‘Quick with the revolver’

‘Quick with the revolver’

Key phone calls illustrate President Lyndon Johnson's response to police violence and racial unrest during the 1960s

More than 55 years ago, the civil rights movement was in full swing during the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Black Americans were demanding equal rights and President Johnson viewed himself as an ally and advocate.

Three men talking
January 18, 1964: President Johnson (right) meets with civil rights leaders Roy Wilkins (left) and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

But Johnson was not only the president who pushed and passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and announced a "war on poverty"; he also called for a "war on crime," saying in a March 1965 special message to the Congress on the subject, "Crime has become a malignant enemy in America's midst."

What's more, Johnson connected the war on poverty to the war on crime: "We must identify and eliminate the causes of criminal activity whether they lie in the environment around us or deep in the nature of individual men. This is a major purpose of all we are doing in combatting poverty and improving education, health, welfare, housing, and recreation."

Lyndon Johnson continued to push his war on crime in his 1968 State of the Union Address

The military metaphor and the need for politicians to be "tough on crime" has been prevalent in American politics ever since, with both major parties fearful of attributing any systematic wrongdoing to police, who assumed the role of front-line soldiers risking their lives in a battle with criminals.

Crime will not wait while we pull it up by the roots. We must arrest and reverse the trend toward lawlessness.

President Lyndon Johnson, March 8, 1965

Understanding this line of thinking helps explain Johnson's initial response to the racial unrest that followed police brutality toward Black Americans during his administration. He attributed the outrage within the Black community to underlying poverty, lack of opportunity, and idleness. Police violence was merely a trigger, with other social problems as the root cause. Eventually he came to believe that organized "agitators" played a decisive role.

“LBJ underplays the role of police as a contributing factor to the unrest,” says Marc Selverstone, chair of the Miller Center’s Presidential Recordings Program. “It’s a posture he adopts more forcefully over the years—aided and abetted by those who see all kinds of motives behind the challenges to entrenched power. The dangers of Johnson—and of us more recently—are that we are underplaying the systemic problems rooted in policing practices while emphasizing the systemic problems rooted in employment, housing, and other concerns.”

These calls from 1964–1968 illustrate the president's thinking.

June 30, 1964

President Johnson telephoned Frank Smith, the chairman of Philadelphia’s Democratic Party, to solicit support for his anti-poverty legislation. After reviewing the results of a recent voter-registration drive, Smith tells the president about the shooting of an unarmed 16-year-old African American by a Philadelphia police officer. Johnson responded by seeking Smith’s help in mobilizing congressional support for his poverty program and expanding the Democratic voter pool for the general election that November; party gains, he believed, would allow him to push for more sweeping legislation to address the social injustices afflicting black Americans. A month later, however, the brutal arrest of Odessa Bradford would prompt the city to erupt in violent protest.

Read the full transcript and hear the entire conversation at The Presidential Recordings Digital Edition.

August 20, 1965

By the following summer, however, it was clear that neither the Economic Opportunity Act, nor the Civil Rights Act of 1964, nor the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were going to address the pressing concerns of urban America, particularly police violence visited upon African Americans. In a conversation with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Johnson discussed the recent turbulence in Los Angeles following the violent arrest of Marquette Frye, his brother Ronald, and his mother, Rena Price, after a traffic stop. The so-called "Watts riots" began on August 11 and lasted until August 16, and King's attempts to quell the situation had brought hostility from both African Americans and city officials. The call highlights the result of that continuing violence, King’s fear of a coming race war, and Johnson’s desire to expand his programs to head off the recurrent racial strife.

Read the full transcript and hear the entire conversation at The Presidential Recordings Digital Edition.

July 19, 1966

In the week before this conversation between President Johnson and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, 4,000 National Guard soldiers spent several days in the city trying to quell rising unrest after police confronted a group of African American children over the use of a fire hydrant. More than 500 people were arrested, and three African Americans were killed, including a 13-year-old boy and a 14-year-old girl.

By this time, King was living in Chicago, having moved to the city's Wide Side neighborhood to expose conditions for black residents. Though Mayor Daley welcomed the civil rights leader publicly, he became exasperated by King's statements and protests. Here he argued for the president to take a confrontational approach to urban unrest, calling it "this national gang picture," blaming organized left-wing agitators, and saying talk of police brutality was "all out of proportion." Using Johnson's fears about public support for the Vietnam War, Daley worked to discredit King in the president's eyes, saying "he's not your friend" and calling him a "goddamn faker".

Read the full transcript and hear the entire conversation at The Presidential Recordings Digital Edition.

July 25, 1967

Over the next two years, Johnson would come to accept that the ongoing unrest in the country and its cities was the work of left-wing agitators. A July 1967 call with FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover highlights Johnson’s conviction that the recent disturbances in Detroit and Newark were rooted at least as much in anti-American activities as in the pent-up frustrations of marginalized black communities. During the call, Johnson expressed satisfaction at the conduct of the U.S. Army troops he had sent in the day before, while Hoover cast suspicion on King.

Read the full transcript and hear the entire conversation at The Presidential Recordings Digital Edition.

July 27, 1967

Two days later, Johnson reached out to New York City mayor John Lindsay, a liberal Republican and a rising star in his party, to join what would become the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, more popularly called the Kerner Commission after its chair, Illinois governor Otto Kerner Jr. The commission was charged with answering the questions then swirling in Johnson's mind: What were the true underlying causes of racial unrest, and what policies would address them? Lindsay became the vice chair of the Kerner Commission, which released its report in February 1968.

Read the full transcript and hear the entire conversation at The Presidential Recordings Digital Edition.

March 13, 1968

In a conversation discussing the presidential candidacy of Robert F. Kennedy, Johnson revealed his frustration with the recently released Kerner Commission report. Driven largely by Lindsay, the commission had issued an unsparing diagnosis: "White racism" was the underlying cause of urban unrest. And the report rejected a notion Johnson had come to accept: that organized agitators were the primary cause of disorder, calling the police "not merely a spark factor" but a symbol of "white power, white racism, and white repression." (Even so, the final draft of the report watered down its criticism of police from earlier versions.)

The president was having none of it. Feeling embattled and defensive about his presidency, he, like many white Americans, refused to accept the commission's conclusions, and he came to loathe it. In this call with Daley, LBJ defended the money he'd already spent on urban renewal programs.

Read the full transcript and hear the entire conversation at The Presidential Recordings Digital Edition.

April 6, 1968

Less than a month later, when Johnson and Daley talked again, the situation had changed dramatically. LBJ had recently announced he would not run for re-election, and on April 4, James Earl Ray had assassinated King in Memphis, Tennessee, sparking major civil unrest. On April 5, Daley asked the Illinois state government for 5,000 National Guard troops "as a precautionary measure." In this call, he asked for the help of federal troops.

Johnson was prepared to respond quickly, and he focused on the need for a proper request coming from state government, saying, "That is to keep a president from doing it except for the . . . at the instance [sic] of local officials."

Read the full transcript and hear the entire conversation at The Presidential Recordings Digital Edition.

The Presidential Recordings Digital Edition is published by Rotunda, the electronic imprint of the University of Virginia Press, in collaboration with the Miller Center, funded in part by the National Historical Publications & Records Commission.