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All the Fray

The Story Behind LBJ's NOLA Civil Rights Speech



HBO premiered “All the Way,” a small screen adaptation of Robert Schenkkan’s TONY award winning play about the early years of LBJ’s presidency and the cicil rights movement. The critically acclaimed film featured proud New Orleans native Anthony Mackie as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but the NOLA connections go back some 50 plus years. At the center of the work is a speech delivered by the POTUS in an attempt to curb the Dixiecrat faction.

 

The address came at the end of a dual whistle-stops campaigns helmed by Johnson and his wife Lady Bird. The First Lady rode aboard the Lady Bird Special meeting with local leaders aboard her Pullman car at every stop. Both tours ended in NOLA on October 9, 1964, culminating with a ride down Canal in an open car. In an interview, legendary presidential correspondent Helen Thomas described the day as a “triumphal reunion; the whole thing was like a Hollywood ending.”

 

That evening, LBJ spoke at a fundraising dinner at the Jung Hotel. The Jung was located at 1500 Canal Street and is currently the topic of one of many redevelopment debates. However, the building began life far more illustriously in 1908 as the region’s largest convention hotel. Ultimately, it even earned a spot on the National Register of Historical Places in 1982. The destination fell into disrepair in later years. It switched ownership several times and was a Clarion, Radisson, and then the Park Plaza before damage from the Federal Flood ultimately shuttered the doors.

 

However, the night of the big fundraiser, the place was in its prime and packed with Democratic dignitaries. The crowd at the 100 dollar a head  gala included Hale, Lindy, and Tommy Boggs who has also been stumping with the Johnsons during the preceding run. Governor Jack McKeithen, Senator Allen Ellender, Russel Long, Mayor Vic Schiro, and most of the state’s congressional delegation. In addition, the party paid to televise the remarks throughout Louisiana and part of Mississippi.

 

This was no ordinary stump speech though. In ’64, the Democratic party was in the midst of a civil war. Johnson parted with fellow Southerners to push through civil rights legislation enraging the segregationist southern Dem machine. Prominent Dixiecrats like Strom Thurmond split from the party entirely. The rift threatened to put the extremist Barry Goldwater in office. (Pick your own analogy to the current election; there are plenty for all camps).

 

LBJ addressed the split in his normal fashion—head on. Speaking metaphorically of the southern electorate, the President bluntly exclaimed, “they haven't heard a Democratic speech in 30 years. All they ever hear at election time is nigger, nigger, nigger!”

 

The chief executive proceeded to make it clear that despite threats to the contrary, the recently passed Civil Rights Act would be enforced. “So we have the law of the land, and we are going to appeal to all Americans that fight in uniform and work in factory and on the farm to try to conduct themselves as Americans,” Johnson declared. “Equal opportunity for all, special privileges for none, because there is only one real big problem that faces you. It is not even the economic problem and it is not the Negro problem.”

 

The speech then pivoted to the greater problem which the administration believed was national security and peace. The ensuing comments were a jab at Barry Goldwater. Throughout the campaign, the G.O.P. nominee was attacked for his hawkish views. In the famous “Daisy” ad, LBJ went so far as to equate his rival’s election with nuclear armageddon.

 

The piece also included several local references including much love for the Long family, “New Orleans candy… that we call pralines,” local pols, and promises of prosperity. Specifically, the prez promised “a day when New Orleans will stand as a Queen City on this crescent” as an international trade center, a national cultural center, a terminal for waterways, “a good and gracious city for your families to call their home,” and “a port for the spaceships that are returning from outer space.”

 

Accounts of the audience’s reactions varied. The Tuscaloosa News reported that in “politically doubtful Louisiana,” the “remarks drew loud applause.” However, Thomas described the crowd as “stunned.”

 

Regardless of the night’s reception, Johnson managed to win the 1964 election, but potentially he lost the South for a generation. In ’64, the only states that he lost were Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Goldwater’s native Arizona.

 

However, during the next election cycle, Richard Nixon launched the “Southern Strategy.” The tactic deliberately targeted white southern Democrats angered by civil rights legislation often using terms like “law and order” and “states’ rights” as code for racist positions. In ’68, much of the South flipped to the Republican party. The “Deep South” states voted for segregationist George Wallace, but the region has been solidly red since then.

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Contributors

Renard Boissiere, Evan Z.E. Hammond, Naimonu James, Wilson Koewing, J.A. Lloyd, Nina Luckman, Dead Huey Long, Joseph Santiago, Andrew Smith, Cynthia Via, Austin Yde

Photographers


Art Director

Michael Weber, B.A.

Editor

Alexis Manrodt

Listings Editor

Linzi Falk

Editor Emeritus

B. E. Mintz

Editor Emeritus

Stephen Babcock

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