In 1969 Thomas Baker conducted an interview with Roy Wilkins, executive directory of the NAACP, based on Wilkins’s experiences with Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. This abridged version of the interview enlightens students about Lyndon Johnson in particular about his relationship with Roy Wilkins and his efforts to address (or not address) issues during the Civil Rights Movement. Students will be able to collectively analyze this document and evaluate the degree to which Johnson was involved in the Civil Rights Movement, according to the viewpoint of one of the leaders during this period. Download the PDF of the interview here: Roy Wilkins Oral History.
Transcript, Roy Wilkins Oral History, Interview I, 4/1/69, by Thomas H. Baker, Internet
General Services Administration, National Archives and Records Service
Gift of Personal Statement
INTERVIEWEE: ROY WILKINS (W)
INTERVIEWER: THOMAS H. BAKER (B)
B: This is the interview with Roy Wilkins. Sir, when were you first acquainted with Mr. Johnson, either directly or indirectly?
W: I can’t remember the exact date or even the exact year, but it was long before Mr. Johnson became a presidential candidate, that is in 1960 in Los Angeles. It was, I recall very clearly, during 1957 when the Senate was considering the Civil Rights Bill, which became the first bill enacted in 82 years—a bill incidentally for which Mr. Johnson voted. He was then, of course the Majority Leader of the Senate. But I had some fleeting contacts with him before that, before 1957—during the perennial debates on the Civil Rights Bill and especially on the bill to change Rule 22. But I didn’t come to know him for more than just passing acquaintance until 1957.
B: Did you classify him in those days in regard to his stand on civil rights? Did you, as the NAACP man, consider him a friend, foe, neutral?
W: We didn’t consider him a friend. We considered him more dedicated to his concept of the role of a Majority Leader of the Senate than he was to the civil rights cause. That allegiance, of course, involved his relationship to the Senate via his election from Texas. So, Mr. Johnson’s attitude towards civil rights legislation faithfully reflected, up until voted for the civil rights bill in 1957, it became a reflection of his concern, and the concern of all persons elected under that system, for their reelection and continuance in office. I think that Mr. Johnson felt rather fairly, although he never expressed it in so many words, that it would be better for him to be reelected from Texas and be Majority Leader than it would be for him to come out flatly for civil rights, be defeated in Texas, and thus not be in a position of influence at all. Now he didn’t say this, but this is what I gather.
B: Your talks with him on Rule 22, did he give you any hope for possible changes in that in those days?
W: No. He said he would go with what the Senate voted. He didn’t concede that Rule 22, as then constituted, was a major obstacle to civil rights legislation. We did. We differed on that point very sharply and very cleanly. Mr. Johnson’s position was that the Senate ought not to be bound by this kind of rule, the kind we suggested, and that legislation could be passed even with that rule in effect if we exercised the proper lobbying procedure on the Senators. This was a vain hope in our estimation.
B: In 1960 after Mr. Kennedy was nominated by the Democratic Party and chose Mr. Johnson as his running mate, was there a certain amount of dismay among civil rights advocates at Mr. Johnson being on the ticket:
W: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I think this too was a matter of history. Their attitude was one of dismay. They believed that probably Mr. Kennedy had gone too far just as a great many other Americans who were not Negroes felt that he might have overstepped the bounds. I don’t believe that Mr. Johnson’s attitude was well understood. His record was understood. His attitude was assumed in the light of his record. There were some canny politicians among them—one or two people from the New York state delegation—who voted for him in Los Angeles on the first ballot. I remember giving a newspaper an interview at the time which said that we shouldn’t discount the effectiveness of Lyndon Johnson on the ticket because he brought enormous knowledge of government and workings of government to the post of Vice President if he should be elected. I didn’t go any farther than that.
B: Then, during Mr. Kennedy’s presidency, so far as you could tell, was Mr. Johnson active in the administration’s programs, particularly in Congress, particularly the civil rights proposals?
W: Mr. Johnson began to emerge during the Kennedy Administration wholly unexpectedly and to the delight of the civil rights forces in areas that we didn’t expect him to be active as a Vice President. For example, he took a very personal concern on the fair employment business. He used the inevitable telephone, without which he is never seen or heard, and he called all manner of people—unions and employers and all over the country on the matter of increasing their employment of Negroes. Now, for a Vice President of the United States to do this, and especially a man who knew his way around and where the bodies were buried, so to speak, in Washington, this was very effective.
B: Was it your impression that the Kennedy Administration was in fact pushed by activities and the Southern towns and so on into introducing the legislation?
W: I’m not prepared to say that and I don’t want this commentary to be principally a comment or an estimation of the Kennedy Administration. I would say what I have said repeatedly that John Fitzgerald Kennedy, had a complete comprehension and an identity with the goals of the civil rights movement. Intellectually he was for it. He understood all the motivations of the Negro community and he felt for the humanity that he wanted to see exhibited by the government of the United States for this segment of the population. But, I think precisely the qualities that Lyndon Johnson later exhibited, and which only Lyndon Johnson could have, by reason of his experience and his study and the use of materials of government—precisely that lack in Senator Kennedy forced him to hesitate and weigh and consider what he should do in the civil rights field. I don’t think it was from an inner non-conviction. I think he was convinced that this ought to be done. He just didn’t know how to manipulate the government to bring it about. Events did push him, true, but they didn’t push him toward a conviction. They pushed him toward action. He was convinced already, when he was elected—of that I am firmly convinced.
For example, during the campaign much was made of his remark to General Eisenhower that “You could have ended housing discrimination with the stroke of the pen.” And he lived to regret that flip phrase, you see. What he meant was that Eisenhower could have signed an executive order abolishing racial discrimination in housing. Well, Mr. Eisenhower knew that it wasn’t that simple. President Kennedy upon his election found out, too, that it wasn’t that simple. As a result he didn’t sign a housing order until November of ’62, I think, and then only after balancing all the forces and then with the housing order—most of its teeth drawn and applying only to certain areas of
housing. It was a weak order when finally he signed it. The New York Times carried a story saying that the Kennedy advisors were weighing the weight of the Negro vote in the North as against the possible dissident White vote in the South if he should sign a strong order—which meant, unlike Lyndon Johnson who in 1968 was told that if you insist in this housing bill it’ll kill the whole civil rights effort that you are trying to make in the Congress. And in effect he said, “Damn the torpedoes. Full steam ahead,” because he knew that he either had the votes or he didn’t have the votes and that he could do something about the situation but he wasn’t going to retreat on it.
B: Were either Mr. Johnson or Mr. Kennedy involved in any way in the planning for the march on Washington in 1963?
W: I don’t recall that Mr. Johnson was involved at all, and the President was involved only in the tug of war between his advisors who said, “You ought to A) condemn it or B) stay clear of it and have nothing to do with it.” He was caught in that kind of tug of war and with our side who was saying—we were saying to him, “you ought to endorse it and you ought to welcome it and so forth.” He finally welcomed it. He finally gave it endorsement—no assistance from the government, of course—no assistance, but merely the Presidential approval.
Five days after President Kennedy was murdered, he [Johnson] addressed a joint session of the Congress and he only asked for two measures. One was the pending tax bill and one was the civil rights law. The day after Thanksgiving he began his conferences on the civil rights bill with a conference with me.
B: What did you talk about at that conference?
W: We talked about the civil rights situation and the necessity for a law and Mr. Johnson’s belief that such a law could be enacted if the people really wanted it. This was an echo of his Senate days—if the votes and support are there. He was asking us if we wanted it, if we would do the things required to be done to get it enacted. He said he could not enact it himself; he was the President of the United States; he would give it his blessing; he would aid it in any way in which he could lawfully under the constitution; but that he could not lobby for the bill; and nobody expected him to lobby for the bill; and he didn’t think we expected him to lobby for the bill. But in effect he said—he didn’t use these words—“You have the ball; now run with it.” He gave unmistakable notice that you had a friend and not an enemy in the White House for this legislation.
Over it all hung the enormous tragedy of the killing of Preside Kennedy. And it was on this note that he felt the federal government had to take a stand to halt this schism between people—violence, bloodshed and that sort of thing.
B: Did he ask or hint at a moratorium on demonstrations while the bill was pending?
W: No, he did not. No, he did not. I recall that conversation. He did not ask for Negroes to behave in a certain way or for the civil rights forces to refrain from doing this, that and the other. As a matter of fact, as I look hastily back, I don’t think Mr. Johnson ever directly requested this—any such moratorium. He might have had his own private thoughts on the effects it would have, but he never reached over into possible constitutional freedom of speech restriction and said, “Well, now, it would be a good thing if the Negroes kept quiet, or if you could keep them quiet.” He never did say that to me.
B: It is about that time that there began to occur the urban disturbances —the rioting in the Northern cities, which was in many cases related to the racial problem. Did Mr. Johnson call on you for advice say at the time of the Watts riot in Los Angeles?
W: I don’t think that Mr. Johnson did personally. I think his cabinet members and the concerned people in his Administration who, it must be assumed since we know the man very well, reflected his views or else they wouldn’t have been there very long. They did express concern. They expressed it in this way. They wanted to know how the Federal Government could help in this situation.
They did not say, “You ought to stop it.” or “It ought not to occur.” A great many of them realized that forces were at work which could not be stopped by simply saying, “Don’t do that,” either by the White House saying or by us saying it.
But they did transmit their concern and asked ways in which they could help and took advantage of our own attitudes because all of us—Martin Luther King, the National Urban League, and the NAACP, the three principal organizations and the National Council of Negro Women, the fourth one—were all committed against violence. CORE was comme ci, comme ca; and Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee at that time, despite its name, leaned a little more toward, let us call it, determined, aggressive action—if we don’t call it violence. I don’t want to do them any injustice, even in this
period. Certainly they had a very stern attitude toward it. But the principal organizations were against violence. So therefore President, or the White House, or his Administration were not asking us for anything extraordinary when they asked our cooperation and help in how they could help in stopping violence.
B: You know, it’s at about that time, I think, many in the Administration began to realize in a way the civil rights problem in the South was comparatively simple compared to the enormous complexity of the problem in the northern cities. Did you ever sit down with Johnson or with any of his immediate advisors and discuss what could be done in the cities?
W: Mr. Johnson, of course, and his congressional supporters introduced OEO, the anti-poverty program. He had many investigators and feelers out, and he had many bureaus established all over the country—regional offices of various federal agencies and departments—and these were constantly funneling information to Washington. So he had a good idea of what was wrong in the cities, not precisely the idea. I don’t think anyone even now pretends to know precisely what to do. But he knew that the federal government had to become more involved. He knew that opportunity had to be provided for some of the people who had never had opportunity in their lives. And he knew also that the traditional political machinery, the traditional civil rights machinery and the traditional social work machinery had not worked to prevent these outbreaks or to prevent the frustration and state of mind that eventually led to outbreaks.
So he conceived the federal government’s role to be that to provide an opportunity for the inner-cities, the crowded urban centers, to express themselves and to try to harness there won energy through corporations and agencies that would be financed by the government to ameliorate the situation in the center cities. I think it was a daring assault by a man of Mr. Johnson’s background to come to that conclusion and to actually authorize the machinery.
Now, it was jeered at by the ultra-extremists as being insufficient and “What, only a billion dollars?” and so on. But before that there had not even been a billion dollars. While, if you compared it to the space program or to some other programs, a billion dollars might seem a small amount for this monumental and very complex problem; nevertheless, a billion dollars was a start. I think Mr. Johnson with his Voting Rights Act and with the Poverty Act and with his commitment following the 1964 enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which had ten sections and which was the most comprehensive ever passed by Congress—I think Mr. Johnson gave a pretty clear indication of his own personal attitude toward this, because as a President he could have cold-watered the whole thing.
I can’t vouch for what would have happened if he had done so. I think the country was teetering on the edge of something very dangerous, very sinister, and very damaging. But it’s a tribute to him that his capacity for leadership and his experience in government was able to overcome—all these were able to overcome his beginnings as a Texas politician and enabled him to rise to what some people have always said, that when you get into the office of the Presidency of the United States then you rise above your beginnings; you become a different man. He certainly did. . . .
B: You were one of Mr. Johnson’s appointees to what’s generally called the Kerner Commission. When that report was published, Mr. Johnson’s reaction, or lack of reaction to it, was interpreted by many as being a sort of tacit condemnation of the report and perhaps particularly of its emphasis on white racism. Did you share the disappointment in Mr. Johnson’s reaction?
W: I was disappointed. I felt that Mr. Johnson should have received the commission and received its report and thanked the commission in person. He’s a very courteous person and a very close observer of official protocol, so that his thanks would not necessarily convey entire approval, or approval of the entire report.
I recall that in 1947, Harry Truman received a report from similar commission. The only other national commission I know that has been named. Robert Carr, who was then secretary of Dartmouth College and since has become President of Oberlin College, was the executive director and acknowledged to be the chief author of the report. Now, that report contained an extraordinary sentence that had never appeared before in any national report and that was that racial segregation must be eliminated from American life—not American employment, not American education, but American life. Now this was, whether we recognized it at the time or not, this was a commitment of the national government to the abolition of racial segregation from American life—all phases of it. And in 1947, it was just as revolutionary or shocking as the Kerner’s Commission’s assertion that white racism was at the basis of the racial difficulties in this country.
But Mr. Truman received the report—and not only received it and didn’t put it on the shelf but took its legislative recommendations and sent them in a special message to the Congress in February, 1948.
When I contrasted that with Mr. Johnson’s hands-off attitude, I rather got the impression that he had made one of his rare mistakes in his estimation of public opinion and in his courageous, daring outlook, considering his background, on the whole racial situation. Because I think it’s indubitably true that basically—now the report did not say that white racism, like the militants are saying today, is behind every single act that’s committed—or every single Machiavellian scheme that’s hatched, that white racism is here in Dakota and over here in Maryland and up here in Massachusetts, and it’s behind a swimming pool here, a housing situation there, an employment situation over there or an education—. It didn’t say that. It simply said that the creation of the climate, which has brought about our present tension, has been because, to use the words of the report, “of
the attitude of white Americans towards black Americans.”
Now, Mr. Johnson of all the presidents in the United States, could have accepted that very gracefully because his record on government action on racial tensions is the best of any president in the United States that we have ever had. Of all of our presidents, his Administration is outstanding. Whereas one president might boast of one piece of legislation, or another president might boast as our beloved Dwight Eisenhower did, of the 1957 Civil Rights Bill. Well, the 1957 Civil Rights Bill compared to 1964 Civil Rights Bill was merely a sliver and yet Mr. Johnson created, or helped Kennedy to create and saw to the enactment of the 1964 Act. And it was Mr. Johnson who conceived the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, with its attendant business about juries and selections and so forth. Mr. Johnson’s emphasis on the right of an American to vote and his acceptance of the idea that federal registrars ought to be sent into counties which have demonstrated since Reconstruction days as they had practically—they had done everything to discourage Negroes from registering to vote.
Questions for Discussion
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