tv [untitled] May 31, 2012 2:00am-2:30am EDT
united states looked up and quipped, well, you know, some people say that john's been hit on the head so many times, he just doesn't have any sense anymore. and there were some people who tattered and laughed. i was the only black person in the room. and i said, nick, that's just wrong. that is just -- you can't say that, and you can't think that. these are american citizens. they want their rights. they're doing what americans should do. and you shouldn't denigrate them that way. oh, i didn't mean it, roger. i didn't mean it. and as we were walking out, his pr man said to me, congratulations. i said, congratulations for what? i didn't win nothing in there.
he said, you got black people -- you got nick to discuss black people as human beings, not as legal specters out of the old books. it wasn't terrible in the administration, but it wasn't easy either. and you really had to go after it, and you had to go after it hard. and you had to go after it to keep the faith with ernie. i didn't know ernie. well, i did, too, a little bit. but i didn't know ernie. you had to keep the faith. brave children. and the united states government is not prepared to move all
forces on this kind of stuff? so, period. >> okay. the incident in which john lewis was beaten on horseback was in selma, alabama. it was the voting rights campaign. he is now congressman john lewis, for those who don't know. i have some questions here, beginning with professor mack. you noted that both president and robert kennedy were comfortable around african-americans. to what would you a tribute the level of comfortability displayed by both, especially robert kennedy, who often rallied in urban neighborhoods and traveled to south africa, et cetera? >> one thing, not to discount about both the president and his brother, is that they came from boston. needless to say, it was a place where there were many white people who were not comfortable around black people. that would be an understatement.
and they were. it's hard to say why that's so. but there are many things in which we can be maybe less than satisfied with the early years of the kennedy administration. but that's one thing that distinguished them from many people who were around them here in massachusetts. and certainly distinguished them from most of the predecessors in federal office. so i don't know where it comes from. i would say robert kennedy probably felt it more. back to the time when he was -- he went to the law school at the university of virginia, of course, which was a southern law school and i think he had a
confrontation, i think it was the president of the university over racial segregation at the university of virginia. so i think robert kennedy clearly felt it. john kennedy felt it in a certain way, too. and even though they didn't always do as much as they might have, that feeling that the ability to interact socially with black people was something that they had. and they thought it was a moral issue. that black people couldn't get served at a lunch counter. it just seemed inconceivable to them. and certainly that's part of what finally moved the president to condemn segregation in moral terms in the middle of 1963. >> i think you also have to say that the difference -- the change in robert kennedy was enormous. made enormous by the murder of his brother. he really became a different
kind of person. and the one thing i'll say, as i said to marion elman, who was a black woman who was doing very good civil rights movement in mississippi. when robert kennedy started running for the senate -- i don't remember what he was running for, but she supported him. marion supported him. and i said, marion, why do you support robert kennedy after all the stuff we've had with him? she said, roger, we were down in a very poor place, a poor black place in mississippi. the black people were so poor, and the kids were dirty and they were -- they just kind of were gooey. and he came in there, and he
walked around and he picked up those children and he patted their heads and he gave them water and he held them to his chest. she said, i wouldn't do that. she said, and that's why i'm for him. and when marion said that, that's a good thing. >> is there not a dichotomy between those who have many responsibilities and who must be elected, i.e., presidents, and those who are pushing the issues, i.e., the ghandis, as those championing as those you would want them to? >> the answer is yes. i was present when kennedy -- you know the joke about franklin roosevelt being persuaded, some big move needed to be made, and he said, i agree with you completely. now go out and force me to do it. >> that's a good one. >> kennedy didn't say that.
i was present when he gave the bad news in a private session with king. that they would not be introducing civil rights legislation in the first congress, contrary to the platform. and it was a major moment. and for a long time they argued reasonably. king never made kennedy comfortable. roy wilkins did, though roy wilkins may have pushed harder than king did. it was a remarkable exchange on just the point you made. kennedy said, look, we know there's no chance for the bill to move. the southern opponents have far, far more votes to keep a filibuster. and make it impossible to pass. to push it now would lose our capital for the civil rights idea, and for ourselves. it doesn't make sense. so we need to do everything we can do to short of legislation. and king pressed for a new
emancipation proclamation that would be across the board, a set of actions of the boldest kind. and kennedy wasn't ready for it. when we left, kennedy said -- i mean, martin luther king, as we went out of the white house grounds, he said, you know, i had hoped that he was going to be the president that had the understanding to understand this problem. the political skill to solve it. and the moral passion and urgency to see it through. and he said, i'm really convinced that he's got the first two. and we'll have to see about the last one. and hamilton -- alexander hamilton said the constitution wasn't adopted because of the argument of the federalists, it was adopted because of the harsh logic of events. and you could say that the kennedys started way down toward
ground zero in terms of understanding, or commitment to priority to civil rights. by the time john was killed, and even far more, by the time robert kennedy was killed, they were way up there. and they were committed in ways that no president had really been on the firing line committed before. but there was a thing in that administration that really -- in the beginning, they were dumb. i mean, just really almost ignorant. now, wait, wait. >> i think so, too. >> they thought -- they started talking to me, but they thought i was roy's kid. they didn't know roy didn't have any kids, and that i was roy's nephew. so they'd send messages to roy. and i have to say, johnson tried it, too.
and they came to me, and they said, why are they doing this stuff in birmingham? and kids are out of school, and getting beat on heads -- cops beating them. and so a major kennedy domestic issue and civil rights guy came to me very quietly at a party. i barely knew him. and he said, is there any way to talk to roy wilkins -- he said, your father, to get them to stop this in birmingham?
he said to me, he said, it's a terrible thing. it's a terrible thing to put those kids in the street. and they should be in school. i said, you know something? these kids are learning self-involvement. they are learning that they can control their own world. they are changing the world. and it's more than any lesson they will ever treat those kids in those crummy segregated schools that they prepare for them. i'm telling you, that was the way they were. [ applause ] >> so let me ask a question -- hold on one second. let me ask this question then. because i've got to get lyndon johnson's name in this conversation. okay. before we end, and we're at the end, and that is, is it fair or accurate then that lyndon johnson receives, i would say most of the credit for civil rights -- i don't want to say hero, but president associated,
affiliated with civil rights, if president kennedy, however dumb he was at the beginning, came around at the end and teed up this legislation? is that accurate and fair? >> no. i want to say that kennedy -- if it was anything, he wasn't dumb. but on this issue, chris matthews' book, i recommend you'll see that he stresses how irish he was. it was not southern legislators primarily that slowed them, or made them very cautious. it was their assessment of what the white backlash in the north and west -- >> we're going to see that. i want you to answer my question about lyndon johnson. >> lyndon johnson, when he signed the first civil rights johnson was wonderful. he deserves the most total respect for the achievement of piloting it through.
kennedy was scared and south boston's reaction to segregation was not quite as violent as birmingham but it was shocking and they liked lincoln about emancipation proclamation. i think it's not fair to the responsiveness of the kennedys. johnson was wonderful, but he coasted on the tragedy of kennedys with all of his skill, he deserves the most respectful achievement for piloting it through but it was all those events that happened before including the kennedy's commitment. >> roger if you would answer it and then i want kenneth to answer that. we are at the end, so i'll ask you to be brief and pithy.
>> recap your question. >> is it fair and accurate, or accurate or both, that lyndon johnson pretty much gets the credit for being the civil rights president on legislation, or that was teed up by the kennedys, some would say? >> when lyndon johnson became president, it happened that my uncle was with me in washington. and he said, this is going to be good. i said, are you kidding me? what do you mean it's going to be good? old southern guy, he talks all that southern talk. i said, that guy is not going to be -- roy said, you're wrong. you're just wrong. this man cares. i've worked with him through the civil rights bill that we got, the first one since the civil war, and his heart was in it, his spirit was in it. he cares, roger. he cares. you're wrong. my uncle rarely said you're wrong. because i says, beloved
brother's only kid. he was really sweet to me, but he said, you're wrong. this man cares. he's got a heart. and he can be pretty mean to get what he wants. >> so it is fair that he should be called the civil rights president? >> i think it's very fair. i think he really cared. >> kenneth mack? >> i would say it's fair, but i would say for slightly different reasons. johnson was a political pragmatist like kennedy. and i don't think that if johnson had gotten the nomination in 1960, that he would have moved with any more dispatch with kennedy. johnson took office at a different time. i would give johnson credit, though, for his legislative acumen. i mean, he had experience in the senate that kennedy did not.
and of course, as most people know, it took a lot of work to get the '64 act through. you had to get it out of the house without it getting amended to death in ways that would cause it to not pass. and you had to get it through the senate, where no filibuster had ever been broken with the closure of motion. you had to accomplish that. and johnson worked tirelessly behind the scenes to accomplish that. he met with richard russell immediately upon taking office and said, russell, i'm going to run over you. kennedy never said that. so i would give johnson credit, not for an additional commitment, because i don't know that his commitment was any greater than the kennedys, but i think for having the legislative acumen to get the thing passed. and it was really, really hard to get the thing passed. five months of debate to get it through. and nothing else was going to be
considered while this thing was being considered. and johnson did it. >> i think -- >> roger, if i may. we're at the end. and i want charlayne hunter-gault's voice to be the last on this. i want you to answer the question from the audience. this person writes, i read your book many years ago and was moved by your story. how did what happened to you shape your decision in years to come and shape your career? >> it's all in this book. [ laughter ] but on lyndon johnson, i will say -- no, it shaped me -- i couldn't be an activist as a journalist, but i could be a passionate reporter for the things that i was seeing, and at the time that i entered, black people were portrayed in ways that were unrecognizable to themselves. and throughout my career, i have tried to portray all people in ways that are recognizable to
themselves. now, on lyndon johnson, very quickly, in my book, it's written for young readers. those of you in this audience, it's for you to understand everything that we've been talking about. because there isn't anything that we've talked about today that isn't in here. but it's in your -- in terms that you can understand. and there is lyndon johnson's speech, which is a wonderful piece of oratory when he passed the civil rights act. and i would encourage you to go back and read it, because you'll get some sense of the heart that he put into it. because this wasn't a speech that was put together by a committee. he wrote it. and so i think to go to your point, he believed in this. but he was also, like all of these politicians, you've got to realize, politics is about reale politic. you can read that word, you can google it. you >> thank you all to my panel.