Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and former President Lyndon B. Johnson had an amicable relationship, even as King and others pressured Johnson to introduce new civil rights legislation, according to Andrew Young, former United Nations ambassador.
The second day of the Civil Rights Summit began with the “LBJ and MLK: Fulfilling a Promise, Realizing a Dream” panel, a discussion that featured Young, as well as LBJ’s special assistant Joseph Califano Jr. and historians Taylor Branch and Doris Kearns Goodwin.
“[Johnson originally] said, ‘I just don’t have the power,’” Young, who also served as a congressman and mayor of Atlanta, said. “I thought it was arrogant for him to say that … [but] we went to Selma on the second of January, and by the end of March the president had all the power he needed to get the Civil Rights Act introduced.”
Young said both Johnson and King were adept politicians, and he overheard phone calls between the two men that suggested they had a close relationship.
“I heard them on the phone talking like brothers, like pastor and member,” Young said.
According to Branch, people have disagreed about what Johnson’s views about race were — whether he changed his views over time, or if he consistently supported the enfranchisement of African-Americans.
“I think Johnson had an empathy his whole lifetime,” Branch said. “I think those were his sincere views, and my guess is that they were formed long before it was popular to believe they were there.”
Goodwin said although she knew Johnson only during the last few years of his life, it was clear he was proud of passing civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965.
“There was no question in the time I spent with him … he was proudest of the Civil Rights Act than anything he had ever done,” Goodwin said.
Branch said Johnson had several advantages that President Barack Obama does not, including an American public that possessed a patriotic sense of sacrifice and an optimistic attitude following World War II.
“To change the mood of the country from cynicism to optimism is not something that is wholly in the purview of the presidency,” Branch said.
Young said he thinks issues should not be considered on the basis of race.
“Looking back to everything I did to help people helped black and white people together,” Young said. “We’ve got to de-racialize these issues to get people to look at them a bit more objectively.”
Young said he thinks poor people of all ethnicities still struggle economically.
“We really still have to have a way to make democracy and free enterprise work for poor people of all dollars,” Young said. “We’ve come a long way. We’ve got a long way to go.”