MLK-LBJ Phone Chats Resonate in Obama Era

As the USA celebrates the first King holiday with a black president, University of Virginia scholars are poring over 1965 telephone conversations between Martin Luther King and President Lyndon Johnson that foreshadowed President Obama's election.

On Jan. 15 of that year — King's 36th birthday — the civil rights leader urged Johnson to appoint a black American to his new Cabinet. Later, Johnson reminded King that voting rights were the surest path to black equality.

Viewed through the prism of what followed — the landmark Voting Rights Act passed that year, King's assassination three years later and, most recently, Obama's election in 2008 — the men's conversation that day resonates.

Andrew Young— one of King's top deputies and later a congressman, United Nations ambassador and Atlanta mayor — says the conversation augured Obama's election almost 44 years later.

"Dr. King said that what we were trying to do was create a coalition of conscience, a coalition of goodwill that would elect the best person to the job," says Young, 77. "What we were trying to do was lay the groundwork for a progressive coalition that would elect the best person for the job. That's certainly what has happened in the case of President Obama."

King told Johnson that "we have a strong feeling that it would mean so much … to the nation … to have a Negro in the Cabinet," King said. "I'm sure that it would give a new sense of dignity and self-respect to millions of Negroes." King did not mention the possibility of the USA electing a black president.

Johnson told King he already had named a black director of the U.S. Information Agency, which he called a Cabinet-level post, but he did not formally commit to naming a black Cabinet member.

The University of Virginia's Miller Center for Public Affairs purchased audio copies of the tapes, which have been cited by authors in biographies of the two men, from the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, research fellow Kent Germany says. The university will publish an online version of the transcripts and feature the audio.

A Political Alliance

Germany says Johnson was leery of being too closely identified with King. "Johnson is deeply suspicious of King and doesn't want to be publicly linked to King unless he can control the circumstances, because Johnson is being fed reports by the FBI that King is consorting with Communists," he says.

The men jousted subtly throughout the talk. King reminded Johnson, a Democrat, that the only Southern states he lost in 1964 were those where fewer than 40% of blacks were registered to vote.

Johnson replied: "It's very important that we … take the position that every person born in this country, and when they reach a certain age, that he have a right to vote just like he has a right to fight. And that we just extend it whether it's a Negro or whether it's a Mexican."

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