right under him. Then they’ve got an arrogant-looking Negro boy with his teeth showing, grinning—
Bundy: Oh great.
President Johnson: —says “Hired.” And it says “Employees Read This.” Let me see what it says. [reading] “[Unclear]...Negro youth marked hired and unhappy white youth labor fired.” [Bundy chuckles in exasperation] “The telegram made public” . . . Lets see . . . [unclear] . . . “Did you know that Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Bill can get you fired from your job and give it to a person of another race, no matter what ability you have to do your job, or how much seniority you have on your job? You can lose your job because Johnson’s Civil Rights Bill: This is your last chance. Vote to put an end to racial favoritism. Vote to protect your job. Vote to protect your family. Vote to protect your home. Employers read this. This is your last chance, save your freedom to run your own business as you choose.”
Bundy: It couldn’t be dirtier. Well, I think it will get publicity, because like I said I was looking at the tickers for other things, and I ran across it. But it certainly needs to be pushed.
Tape WH6410.14, Citation #5962, Recordings of Telephone Conversations – White House Series, Recordings and Transcripts of Conversations and Meetings, Lyndon B. Johnson Library.
[i] President Johnson refers here to a 30 minute film produced by the National Citizen’s for Goldwater-Miller organization, which implied that Johnson led a morally deteriorating nation. Filled with a healthy smattering of pornographic pictures, the documentary accused the President of drinking and driving, and alleged that his administration was corrupt from the top down. It was scheduled to be aired on NBC, but was pulled after Democrats condemned the hypocrisy of the salacious documentary that claimed to defend morality.
In another instance, fliers were distributed in Houston, Texas and other cities in the South warning black voters that if they have had any altercations with the law, even a minor offense such as a parking ticket, that they would have to see the local Sheriff prior to casting their ballot. Such scare tactics targeted first time, black voters in the South, many of whom would rather not vote than confront the Sheriff under those circumstances. One such handbill read as follows, “If any voters or members of their family who are planning to vote Tuesday are wanted by law-enforcement officials for the following offenses, information has been received that a list of voters has been drawn to be arrested after voting…1.Traffic tickets. 2. Speeding or negligent collision tickets. 3. Parking tickets…5. Questioning by the police for any offense.” These were printed under the benevolent title, the Negro Protective League. Upon investigation, Democratic officials reported that no organization by that name ever existed in Houston. Johnson brought up the matter with his running mate late in the afternoon on election day.
President Johnson: I know you seemed like you had wonderful crowds.
Hubert Humphrey: Yes sir, we surely did. And I stopped by in Salt Lake City on the way home, just to get in another punch or two on some statewide TV.[i] I was very careful, and very restrained. I didn’t go on any attack. I just talked about the issue of public morality in terms of public service.
President Johnson: Oh Hubert, I wish you would see what these sons-of-bitches have done! They bought four full-page ads in most papers: some of them just got twelve pages, some sixteen. Four full pages in this state, and its all integrity, and morality, and Baker, and Jenkins, and Billy Sol Estes.[ii]
Humphrey: I know they had five full pages in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday. Five full pages!
President Johnson: And they’ve got out a[n] instruction from the Negro Protective League. That says if any Negro goes and votes, that the Protective League just wants to inform him as their friend that if he’s ever had a traffic ticket, if he’s ever been under suspicion, if he’s ever been speeding, if he’s ever had an over-parking ticket, if he ever hasn’t paid his taxes on time, if he’s ever been discharged from employment, that he’ll have to report right away to the Sheriff, and that these things will have to be settled before they can clear his record to vote.
President Johnson: They put those out in all southern cities, just the meanest, dirtiest, low-down stuff that I’ve ever heard. Ought to go to jail for it. It’s just inhuman!
Humphrey: Well, they’ve been doing it. I tell you, they were doing it out in the Mexican areas, the same thing in California. I made several talks and TV appearances on the Los Angeles stations. I got some good cooperation from the news commentators, letting them know that these people know that no one had the right to interfere with their right to vote, and that the Justice Department was standing by to make sure that the citizens’ rights were being upheld. We called Nick Katzenbach∇, and as you know, he issued some statement to the effect that the Justice Department was standing by to make sure that there was no interference with the citizens’ right to vote.
Tape WH6411.01, Citation #6121, Recordings of Telephone Conversations – White House Series, Recordings and Transcripts of Conversations and Meetings, Lyndon B. Johnson Library.
[i] Working with Senator Frank Moss (D-Utah), Johnson had carefully cultivated contacts within the Mormon Church in an attempt to win over voters in Utah. See several conversations on 25 and 30 January 1964, Citations #1567, #1573, and #1661, WH6401.22 and WH6401.25.
[ii] These three men were each involved in a separate scandal during the early Johnson administration. Billy Sol Estes was a Texas businessman with links to Lyndon Johnson who was convicted of embezzling federal agricultural subsidies. Bobby Baker was secretary of the Senate who resigned in 1963 amid charges of using his office for illegal financial gain. A Senate inquiry into the matter dragged on for months afterward, and one witness implicated Johnson in a kickback scheme involving a home stereo. Walter Jenkins was a top White House aide who was accused in the weeks before the 1964 election of a homosexual encounter in a Washington D.C. public washroom. Jenkins resigned as a result of the charges.
In the days after the 1964 election, President Johnson asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation to scrutinize any blatant examples of voter discrimination in Nevada, and to oversee the counting of votes. The Democratic Senator won the election by a razor-thin majority, creating a situation particularly susceptible to influence and intimidation as had occurred in the South. Special Assistant Bill Moyers and ‘Deke’ DeLoach in the FBI expressed reservations of the Bureau taking this contentious new role. President Johnson was outraged that the FBI did not take these investigations seriously because the election had resulted overwhelmingly in their favor.
President Johnson: I talked to Cannon tonight. He has a majority of 169. I told him to be very careful to not to sacrifice any legal right he had. If there is any intimidation or any fraud involved, to notify the FBI so that any federal law involved, they could investigate the facts. That’s about word for word about what I said to him. I would think that’s what he said to the other fella. I think the other fella may have interpreted this along the line Deke tells you. We don’t want them to break any tradition, do anything improper, and involve themselves politically for a Democrat or for a Republican. We do want them to be aware of any federal statute that may be violated, be alert to it, and be prepared to inquire or to determine—if it is—if they have any basis for believing it. Cannon is leading, and he’s certified and he’s got his votes. But if somebody tries to intimidate him or steal them, as they have been, all over Mississippi and all over Alabama and all over Louisiana: every federal law on the books is being violated! And people are not being brought to justice. And Texas. Yesterday in Texas, they put in every Negro’s home an “If you go vote, and you’ve had a traffic violation: you go to jail on it, or if you’ve ever had a speeding ticket, or if you’ve ever had a parking ticket, or if you’ve ever been late to work or stuff.” Did you see one of those?
Moyers: No, but I heard about it.
President Johnson: Well it’s just unthinkable! Well, the district attorney asked the FBI to investigate, and he gets . . . I don’t guess he gets much of a report back because the election is over with, but I don’t want to lose a Senatorship because we’re not alert.
Tape WH6411.06, Citation #6198, Recordings of Telephone Conversations – White House Series, Recordings and Transcripts of Conversations and Meetings, Lyndon B. Johnson Library.
The election of 1964 was in essence a national plebiscite on whether civil rights would advance or stagnate in the United States: whereas President Johnson had signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law, Senator Goldwater voted against it. The racial unrest fomenting in the 1960s sparked aggressive and violent tactics to limit black political participation, and in the Deep South, the white backlash was largely successful in their efforts. Yet while the localized violence and intimidation were able to contain black voter registration enough to guarantee that Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina would vote for Goldwater, Johnson carried every other state in 1964 except Goldwater’s home of Arizona. This was the second largest electoral margin of victory in history.
Voter intimidation is unfortunately not a thing of the past, a violent reaction to the turbulent era of civil rights, race riots and freedom summers. In August 2004, accusations of intimidation have risen in Orange County, Florida as state police allegedly investigating voter fraud used heavy handed tactics to discourage elderly, black get-out-the-vote leaders. Bob Herbert, in an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, charged that “state troopers have gone into the homes of elderly black voters in Orlando in a bizarre hunt for evidence of election fraud.” Democratic Florida Congressmen immediately came to the defense of minority voters in Orlando and called upon the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department to investigate, claiming “Injustice and voter intimidation are again showing their ugly faces in Florida. These tactics, possibly knowingly and thoughtfully orchestrated by the FDLE, echo our continuous struggle for voting rights and must be stopped. We request that the Department of Justice immediately investigate and prepare to enjoin this threatening behavior.” On the heels of a presidential election decided by mere hundreds in battleground states, the public should remain ever-vigilant against any attempt to deny the people the right to vote.
 James E. Chaney, a plasterer, Andrew Goodman, a student of Queens College, and Michael Schwerner, a field worker for the Congress of Racial Equality.
 As quoted by the New York Times, November 3, 1964.
 Bob Herbert, Voting While Black, New York Times, August 20, 2004. Refer also to A Chill in Florida in the New York Times, August 23, 2004.
 FDLE stand for Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
 Wednesday August 19 th, 2004 Congresswoman Corrine Brown, Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL), Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-FL), Rep. Robert Wexler (D-FL), Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), and Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-FL) public letter to the Justice Department, Civil Rights Division.
Robert DeRise is a Fourth-Year student at the University of Virginia double majoring in History and Foreign Affairs. In addition, he studied politics and history abroad at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Robert is a research assistant at the Miller Center's Presidential Recordings Program in the field of Civil Rights during the Johnson years and is currently transcribing tapes on the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Black, Earl and Merle Black. Politics and Society in the South. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.
Keyssar, Alexander. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. New York: Basic, 2000.
Kousser, J. Morgan. Colorblind Injustice: Minority Voting Rights and the Undoing of the Second Reconstruction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
Lawson, Steven F. Black Ballots: Voting Rights in the South, 1944-1969. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976; and Running for Freedom: Civil Rights and Black Politics in America since 1941. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.
Thernstrom, Abigail. Whose Votes Count?: Affirmative Action and Minority Voting Rights. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.
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