Prologue Magazine

LBJ Fights the White Backlash

The Racial Politics of the 1964 Presidential Campaign

Spring 2001, Vol. 33, No. 1

By Jeremy D. Mayer

© 2001 by Jeremy D. Mayer

1964 Democratic Convention The 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, NJ. (NARA, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library)

"If we have to get elected on civil rights, then we're already defeated . . . unless we can get the campaign on some other basis, why it is just going to be agonizing."
- Lyndon B. Johnson, July 24, 19641

It was the summer of 1964, and Lyndon Johnson was scared. Having just achieved one of the greatest congressional victories in history by passing the Civil Rights Act (CRA) over the strident objections of his native South, Johnson was now confronted by black riots in several urban centers. He feared that his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, would exploit the racial turmoil by appealing to the white backlash. The riots were even labeled "Goldwater rallies" since the conflagrations helped the GOP so directly. Would racial politics cost LBJ the White House?

Both Johnson and Goldwater would face several tests of their character in the long election season of 1964, tests involving the CRA, urban riots, the George Wallace candidacy, and the white backlash. The election of 1964 is considered by many to be the most racially polarized presidential contest in modern American history. As such, it has been seen as a watershed in the evolution of our two-party system in recent times.2 Yet what has been missed in previous analyses of 1964 is how assiduously both Goldwater and Johnson worked to take race off the agenda. Johnson believed that if the election became a referendum on civil rights, he might lose. Goldwater believed that history would judge him harshly if his campaign blatantly exploited the racial hatred of whites.

Still, despite these efforts, the racial implications of the 1964 campaign would linger for decades. The first Southerner to occupy the White House for more than a hundred years lost the heart of his region, signaling the dawn of an era of Republican dominance of the South in presidential politics. The first man of Jewish descent to run on a major ticket 3 would lead the Republican Party into a monochromatic whiteness from which it has not yet recovered. After 1964, Democrats could take the black vote for granted as the GOP became the party through which whites expressed their unease over black progress. The contest between Johnson and Goldwater shaped American racial politics for the next thirty-six years.

The Setting: 1964 as Johnson's "Given Moment"

As the 1964 election season opened, the contrast with the same period in 1960 could not have been more stark. The 1960 election between Nixon and Kennedy had pitted two advocates of civil rights against each other, but the issue was far from central to American politics. In 1964, race was the dominant issue in domestic politics, as it had not been since Reconstruction.4 The heightened prominence given to civil rights in 1964 was produced by three key factors. First, the direct action tactics of the newly invigorated civil rights movement had, since 1960, focused the attention of the nation on the problems of Jim Crow.5 President Kennedy also helped put race at the center of American politics. The favorite candidate of many segregationists in 1960 had gradually become the greatest presidential rhetorician on race since Lincoln. After two years of delay, 1963 finally saw the Kennedy administration moving forward on integration.6 The white backlash against Kennedy was bitter; a movie marquee in Georgia for Kennedy's PT-109 movie read "See the Japs Almost Get Kennedy."7

Yet neither of these two factors was as important as the decisive role of Lyndon Johnson. Johnson made Kennedy's Civil Rights Act the centerpiece of the slain President's legacy. As one of his key black supporters noted, Johnson had a knack for using the "given moments" to get legislation through Congress.8 Kennedy's sudden martyrdom was one such moment, and Johnson marshaled all of his formidable legislative skill in making the most of it. The CRA, with its broad indictment of discriminatory practices in public accommodations, threatened to alter the entire segregationist social system of the South, as well as the rest of the nation. The immense press coverage of the battle, and the sloganeering on all sides, could not help but produce national attention to the issue of civil rights on the eve of the election.

The Candidates: LBJ

Today, Lyndon Johnson is recognized as one of the greatest proponents of racial equality to ever occupy the Oval Office. Yet his selection as Vice President and his later ascension to the presidency were greeted with great apprehension by a number of leading figures in the civil rights movement.9 As a white Southerner, Johnson faced a credibility problem with many blacks. Despite coaching, Johnson had difficulty pronouncing "Negro" in a way that did not remind listeners of a poisonous homophone.10 His record was, however, very good for a Southern politician in his era. Early in his career, LBJ had been a quiet integrationist as the head of a National Youth Administration program.11 I n Congress, although Johnson often voted against efforts to stop lynching and poll taxes,12 within the context of the South at that time, he was a moderate on civil rights. Once ensconced as majority leader of the Senate, Johnson would shift on civil rights, from moderate opposition to cautious support. Johnson was one of only two Southern senators to refuse to sign the Southern Manifesto in 1956, a high-profile act that began to establish his credentials with national blacks. Johnson guided the passage of the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction in 1957, in the belief that blacks would vote Republican in 1960 unless the Democrats gave them civil rights legislation.13 J ohnson also saw personal benefits; he believed throughout his career that if he wished to become a national leader, he would have to leave segregation behind.14

In the 1960 election, Johnson did not cater to regional prejudices. He endorsed civil rights, if vaguely, in nearly every speech in the South. Once in office, Johnson did not alter his course. "Until justice is blind to color, until education is unaware of race, until opportunity is unconcerned with the color of men's skins, emancipation will be a proclamation but not a fact."15 Civil rights was one of the few areas in which Johnson exercised much power under JFK.16 I n the first two weeks after the assassination, Johnson established a radically different tone from JFK's first cautious months in office by meeting individually with King and other black leaders.17 He signaled to Congress and the nation that civil rights would be a top priority, and he never wavered in that commitment, even when he faced the rising white backlash of the summer of 1964.18

The Candidates: Barry Goldwater

Growing up in Arizona, Barry Goldwater knew very few African Americans, but nevertheless Goldwater endorsed integration in his family business and the Arizona National Guard, and even joined the NAACP.19 Goldwater believed throughout his life that blacks and whites were equal before the law, and in his major book, The Conscience of A Conservative, he made clear his personal view that the races were equal. However, Goldwater had a narrow definition of what federal civil rights were and what actions the national government could take in their defense. Goldwater's distaste for government would almost always trump his personal belief in racial equality. As one biographer concluded: "Throughout his life, he would accommodate the bigotry of others while personally distancing himself from it."20

After 1960, Goldwater was convinced that Nixon had lost because of his civil rights advocacy, and Goldwater began encouraging his party to peel off Southern whites on the basis of racial politics. In a speech to the Georgia State Republican Party, Goldwater pushed the abandonment of the black vote. "We ought to forget the big cities. We can't out-promise the Democrats. . . . I would like to see our party back up on school integration."21 Yet while he fought federal efforts at school integration, Goldwater also criticized the Justice Department for not prosecuting voting rights violations in the South, because these were federal civil rights.22 Goldwater persistently accused the Democratic Party of either being the party of racism or the party of hypocrisy on race.23

Goldwater, never a racist, would eventually appeal to racism in his run for the White House. Yet before Goldwater won the Republican nomination with a campaign predicated on stealing the segregationist South from the Democrats, an uncomplicated and unabashed racist firebrand would demonstrate that fear, animosity, and resentment of blacks were not limited to the white South.

The Democratic Primaries and the Civil Rights Act of 1964

George Corley Wallace, a segregationist governor of Alabama, had been pondering a race for the White House for some time, hoping to exploit Johnson's leftward tilt on civil rights and other domestic issues. Wallace had been an early fan of Kennedy and supported him in 1956 and 1960.24 By 1963, Wallace was a strident opponent of Kennedy, and had taken office as governor with a ringing endorsement of "segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!" The speech brought national attention to the young pugilistic governor, and Wallace began hinting that he might run for President.25

Few believed that a vociferous Southern racist would attract Northern votes, even from whites with doubts about civil rights. Yet in Indiana and Wisconsin, Wallace scored extraordinary numbers, receiving over 30 percent of the Democratic vote.26 With the Maryland primary coming up, Johnson worried that Wallace might hurt him greatly. As Johnson put it "Alabama is coming into Maryland, Alabama is going into Indiana."27 Wallace's success at selling the white South's view of race to frightened Northerners would shape much of the 1964 campaign.28 Despite Johnson's efforts, Wallace received 43 percent of the Maryland vote. Moreover, Johnson's narrow victory was only made possible by a doubling in black turnout and by what historian Dan Carter calls "creative vote totals" from Baltimore.29 Wallace eventually dropped out of the race, but his strong showing in three Northern states against a popular incumbent President demonstrated that the white backlash was dangerous to Democrats.

Given Wallace's stunning performance, Johnson might have moderated his stance on the Civil Rights Act. Yet even as Wallace was barnstorming against Johnson, LBJ spoke out in Maryland and Georgia against prejudice and racism. Far from moderating his liberalism in the face of the Wallace challenge, Johnson chose this time to announce his plans for a "Great Society" of equality and opportunity.30 More important, Johnson continued to press Congress for passage of the CRA, refusing to make major changes to co-opt wavering conservatives and Southerners. In a seminal moment in congressional history, a coalition of Northern Democrats and nearly all Republicans defeated a filibuster by Southern Democrats in the Senate on June 10.31 F ew Presidents have shown so much courage in the five months before an election.

Goldwater's Nomination Victory: Using Race Against Rockefeller

At the onset of the 1964 primary season, the Republican Party was gravely divided on matters of race. The Republican National Committee attacked the Democrats from the left on civil rights, pointing out that the 1957 and the 1960 civil rights bills were supported by far higher percentages of Republicans. They used old quotes from LBJ's segregationist days to vilify him for either racism or hypocrisy and excoriated Kennedy's delay in desegregating federal housing and in proposing his civil rights bill on accommodations.32 The RNC also studied ways to take the black vote back. Republicans were also, however, expanding their outreach to the South.33 Whatever the practicality of attempting both stratagems simultaneously, the emphasis on minority outreach does suggest that the national Republicans had not yet given up on black Republicans.34

If the Republican Party was somewhat incoherent on civil rights, there was little question where Barry Goldwater stood. As Goldwater emerged as the candidate of an increasingly radical Republican right, the plausibility of his candidacy rested upon his popularity in the South and West. The West would be won on the basis of strident anti-federal government rhetoric, but the Goldwater strategy in the South always relied on the white backlash vote. As a Goldwater adviser said days before Kennedy's assassination, the hope for victory lay in a backlash against civil rights, even though "I hate to win on that basis."35

Goldwater had to contend for the nomination with a number of other party figures, each more liberal on racial equality than he was. Indeed, one of them, Nelson Rockefeller, remained one of the most prominent civil rights proponents in either party, even providing direct financial support to controversial figures like King.36 Goldwater's opposition to civil rights was the key to his victory because he won the South's delegates, the only candidate to win an entire region. Lincoln's party had been the home of the few Southern blacks allowed to vote, and as Goldwater took the nomination, black Republicans became an endangered species. In Georgia, the triumph of the Goldwater supporters at the state convention led to the virtual elimination of blacks from leadership positions.37 In some states, the Goldwaterites were explicitly and unabashedly racist.38 Goldwater, however, continued to argue implausibly that his victory was nonracial.

Just as Johnson faced the test of working for the CRA while fighting off George Wallace, Senator Goldwater was confronted with the bill as he battled his Republican rivals and prepared for the convention. Goldwater, in a moment of high symbolism, cast his vote with the Southern Democrats against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, in opposition to the majority of his own party and against the advice of top Republican leaders.39 It was this vote, more than anything else, that ignited the opposition of the Republican establishment of Rockefeller, Lodge, and Scranton.40 Yet it came too late to spur Goldwater's competitors to unify behind one moderate candidate.

Goldwater made special appeals to Southern Republicans on civil rights and law and order, statements that were designed to play on the white backlash. His speech in May in Columbus, Georgia, reeked of obsequious deference to Jim Crow. Goldwater bemoaned the "distinct cultural loss" caused by federal intervention and centralization.41 The speech had a preface, written especially for a Southern audience, that linked federal civil rights laws to violence in the streets. Goldwater did not limit his backlash themes to the South. In a speech at Madison Square Garden in May, Goldwater proclaimed:

Where are the states which today are witnessing the most violence? . . . the very states where there is the most talk about brotherhood and the very least opportunity for achieving it. I sadly remind you that we are seeing violence today in those very states which are proving that new laws alone are not the answer. There are too many of the old laws which aren't even working!42

Goldwater's rhetoric on race worked in primaries North and South, wherever the white backlash could be found.

By the opening of the Republican convention, Goldwater had the nomination. However, the specter of an independent Wallace candidacy haunted the Goldwater forces. Wallace could end any hope of a Goldwater victory, given Wallace's cross-regional appeal to racists. Ultimately, Wallace did give up all third party aspirations, claiming that he had already succeeded in putting states' rights on the agenda.43 S ince only the Republicans were talking states' rights, they could naturally expect to inherit Wallace's followers.

The decision to put Goldwater atop the ticket did not automatically result in an anti - civil rights platform. A number of prominent figures, including King, spoke to the platform committee advocating a strong civil rights plank.44 The backlash forces could not be as direct in their advocacy. White backlash was "the unspoken watchword of the 1964 convention . . . articulated only occasionally in soft whispers . . . but the presence of the white backlash tactic was felt all last week as the platform committee drafted the weakest Republican civil rights plank in memory."45 The platform drafts indicate how sharply the issue of race was dividing the Republicans. Some called for the repeal of the 1964 CRA; others advocated going beyond it. One idea that made the final draft was a roadmap for future Republican campaigns against racial preferences:

Finally, consistent with its historic opposition to racial discrimination, the Republican Party pledges its equal opposition to the rapidly evolving threats of inverse discrimination. A Republican Administration would oppose the shifting of jobs on the basis of arbitrary racial quotas, and also would oppose the abandonment of neighborhood schools, to meet racial quotas, or Federal pressure to force local authorities to bar children from attending the school nearest their home.46

Even the strong section endorsing voting rights had some plums for conservatives and backlashers since it discussed the dangers of fraud. As was seen first in the 1964 campaign, a national ballot security campaign could become a technique to depress black turnout.47 Overall, while the platform did not call for the revocation of the 1964 CRA and did endorse voting rights for blacks,48 t he differences in tone and content with the Democratic platform was stark. The Republicans clearly hoped to benefit among whites in the North and South on the basis of moderation and caution on civil rights. As the convention closed, Goldwater faced much criticism for the role that the white backlash had played in his victory and in his campaign's plans for November. An editorial warned, "A truly national party cannot afford to be lily white, nor can a truly conservative cause. . . . Goldwater's grave danger, and his party's, is that he or his supporters may be tempted to bid for this ugly and silent vote."49 The truth was, Goldwater had been planning to bid for that ugly vote for at least four years. In the next few weeks, however, Goldwater would demonstrate that there were limits to his willingness to court the backlash.

The Riots of Summer: Goldwater Surprises LBJ

The riots of 1964 have been largely forgotten in the wake of the much greater riots that came after, but for much of the summer, riots were news across the country, particularly in the East. Two weeks after the greatest legislative victory for racial equality since Reconstruction, Harlem erupted in rioting. In the fires and deaths in Harlem, some saw the end of racial liberalism. As Johnson intimate John Connally asked LBJ: "New York, what the hell are they rioting for?" Connally listed all the legislative protections that New York blacks enjoyed, including integrated schools and anti-discrimination laws.50 Johnson's fears of a white backlash, already primed by Wallace's primary challenge, reached a fever pitch at this point. "If they just keep on rioting in Harlem you are going to have unshirted Hell, and you're going to have it in New York, you're going to have the same type of rebellion there, and in Chicago and Iowa . . . this thing runs deep. You're going to see more cross-voting this year."51 It was not just political elites who immediately put urban unrest in the context of the upcoming presidential election. When hundreds of young Italian Americans challenged blacks picketing police headquarters in New York City, many of the whites carried Goldwater signs.52 Johnson called in the top leadership of the civil rights organizations and begged them to stop the riots and to call a moratorium on demonstrations until after the election; most agreed.53 Johnson believed whites were watching closely to see if the administration treated riots by blacks in the North as seriously as white racism in the South.54

At this moment of high tension, Barry Goldwater made a decision starkly at odds with the common perception of his campaign as racist; he offered to come to the White House to discuss the riot crisis. Johnson's initial response was one of grave suspicion. "Nothing good can come of that. . . . He wants to use this forum, he wants to encourage the backlash, that's where his future is, it's not in peace and harmony." So suspicious was the President that he suggested the FBI investigate whether Goldwater or his associates were actually behind the riots.55 " It's not our friends . . . that's going around stirring these things up, and let's leave the impression that he is, without saying so."56

However, when the two men met briefly at the White House, even Johnson was forced to concede that Goldwater gave little evidence of playing to the white backlash:

He came in, just wanted to tell me . . . that he was a half-Jew, and that he didn't want to do anything that would contribute to any riots or disorders or bring about any violence, because of his ancestry he was aware of the problems that existed in that field and he didn't want to say anything that would make them any worse . . . thought he could have used it, I thought their intent was to use the White House as some kind of launching pad.57

In this and other discussions of his brief meeting with Goldwater, the surprise in Johnson's voice is evident, particularly when compared to the suspicion and venom in his earlier discussions of Goldwater's putative motives.58 The two men issued a joint statement to the press, foreswearing the use of the riots for political gain, helping to remove the riots from the campaign discourse.

LBJ Seats the Segs: The Democratic Convention

Now that the Republicans had nominated Goldwater, an easy victory for LBJ seemed inevitable. Johnson, however, continued to worry that racial unrest could damage his chances. Shortly after the riots had subsided, Johnson confronted the potential for racial conflict at the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City. Given its close proximity to centers of black population, Johnson was worried about picketing by angry black demonstrators. The spark that could set off the powder keg was the conflict over segregated Southern delegations. "If they have a hundred thousand Negroes up there . . . and they picket this thing . . . and then the convention kicks them [segregationist delegations] out, the impression throughout the country is going to be, well, they just got kicked out because the niggers wanted them kicked out," Connally told the President.59 Both Alabama and Mississippi had run segregated primaries, and SNCC activists had organized a counter-party in Mississippi called the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). They demanded seats at the convention as well as the rejection of the segregationist Democrats.60

Johnson had reports from Connally and others that the failure to seat the segregated delegations would have ramifications far beyond those two states. If Alabama and Mississippi are not seated, "all hell will break loose" in South Carolina, Virginia, Florida, and other Southern states.61 But Johnson also worried that some Northern delegations would object to the seating of all-white Southern slates.

You got Wagner [mayor of New York] and Daley [mayor of Chicago] . . . and Pat Brown [governor of California], you got about eight big states there, no none of them can go back home having embraced anything about Mississippi or Alabama because it's just fighting language with the people who make up their party . . . they can't go back home and say, "by God . . . I seated these people that have been killing all these other people" . . . [but] we can't go back home if they seat a bunch of niggers.62

Johnson rejected meeting with King to defuse the situation because, as an adviser put it, that would be "an unnecessary affront to a large number of people at this particular time."63 As the convention opened, the conflict over segregated delegations remained unresolved. Johnson enlisted the FBI in a massive surveillance campaign, both to keep outside demonstrators from the convention site and to monitor the progress of the negotiations.64 Johnson had the FBI wiretap the phones of MFDP delegates, King, and Rustin, and followed their strategies carefully.65 In their presentation to the credentials committee, the MFDP scored a public relations victory with the riveting testimony of Fannie Lou Hamer. On national television, Hamer described in vivid detail the murder of Medgar Evers and the brutality she herself had faced in her attempts to vote. So damaging to party unity did Johnson consider Hamer's speech that he chose to interrupt her nationally televised testimony by making "impromptu" remarks to the convention, thus cutting live network coverage of Hamer.66

The MFDP demanded that they be seated, while the Mississippi whites were equally intransigent. Johnson dispatched Hubert Humphrey to negotiate a compromise. Ultimately, the Mississippi segregationists were seated in full, while the MFDP was given two voting seats plus a promise that the 1968 delegations would be integrated. Johnson bent over backwards to accommodate conservative whites but still had to work to sell the compromise to whites as well as to the MFDP's dispirited leadership.67 Johnson was also furious at the pictures of dissension that were featured on all three networks. With his three Oval Office television sets blaring in the background, Johnson demanded that his aide Walter Jenkins stop the black Freedom delegates from taking the seats of the Mississippi regulars.68 He told another aide to do something to get conservative white Democrats on the television instead of complaining liberals like Edith Green and Joe Rauh.69 LBJ had shifted from worrying about the response of liberal Northerners to the seating of segregationists to worrying about the backlash among whites everywhere if angry blacks and their white supporters dominated the convention coverage.

I think the Negroes are going back to Reconstruction period, they're going to set themselves back a hundred years . . . and I'm just trying to get a vice president for them . . . and here these folks go get everybody upset. . . . Hell, the Northerners are more upset . . . they wire me to tell me the Negroes are taking over the country, they're running the White House, they're running the Democratic Party . . . it's not Mississippi and Alabama anymore . . . you're catching hell from Michigan, Ohio, Philadelphia, New York, that nearly every white man in this country would be frightened if he thought the Negroes were going to take him over. . . . We can't ever buy spots that'll equal this. . . . We've got five million budgeted but we can't undo what they've done these past few days.70

Simultaneously, Johnson was also faced with picking a vice president. The plea from South Carolina Democrats to LBJ was typical: "Please, please, anybody but Kennedy or Humphrey."71 Humphrey, perhaps the greatest advocate of civil rights in politics at the time, was anathema to the white South and a hero to the civil rights movement. Johnson dangled the carrot of Humphrey's nomination in front of the MFDP at the convention as a reward if they knuckled under to the compromise and, conversely, threatened them with a less pro-civil rights nominee if they did not agree.72 In the face of the brewing white backlash, Johnson chose one of the few men whose civil rights history could surpass his own recently improved record. As he had with the CRA, Johnson chose to confront the backlash.

LBJ Fights the White Backlash, Part 2


Jeremy D. Mayer is an assistant professor of political science at Kalamazoo College. He is the author of Running on Race: Racial Politics in Presidential Campaigns, 1960 - 2000, forthcoming from Random House.

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.