Exactly 50 years ago this week, on Jan 15, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson had a telephone conversation with Martin Luther King, Jr.
The conversation was ostensibly going to be about King’s proposal that Johnson should appoint a black person to a Cabinet-level post, according to the Miller Center at the University of Virginia.
Johnson — ever ambitious (some would say only ambitious) — monopolized the conversation almost completely. He wanted to discuss the Voting Rights Act, legislation he was touting to help poor blacks in America and much more.
At one point, Johnson — already a footnote in the 1960s — talked at King, who now has a federal holiday in his honor, urging King to be more like Adolf Hitler in order to make civil rights arguments.
Here’s the excerpt:
President Johnson: We want equality for all, and we can stand on that principle. But I think that you can contribute a great deal by getting your leaders and you yourself, taking very simple examples of discrimination where a man’s got to memorize [Henry Wadsworth] Longfellow or whether he’s got to quote the first 10 Amendments or he’s got to tell you what amendment 15 and 16 and 17 is, and then ask them if they know and show what happens. And some people don’t have to do that. But when a Negro comes in, he’s got to do it. And we can just repeat and repeat and repeat. I don’t want to follow [Adolf] Hitler, but he had a — he had a[n] idea…
Martin Luther King, Jr.: Yeah.
Johnson: …that if you just take a simple thing and repeat it often enough, even if it wasn’t true, why, people accept it. Well, now, this is true, and if you can find the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi, or Louisiana, or South Carolina, where… well, I think one of the worst I ever heard of is the president of the school at Tuskegee or the head of the government department there or something being denied the right to a cast a vote. And if you just take that one illustration and get it on radio and get it on television and get it in the pulpits, get it in the meetings, get it every place you can, pretty soon the fellow that didn’t do anything but follow… drive a tractor, he’s say, “Well, that’s not right. That’s not fair.”
Johnson: And then that will help us on what we’re going to shove through in the end.
King: Yes. You’re exactly right about that.
Johnson: And if we do that, we’ll break through as — it’ll be the greatest breakthrough of anything, not even excepting this 64 [Civil Rights] Act. I think the greatest achievement of my administration….
You can listen to and read the full transcript of the phone conversation between Johnson and King at the Miller Center website.