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George Wallace - photo: Steve Schapiro

Johnson's speech was a political triumph, but his work was far from over. Martin Luther King was still planning a huge march from Selma to Montgomery. Alabama Governor George Wallace - a staunch segregationist - was worried about how to prevent racial violence without appearing to offer state protection for the civil rights marchers. He called President Johnson asking for help. Johnson's conversation with George Wallace echoed President John F. Kennedy's calls with Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett three years earlier. Johnson wanted to avoid sending federal troops to Alabama. He wanted Wallace to call out the Alabama National Guard to protect the marchers, an order Wallace was deeply reluctant to give. As a fellow Southerner, LBJ understood how much Wallace resented federal interference with Alabama's racial caste system. And while moderate Alabamans were ambivalent about segregation, Wallace still saw political gain in standing up to what many saw as heavy-handed tactics in Washington.

Rather than take on George Wallace alone, President Johnson enlisted a go-between, someone he thought Wallace would trust. The man was Buford Ellington, a former governor of Tennessee. On March 18, 1965, President Johnson asked Ellington to join him at the White House for a phone call with Wallace.

Listen to excerpt

LBJ: Governor? Glad to hear you.

GW: The court, as you know, has ordered this march…We've got hundreds of beatniks in front of my Capitol now…We hope that you might use your influence to at least make them have an orderly march…I know you don't want anything to happen that looks like a revolution. But if these people keep pouring in here, conducting themselves in the manner they are, why, it's going to take everybody in the country to stop something.

LBJ: When you talk about revolution, that really upsets us all.

GW: Mr. President, I do have revolutionaries down here.

LBJ: I know that. I understand that.

GW: I don't want anybody to get hurt. But I don't want to be in the position of intimating that I'm asking for federal troops. We have ministers down here that walk up and scratch the patrolmen on their hands. A Negro priest yesterday asked all the patrolmen what their wives were doing, whether some of their friends could have dates with their wives.

LBJ: I might issue a statement later today saying that I asked people to not go into the state and that we're going to jointly try to protect the march…I think it'd be better if you called up the Guard, in the service of the state…rather than our doing it…If you call up your guard, I'll put the best people we've got to work right with them…And I think I just ought to say that I'm asking people in the country not to let this thing get out of hand. We don't need any more marching down there. They've got enough to march.

GW: Well, I think that would be excellent…What I'm going to do is this…I'm going to do whatever we consider necessary to maintain law and order. We're going to use the patrolmen we have available…If necessary we call the Guard…I appreciate the fact that you may make an appeal that there's enough people in the state to march without other folks coming in.

LBJ: I would seriously consider doing that…I want you to take the action…with your Guard.

GW: I'm going on statewide television tonight and tell people that, "I'm asking you to stay away, and use your restraint."

LBJ: Buford, do you want to say something?

BE: George, this is Buford…I think the wisest move you can make is to put your men back out on the highways and call your Guard…That way, I think we get it all over with at once.

GW: I'll consider it.

BE: If they know you're going to call out the Guard, then this wild element is not going to come to Alabama…

GW: Of course, I hate to call out the Guard. You all federalize them each time I call them out.

BE: You can take my word, I'm not worried about that. And I'm standing in front of all these people while we talk.

LBJ: We know we got trouble ahead here…Let the march start before people can get there from these other states, and you call up your Guard…And we wouldn't federalize any Guard unless it just got to the point where that was all that was left.

GW: Yes, sir.

LBJ: But we want to take this through you before it gets all out of proportion…Governor, I want to do whatever I can…to get this thing as peaceful as I can…What do you want to do?...

GW: I'm just as concerned as you are about nothing happening…If it takes ten thousand Guardsmen, we'll have them. I'll just do whatever is necessary…

LBJ: That's OK. That's good. You keep in touch with Buford. I'll be in constant touch with the situation, and you call us anytime.

Read the full transcript

That night, George Wallace double-crossed President Johnson. The governor went on statewide television demanding that Johnson send in federal troops to maintain law and order during King's march. At 9 p.m. that night, LBJ vented his fury to Buford Ellington, suggesting they use the secret White House taping system to trap Wallace in a lie. It turns out Ellington had been doing some recording of his own.

Listen to excerpt

LBJ: Buford.

BE: I'm sorry I left; I thought you were through.

LBJ: I thought so too. You're dealing with a very treacherous guy. You all must not come in even quoting him anymore. Because he's a no-good son of a bitch!

BE: I'm just not going to answer any calls from him or talk to him.

LBJ: I'd answer one and just tell him, "Now, listen, George, I told the president that I'd talk to you and you wanted help.

BE: Yeah.

LBJ: He called and offered to give it to you. You ran like a goddamned rabbit! Then you ran down to the television and told them that we had created. Now, why in the hell didn't you stand up like a man and say what you were going to do to begin with?

BE: If he keeps calling me, I'll wait till in the morning where I can record it.

LBJ: Come over here. You can record it anytime.

BE: Well I can record it from here. That's where I been doing it, from my apartment.

Read the full transcript

LBJ never used the tapes against Wallace. Instead, the president sent federal troops to Alabama. Reverend King's massive protest march began on Sunday, March 21. For five days, hundreds - and then thousands - of people walked from Selma to Montgomery. They were guarded all the way by Alabama State Troopers and federal soldiers.


Next: part 4