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Martin Luther King, Jr. - photo: Steve Schapiro

Though President Johnson had promised the nation in March he would pass voting rights legislation, his challenge was to make sure the bill still had teeth in it by the time it got through Congress. Some liberals doubted the sincerity of Johnson's commitment to civil rights. They suspected the president privately wanted his Southern colleagues on Capitol Hill to weaken the measure. Martin Luther King, Jr. called LBJ on July 7, 1965, politely pressing Johnson to ensure the bill's safe passage. Johnson's initial response was defensive. LBJ complained that he, alone, was fighting the political battle with Congress. The president offered King a detailed analysis of how and why the voting rights bill was getting held up. Then he pushed back at King - almost ranting at times - about the need for blacks to become more politically effective.

MLK: Mr. President?

LBJ: Yes?

MLK: It's Martin King...[concern about bill]...

LBJ: Now, when I went up with my message, I could have probably passed it by seventy-five. But [situation in Congress] is deteriorating. The other day, they almost beat my rent subsidy, which is very important to...the poor people. [LBJ's calculation of guy's income...] Smith comes out and says my bill has had a lot of venom in it. I have a "great ha tred for the South," and I'm like a "rattlesnake." I'm trying to "punish" them.... So, he gets the Congressmen from the thirteen old Confederate states, and he...a hundred of them…with a hundred and fifty Republicans. That gives him two hundred and fifty....A good majority...Unless we can pull some of the Republicans away, we're in trouble....Now the smart thing to do...would be to get some language that...get this bill passed and start registering our people and get them ready to vote next year.'...

You-all are either going to have confidence in me and in Katzenbach, or you ought to pick some leader you do and then follow...I started out on this voting bill last November, right after the election....I called you down here and told you what I was going to do. I went before the Congress, made the speech, and asked them to work every weekend....They're getting tired of the heat from me. They don't like for me to be asking for rent one day and poverty the next day, and education the next day, and voting rights the next day. They know I can't defeat them out there in their district in Michigan and some other place.

So I'm just fighting the battle the best I can. I think I'll win it. But it's going to be close, and it's going to be dangerous...I cannot influence the Republicans. The people that can influence the Republicans are men like the local chapters of CORE or NAACP, or your group in New York...and these states where you've got a good many Negro voters. You've got to say to them, "We're not Democrats. We're going to vote for the man that gives us freedom. We don't give a damn whether it's Abraham Lincoln or Lyndon Johnson....We're smart enough to know, and we're here watching you. Now, we want to see how you...answer on that roll call."

You ought to find out who you can trust....If you can't trust me why, trust Teddy Kennedy or whoever you want to trust....The trouble is, that fire's gone out. We've got to put some cedar back on it, and put a little coal oil on it....My recommendation would be that you...come in here and follow my political judgment and see if we can't get a bill passed.

Lyndon Johnson did get a bill passed. By a wide margin, Congress approved the Voting Rights Act, and Johnson signed it into law on August 6, 1965.


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