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Secret White House recordings from MLK’s ‘I Have a Dream’ summer

A teenage suicide attempt foretold dark moods to come. Did it also lead to greatness? Credit: Yoichi R. Okamoto, White House Press Office/Wikimedia Commons

This year's Martin Luther King Day celebration coincides with the inauguration of President Obama. Thirty years ago President Ronald Reagan signed a new law making the third Monday of January Martin Luther King Day. Fifty years ago, during the late summer of 1963, President John Kennedy's White House hosted the Civil Rights leader on two important occasions. The first was immediately after King's "I have a dream" speech, and the second was nearly a month later following the tragic bombing of a church in Birmingham that killed four girls.

Crosscut has been given permission to publish two transcripts from those meetings, which appear below. The transcripts and recordings appear in a new book, Listening In: the Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy. The book, which also includes two CDs, contains selections from 265 hours of recordings, which writer and historian Ted Widmer edits and introduces along with a foreword by the President's daughter, Caroline Kennedy.

August 28, 1963 JFK meets Civil Rights leaders 

On what may have been the most historic day of the Civil Rights movement, in the immediate aftermath of the “I have a dream” speech just delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr., the leaders of the March on Washington came to the Oval Office. They were greeted by a president who was obviously moved by the speech he had watched on television, and more to the point, had a detailed political plan for pushing forward the legislation they wanted. 

The tapes continue from these excerpts to reveal him going through the entire Congressional delegation, with great specificity, to help the leaders of the movement understand how high the mountain was that they were trying to climb. A. Philip Randolph had first called for a march on Washington in the summer of 1940; at last his moment had come, even if a new generation was required to put his vision into law and everyday practice. In these excerpts, the leaders exult in their momentary triumph, and gird for battle in the fall.   

Roy Wilkins: You made the difference. You gave us your blessings. It was one of the prime factors in turning it into an orderly protest to help our government rather than a protest against our government. I think you’ll agree that was psychologically important. And the mood and attitude of the people there today pleased all of us, without exception.

Walter Reuther: The other thing that I think will come out of this, as I said today in my speech, after we get the legislation, that only means we’ve got a set of tools to work with. It doesn’t mean that automatically this problem is resolved.

What we have to do is to develop a broad coalition of men of good will in every community, where we’ve got to implement this program. And I think that this is what this march has done. It has brought into being an active, functioning coalition around this central question of equality of opportunity and first-class citizenship.

And I think if we reflect this by practical work in each community, we can mobilize the community, we can mobilize the men of good will, and we can search for answers in the light of reason by rational, responsible action. Because if we fail, then the vacuum that we create, our failure, is going to be filled by the apostles of hatred. And reason is going to yield to bitterness and bloodshed. So I think that this is really a more significant aspect of what we’re doing. We have put together the kind of coalition that can be meaningful at the community level, across this country, after we get the legislation, and it can be effective in mobilizing support for the legislation.

JFK:  Very fine, but let me just say a word about the legislation. There’s one thing that I, on this question of education …  We have this juvenile program, as you know, in New York, and a lot, and the Attorney General was out in Chicago on it the other day and was shocked by some of the crowding of the class, the leaving (?) of the school, the fact that the best teachers … and there’s no visiting by the teachers in their homes.  And they won’t study, and the children won’t study unless … what their color or their income level is. 

Now, isn’t it possible for the Negro community to take the lead in committing major emphasis upon the responsibility of these families, even if they’re split and all the rest of the problems they have, on educating their children?  Now, in my opinion, the Jewish community, which suffered a good deal under discrimination, and what a great effort they made, which I think has made their role influential, was in education, education of their children. And therefore they’ve been able to establish a pretty strong position for themselves.  

Philip Randolph: Mr. President, from the description you have made of the state of affairs of the House and Senate, it’s obvious that it’s going to take nothing less than crusade to win approval for these civil rights measures. And if it is going to be a crusade, I think that nobody can lead this crusade but you. I think that the people have got to be appealed to over the heads of the Congressmen and Senators.

JFK: Here’s the Vice President, he would like to say something before we …

LBJ: [unclear] … this President has issued the strongest executive orders in housing, employment, armed services, that any administration has ever issued. He’s made the strongest recommendations to Congress, so far, [unclear]. Now he had more conferences in this room over here, where Medgar Evers used to hang out, [unclear]. He’s had [unclear], he’s had lawyers, has had business societies, councils, all others, the Attorney General, the Vice President, the President, [unclear] with them to get behind this legislation. I think he’s demonstrated in his television appearances and other public statements that he’s a champion in the cause of human rights, as a moral commitment because that’s what’s right, regardless of the political effect it may have.

Now there’s one thing the President can do, he can plead and lead and persuade and even threaten Congress, but he can’t run the Congress. Franklin Roosevelt at the height of his popularity in ’37 lost his court plan overwhelmingly, and he only lost two states in the ’36 election. I came here during that period.

And this President can’t get those sixty votes, if he turned this White House upside down, and he preached on the television an hour every day, it will just drive some of those men stronger into [unclear]. Maybe the men at this table can do it. But they [are] going to be pretty hard, because those men have agreements, working language.  

Martin Luther King to JFK, September 19, 1963, 5 pm  

The euphoria of the march on Washington did not last long, as conditions continued to disintegrate in Birmingham. On Sunday, September 15, the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed by the Klu Klux Klan. The bomb, which went off at 10:22 am, killed four girls and wounded 22 others. Anger seethed through the leaders of the movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr., as they came to the Oval Office to vent their frustration and demand justice.

MLK:  We come today representing Birmingham in general, and more specifically some 200 business and professional, religious, labor leaders who assembled the day after the bombing to discuss the implications and to discuss the seriousness of the whole crisis that we face there in Birmingham. And we come to you today because we feel that the Birmingham situation is so serious that it threatens not only the life and stability of Birmingham and Alabama, but of our whole nation. The image of our nation is involved, and the destiny of our nation is involved. We feel that Birmingham has reached a state of civil disorder. 

Now, there are many things that you could say that would justify our coming to this conclusion. I’m sure you are aware of the fact that more bombings of churches and homes have taken place in Birmingham than any city in the United States, and not a one of these bombings over the last fifteen to twenty years has been solved. In fact, some 28 have taken place in the last eight to ten years and all of these bombings remain unsolved. 

There is still a great problem of police brutality, and all of this came out in tragic dimensions Sunday, when the bombing took place, and four young girls were killed instantly, and then later in the day, two more. I think both were boys, the other two who were killed. 

Now the real problem that we face is this: The Negro community is about to reach a breaking point. There is a great deal of frustration and despair and confusion in the Negro community, and there is a feeling of being alone and not being protected. If you walk the street, you aren’t safe. If you stay at home, you are not safe, there is a danger of a bomb. If you’re in church now, it isn’t safe. So that the Negro feels that everywhere he goes, if he remains stationary, he’s in danger of some physical violence.

Now this presents a real problem for those of us who find ourselves in leadership positions, because we are preaching at every moment the philosophy and the method of nonviolence. And I think that I can say without fear of successful contradiction, that we have been consistent in standing up for nonviolence at every point, and even with Sunday’s and Monday’s developments, we continue to be firm at this point. But more and more, we are facing a problem of our people saying, “What’s the use?,” and we find it a little more difficult to get over nonviolence [to them].

And I am convinced that if something is not done to give the Negro a new sense of hope and a sense of protection, there is a danger that we will face, and that will lead to the worst race rioting we’ve ever seen in this country. I think it’s just at that point. I don’t think it will happen if we can do something to save the situation, but I do think – and I voiced the sentiment in the evening as well with those that we met with the other day – that something dramatic must be done at this time to give the Negro in Birmingham and Alabama a new sense of hope and a good sense of protection. 

Ted Widmer is currently a senior advisor to Secretary of State HiIlary Clinton.

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