Step Behind Closed Doors And Into The LBJ Library's Time Machine

Apr 10, 2014
Originally published on April 10, 2014 6:04 pm

This week, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum in Austin, Texas, is holding a major conference on civil rights. It's a big deal. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Johnson's signing of the Civil Rights Act. The legacy of the landmark legislation is as significant and complicated as that of the late president himself, who cajoled, cornered and courted lawmakers to approve the bill.

For those of us who can't make it, though, the LBJ Time Machine — the presidential library's Tumblr — is the next best option. It contains a treasure trove of photographs and correspondence from the Johnson White House that illustrate the extent to which civil rights was part and parcel of the day-to-day agenda in the nation's highest office, on an amazing array of fronts.

Here are some notable entries:

In June of 1967, the Johnson Administration was keeping close tabs on Stokely Carmichael, the radical black activist. In this letter, it seems that the Johnson Administration thought Carmichael was instigating riots in different American cities.

In 1967, LBJ picks Ramsey Clark to fill the vacant attorney general spot. The one small problem: Clark's father, Tom Clark, is a sitting Justice on the Supreme Court. The elder Clark promptly steps down, leaving a vacancy on Supreme Court.

And Johnson already had a replacement in mind. According to his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, the president had picked Thurgood Marshall, the renowned civil rights lawyer, to be his solicitor general a year prior specifically so that it might serve as a platform for a justice position on the high court:

"Lyndon admires Judge Thurgood Marshall and spoke of the possibility of asking him to be the Solicitor General, and then if he proved himself outstanding perhaps when a vacancy on the Supreme Court opened up, he might nominate him as a Justice — the first of his race."

This 1967 letter form Jackie Robinson touches on the two biggest policy dilemmas Johnson had to navigate: the war in Vietnam abroad and the civil rights movement at home. Robinson urged Johnson not to let the war's growing unpopularity — Martin Luther King had become a vocal opponent of the war — distract Johnson from the momentum of the civil rights movement.

In 1967, Johnson nominated Walter Washington, who ran New York City's housing authority, as the first mayor of Washington D.C., making him the first African-American mayor of a major American city. (Washington would be the last mayor of the nation's capitol to be appointed by the president.) Johnson tapped Tom Fletcher, an undersecretary at Housing and Urban Development, to aid Washington.

"In a special way, the problems of the Nation's first city are also the problems of the Nation," Johnson said. "No men in any other public jobs face more exciting or exacting challenges than this new team of leaders for Washington. We believe we have found the right men for the right jobs at the right time."

You can find a live stream of some of the speakers at the summit at

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