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The MLK and LBJ Tapes

Desiree Cooper

Suzie Lechtenberg

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Desiree Cooper: This weekend is the start of Black History Month and we thought we'd take a look back at the working relationship between Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and President Lyndon B. Johnson. Both historical figures have been raised recently in the contest between Senators Clinton and Obama as they vie for the democratic presidential nomination. But we thought, what about it? How did President Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr., actually work together?

Joining us is historian Nick Kotz. He wrote a book called, "Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Laws that Changed America." Nick, welcome to Weekend America.

Nick Kotz: It's nice to be with you Desiree.

Now why don't we start by listening in on a conversation between President Johnson and Martin Luther King recorded on Jan. 15, 1965. Nick, what's going on in this conversation?

This is a wonderful conversation. This was Dr. King's 36th birthday. President Johnson called him up to congratulate him on his birthday. But he really called him up so they could put their heads together and figure out how to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act. At the time they had that conversation, the law was going nowhere in the Congress. The Southerners were blocking it.

And the bit we just listened to was Johnson telling Dr. King, "If we get this Voting Rights Law passed, it will solve a lot of your problems and the Southern politicians will be coming to you." The point was if African-Americans had the vote in the South, it would empower them in ways that could hardly be imagined. Dr. King answered by saying, "And President Johnson, if the black gets registered in the South, you'll be able to carry the five Southern states that you lost in the 1964 election."

That's a pretty powerful, strategic session. It makes me wonder, how closely did the two work together?

From the moment that President Kennedy was killed in November 1963, through the passage of the Voting Rights Act in August 1965, there was a fascinating working relationship between Johnson and King. They were not natural allies, and yet they needed each other. Johnson needed King to stir the country and put pressure on the streets. And King needed Johnson, who was a master at legislation, to get Congress to pass the law.

Nick, as a historian, listening back to these great giants in history talking, what does that bring up for you?

What it makes me think of, with a bit of regret, is that these were really giant leaders. They were giant leaders in a number of respects, and I'm talking about Dr. King, President Johnson, the Republican leaders in Congress, and the Democratic leaders in Congress. They were dealing with momentous issues: the Voting Rights Act; the 1964 Civil Rights Act; but beyond that, Medicare and Medicaid.

There were 15 to 20 momentous laws that really fundamentally changed the relationship between the federal government, the states and the people. And all of them were enacted in this brief window. And during this moment, it was a time for great leadership. They had the vision, they had the ability, and they had the will. When you listen to them talk and you see what they did, it makes you wonder, will we have this kind of leadership again.

Nick, thank you for sharing this insight with us.

You're very welcome.


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