Martin Luther King and Three U.S. Presidents Earlier this month, presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton sparked controversy when she was quoted as saying King's dream of racial equality was realized only when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Guests and callers discuss King's relationships with three U.S. presidents: Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
NPR logo

Martin Luther King and Three U.S. Presidents

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Martin Luther King and Three U.S. Presidents

Martin Luther King and Three U.S. Presidents

Martin Luther King and Three U.S. Presidents

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Earlier this month, presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton sparked controversy when she was quoted as saying King's dream of racial equality was realized only when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Guests and callers discuss King's relationships with three U.S. presidents: Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Today's national holiday honors Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader whose deeds and words roused the conscience of the nation and the world.

King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968 four years after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. And well, that may seemed distant history to some, his death and his life remained very real to everyone who was alive at that time, which may help explain the power of the recent controversy about the roles that he and President Lyndon Johnson played in the passage of civil rights legislation. The fact is that neither man's role was simple nor easy to categorize, and that King's relationship with Johnson grew out of his previous dealings with Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy. On this Martin Luther King Day, King and the presidents.

Later in the hour, political endorsements are in the Opinion Page this week. Do you read candidate endorsements in the newspaper or do you care? You can e-mail us now, is the e-mail address.

But first, Martin Luther King's relations with three presidents. And we begin with a former White House official, who joins us here in Studio 3A. Lee White served as an advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. He was President Johnson's chief aide on civil rights matters.

And, Lee White, good to have you with us again.

Mr. LEE WHITE (Former Advisor to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson)): Glad to be here.

CONAN: And let me go back to the Kennedy administration. And when Kennedy came into office, where was Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement on his radar?

Mr. WHITE: Well, the Reverend Martin Luther King was one of the leaders. They were about five or six that constituted the leadership group and President Kennedy met with them. The principal - at that time - leader was Roy Wilkins of NAACP, James Farmer of CORE. We have Congressman John Lewis of SNCC and Whitney Young of The Urban League. So there was a group and King was part of that group.

CONAN: And were they…

Mr. WHITE: And he was the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

CONAN: And were they seen as - and he, in particular - as troublemakers, as allies?

Mr. WHITE: Well, they wanted to go faster than the administration wanted to go on legislation. But President Kennedy's attitude was he could do an awful lot by executive order. And he did do a lot by executive order. He created the Committee on Equal Opportunity and Employment headed by Vice President Johnson at that time. And he created a commission to finally put integration into the Armed Forces headed by Gary Geisel, who later became a federal judge. But legislation was something that he would want to go to later on…

CONAN: Later on in terms of second term?

Mr. WHITE: Second term or when the time was right. The problem that he faced - Kennedy faced legislatively was that almost all of the committee chairman - the House and the Senate - were Southerners. They had a habit of keeping their people in office and seniority system elevated them to chairmanships. And so, it was a little tougher, and it was…

CONAN: John F. Kennedy was certainly not swept into office by a landslide. He had some political chips, but he chose not to spend them there.

Mr. WHITE: Well, I'm not sure he could've. So to spend it, it would've been successful. There's no point in spending the chips if you don't win the game. And he was a pragmatist, of course, and he knew what he could do and what he didn't think he could do. And I think he was correct, in the sense, that we accomplished the enormous amount, and then as I think we've already been told, we had the Birmingham explosion in 1963. And that pushed the president's hand and he was right there on it. Gave a powerful speech to the nation about what Bull Connor was doing and - with the fire hoses and the dogs, and the issue was joined.

CONAN: John Kennedy is portrayed, at least in the history books, as somebody who was initially very sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement, but aloof from it. Not - did not see himself as part of that movement in any stretch of the imagination and somebody who was made to act, as you suggest, by events rather than forcing the initiative himself.

Mr. WHITE: Well, that's not - I'm not sure where that comes from because it doesn't quite fit with my own personal experience. He was always for civil rights - that's easy enough. And one of legislation was before him, he didn't have any problem voting for it when he was in the House and in the Senate, although, as you know, there was Kennedy product producer. But, again, he wanted to - he knew what he could do and what he didn't think he could do and he didn't want to do that in a manner that was going to jeopardize his other programs.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Was - this is, I guess, before the passage of the Voting Rights Act, but did John Kennedy come into office with any sense of obligation to African-Americans?

Mr. WHITE: Well, it was this way. That election was so close in 1960 that every group that came in to see him would say, you know, Mr. President, if hadn't been for us, you wouldn't be president. He said, yeah, I know, everybody tells me the same thing. They're all right and they were all correct. So, yeah, of course he did.

And as you may remember the one - one of the issues that seemed to (unintelligible) the events - and because the election was close, every single thing that made a difference was it - he issued, while he was a candidate, a statement saying that President Eisenhower could have done a great deal for eliminating discrimination in housing with a stroke of a pen. So what happen when I got into the White House, people reminded the president by sending pens. I have more damn pens in my office than I knew what to do with. And the president did indeed issue the executive order on housing.

CONAN: Well, joining us now also here in Studio 3A is Roger Wilkins, a former assistant attorney general in the Johnson administration.

And Roger Wilkins, good to see you again.

Mr. ROGER WILKINS (Former Assistant Attorney General): It's nice to see you. Thank you.

CONAN: And what it is we're talking about the - Rev. King and the presidents. You, of course, dealt with him from a strange perspective in the Justice Department. Of course, while you were there as well, in another part of the Justice Department, there was J. Edgar Hoover.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILKINS: Well, first of all, let me say that you have surprised me and delighted me by not telling me that my friend Lee White was going to be here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILKINS: And I want to tell you that in talking about civil rights in the government - before I went to the Justice Department, I was in the Agency for International Development. And I had a contact in the White House and I just thought that the president was - President Kennedy was going too slow and I'd always tell him, Ralph - his name was Ralph Dungan - Ralph, tell the president this, tell the president. Finally, he said, you know this stuff, I don't know this stuff, write him a memo, I'll give it to him.

A few days after, I wrote this memo, terrified, terrified to criticize the president, I was summoned to the White House to see the president's counsel -very elevated human being, the White House counsel. And I walked into see Mr. White…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WILKINS: …who looked at me, kindly and gently as if I were the village idiot and he said, do you really believe that John Kennedy doesn't care about civil rights? And I said, yes, sir. I believe that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILKINS: That's - that is at true story.

Mr. WHITE: As soon as the other ones you're going to tell.

Mr. WILKINS: That's right. So your question was?

CONAN: Well, getting back to - from the point of view of somebody who's in the movement, I guess there are people like you in the Justice Department in the Johnson administration, who might be seen as allies, at the same time J. Edgar Hoover was still running the FBI. J. Edgar Hoover was busily investigating people for all kinds of things as were later find out.

Mr. WILKINS: You could - when I was in the Justice Department, you could only surmise it. You could only believe that there were some proofs somewhere that Hoover was doing things that the administration - that really were at odds with what the administration was trying to do. I did know that Hoover did not like my organization - with a small community services agency, lots of blacks and a few Latinos and people dressed the way people dressed in those times. Hoover sent a memo to the White House saying that I was running a black power cell…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILKINS: …in the Department of Justice. You knew that he had a fixation on communism, and you knew that his analysis of civil rights was laced with that obsession. What you didn't know - what I didn't know until late - was that he had a secret obsession with Martin Luther King. And so - but Hoover and I, we - Hoover did not come to executive meetings with the attorney general, I think he and I saw each other only twice.

CONAN: But stepping outside of that…

Mr. WILKINS: Yeah.

CONAN: …for a moment. Could you see - as somebody looking inside of that it's a little hard to figure out? Are these people our friends or are they our enemies?

Mr. WILKINS: My assumption was that Hoover was our enemy simply because he had a - well, the FBI had to be pushed and wiggled into working the south on the Ku Klux Klan and the murders of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman. They - John Door, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, had to devise a very brilliant but time-consuming worksheet for his agents to follow in order to get information that we needed and that any good professional investigative organization would have done without being pushed. So we knew that there wasn't friend in the house, in that house.

CONAN: We're talking with Roger Wilkins, who served as assistant attorney general in the Johnson administration; Lee White, former assistant special counsel to President Kennedy and former special counsel to President Johnson about Martin Luther King and the presidents.

Coming up next, we want to hear from you. If you were part of the civil rights movement, how did you view the role of government? Did you see it as an ally or as an obstacle or as both? Our number is 800-989-8255. E-mail is Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

It's Martin Luther King Day, of course, and we're on this holiday talking about King's unique relationships with three presidents - Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson. Our guests here in Studio 3A were both eyewitnesses and participants. Roger Wilkins, the assistant attorney general in the Johnson administration. Lee White, assistant special counsel to President Kennedy and then later special counsel to President Johnson.

If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255. E-mail If you go back to those days, did you see the administration as an ally or as an obstacle? 800-989-8255.

And let me ask you, Lee White. When was it that Martin Luther King himself - you mentioned this group of people that - of leaders that President Kennedy met with early on his administration. But when was it that he started to notice Martin Luther King especially?

Mr. WHITE: Well, there's an absolutely perfect answer to that. It was in August in 1963 in the March on Washington. And there were a number of fine speeches made. And all of a sudden, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. took the podium and he offered one of the most remarkable speeches of all time. It's in the - I'm sure in the anthology of great speeches. I happen to - this was the March on Washington in August 1963. A couple of hundred thousand people assembled on the mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial. And the administration was very antsy about this. We weren't all that comfortable about what was going to happen. So it was being monitored very carefully.

As the program went on, I was in the Oval Office with President Kennedy, and all of a sudden, we were watching the King speech. What a blockbuster. And that was the thing that propelled him out of the pact of leaders into a position of great influence in this country and obviously much deserved. But it was that powerful speech which we hear repeated frequently and which should be because it's one of the great turning points. And it also had the effect of putting Dr. King in a position where he could be a leader of the - not only the black world but the whole world - in the United States, which led, of course, to the rhubarb we have these days of who is more important than getting the 1964 Civil Rights Acts passed?

Well, it was a package. There was an inspiration and that was an implementer. I thought he was very skilled at getting legislation enacted and who, by the way, was - used the assassination of President Kennedy as a ramming rod to push it through Congress, and he did and it was a tribute to the martyred president.

CONAN: Now, here's the clip that you're talking about. Not the Martin Luther King's clip - that's rather a long one - but this from Lyndon Johnson's speech to Congress.

(Soundbite of Lyndon Johnson's Speech to Congress)

President LYNDON JOHNSON: No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the Civil Rights Bill for which he fought so long.

CONAN: And in that moment when, perhaps, the tremendous political collateral that President Johnson had. Nevertheless, this was not easy and not quick.

Mr. WHITE: That's right. But - Bobby Kennedy testified nine days before Congress on that bill. But it was - things were reeling and President Johnson's skills were in a very clear view. For example, he knew how to deal with Everett Dirksen, the minority leader from Illinois, Republican from Illinois, the minority leader in the Senate, and also Congressman McAuliffe(ph) from Ohio, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, and so, he got some support from them. And he was prepared to share the credit as long as he got what he wanted, which was the passage of the 1964 Act.

President Kennedy had an observation that seemed to me to be appropriate for some of the conversations we've had lately. He said, you know, defeat is an orphan and success has a thousand fathers. If we didn't worry too much about who got credit, we'll get, perhaps, more done.

CONAN: I wonder, Roger Wilkins, if you again had another vantage point of that period of time. The urgency of now - the Reverend King was talking about in 1963 - you've already said you've certainly felt that. Nevertheless, as you looked at those political difficulties that are faced by President Johnson, what do you think?

Mr. WILKINS: Well, first of all, I think that there was a huge difference between Presidents Kennedy and Johnson that as a young man in his early 30s I didn't really fully understand. The Kennedys were wealthy Bostonians. And they know black people are poor people, which just wasn't in their frame of reference or in their lives. When Johnson became president, even though I've been critical of President Kennedy, I was really distressed that this Southerner. I've been born in the south and I grew up in the north, and hearing a southern accent out of a white mouth always troubled me.

And when Johnson acceded the presidency, I said to my uncle who was running the NAACP at that time, oh, this is going to be terrible. This Southerner - da-da-da-da-da. He said stop. He said, just stop. I know this man. I worked with him on the 1957 Civil Rights Act. I know his heart's in the right place and I know he will lead us well. I didn't - I took my uncle's judgment with several grains of salt. As I grew older, I understood that he was exactly right.

CONAN: You got smarter.

Mr. WILKINS: Johnson knew poor people as he was growing up. Johnson knew minority people as he was growing up. He knew their problems in ways that Kennedys could not have know their problems. And so what I experienced as a young person working for him was that despite my abhorrence of the war, that on every other front, my admiration for him just grew. Until after we were out of the government, I ran into him several years after we're out of the government, and he said, well, how are you? And I said fine. And he said, you're writing for the Post. That's a great thing to do. We need voices to speak up.

I said, well, why don't you speak up, Mr. President? He said, you think anybody would listen to me, he said, yes - I said yes. If you spoke out, you'll have the second - you still have the second biggest voice in the country. He says, who could I get to help me? I said, get McElroy(ph). You guys have known each other since the '50s. You're the same generation. You like each other. He says, that's a good idea.

Sometime later, I learned that my uncle and his wife were had been invited down to the Johnson Ranch. He - my uncle then told me when he got back that they - that the president wanted ideas for a speech and that they had long conversations. Subsequently, as he was dying, the LBJ library was opened and dedicated and its Civil Rights papers were received. And against his doctors' advice and his wife's advice, Lyndon Johnson got up and he made what I consider to be the best Civil Rights speech made in the United States in the whole decade of the seventies. So his heart was right exactly where one would want it to be.

CONAN: There's another president we need to talk about so we have another guest. David Nichols is the author of "A Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Movement." He joins us from the studios of KNSS in Wichita, Kansas.

David Nichols, nice to have you with us.

Mr. DAVID NICHOLS (Author, "A Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Movement"): Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And Eisenhower is not a name that most of us associate with the Civil Rights Movement. How much of a part of his domestic policy was it?

Mr. NICHOLS: Well, it was a much more significant part than we - than historians have granted to this point. Eisenhower - he segregated the District of Columbia. He completed the desegregation of the Armed Forces that Truman have begun. He introduced the legislation that led to the '57 Civil - 1957 Civil Rights Act. In fact, he introduced strong proposals that were largely gutted by the southerners, including Lyndon Johnson. That was the first civil rights legislation in 82 years. Above all, Eisenhower appointed men to the Supreme Court and the federal courts who were pro-civil rights.

And on the Supreme Court he appointed five men including Earl Warren and William Brennan and Potter Stewart - men like that, and strong pro-civil rights judges in the south like Frank Johnson who dealt with the issue in Alabama with the Alabama - the bus boycott and the 1965 Selma marches. So Eisenhower did a lot more than he's being given credit for.

CONAN: If we failed to give him credit at least that - in no small part because he didn't speak much about it.

Mr. NICHOLS: Well, speaking was not the thing - and this is a thing you have to do with Eisenhower is look at what he did not what he said. As a soldier he had not won the war in Europe by making speeches and sometimes particularly black leaders were very disappointed in him that he didn't make fervent speeches. And that includes Martin Luther King who as a very young interacted quite a bit with Eisenhower in the '50s. And he - you want me to talk about that a little bit?

CONAN: Well, if you - yeah, if you could keep it short.

Mr. NICHOLS: Yeah. The - you know, Eisenhower proposed the civil rights legislation in 1957 and King immediately, with his new SCLC organization, put pressure on the president and on the Congress to pass that. He actually had a march in Washington in 1957 they called it a prayer pilgrimage. It was to celebrate the 3rd anniversary at the Brown v. Board of Education decision and King later told Richard Nixon that he supported even the weak bill that finally got passed.

Most of the teeth got taken out of the by the southerners and Lyndon Johnson. But the teeth - but he said it was better no bill and all, but they would have to have a mass movement to keep the legislation meaning anything, and that mass movement has not yet developed in the '50s but it did in the '60s as your guest your guest already talked about.

CONAN: Yet at the same time, yes, legislation, executive actions - those sorts of things, certainly the appointment of judges, very important. On the issue of, well, morals and conscience, words are important, too.

Mr. NICHOLS: Well, they certainly are, and that's a legitimate criticism of Eisenhower. But I have to say, Eisenhower - if he didn't make a passionate appeal for a moral case on Brown v. Board of Education after 1954, neither did Lyndon Johnson, Larry Truman or John F. Kennedy. You know, the thing I would emphasize here and (unintelligible) - your introduction to the program's exactly right, it actually, the government took a backward step when Kennedy came into office in 1961.

Eisenhower would never appoint segregationist judges in the south. Kennedy appointed a number of them. He and Lyndon Johnson really were very conservative on this issue until 1963. And then I gave them full credit. They took great steps in mid-1963, '64 and '65 and did some wonderful things that Eisenhower is actually more progressive than they were until that time.

CONAN: We're talking about King and the presidents. David Nichols is with us. He wrote "A Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Movement." Our other guests are Roger Wilkins, who served as a assistant attorney general in the Johnson administration; Lee White, who served as beginning of the assistant special counsel to president Johnson. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION NPR News.

And let's get some callers involved in the conversation. And let's turn first to Tesfei(ph) is that right?

TESFEI (Caller): Yes, Tesfei.

CONAN: Tesfei calling from Phoenix, Arizona. That I can pronounce. Go ahead please.

TESFEI: Yes. On the outset I like to say I'm neither a Republican or a former supporter of Richard Nixon, but I'm glad you got the Eisenhower man online because Richard Nixon wrote all kinds of supporting letters and supports from the Civil Rights movement way before the Kennedy's. And knowing that his support towards hurt him politically. And later on in the - and I lived this history, later on the 1960s, African-Americans benefited a lot more from the Nixon administration than they did on the Johnson administration.

However, in the end when he realized he's not getting that support he was - in a good Nixon fashion - he devised the Southern Strategy with the John Mitchell. Incidentally, before I hang up I like to say that we should all take what Bill Clinton is saying about Obama in the same fashion we interpret his statement that he did not have any sex with Monica Lewinsky.

CONAN: Well, thank you for that. But let's discuss towards this - matters that are on topic.

And David Nichols, is he right about Richard Nixon?

Mr. NICHOLS: Well, I can mainly speak about the '50s when Nixon was vice president. Nixon was progressive. But you know we have to get used to it. How different it was on those days where particularly northeastern and Republicans were highly progressive on Civil Rights whereas the Democratic Party was so badly split because of this solid Democratic south. But Nixon often did - was Ike's bully pulpiteer, I guess you could say. He was the one who spoke out politically on issues, and that was typical of Eisenhower in the way he utilizes people. Nixon became fairly close to Martin Luther King.

They met together while on a meeting on June 13, 1957 for a long meeting, and Nixon later reported to the president that he thought he would really appreciate meeting with King. And in fact, in 1957 - June 23, 1958, there was a significant meeting - and King caused this to come about more than anybody else - with Lester Granger and A. Philip Randolph and Roy Wilkins, all met with the president. This was a historic meeting of black leaders meeting with the president to talk policy. It wasn't just a photo op; they really got together to talk policy.

Now, in fairness, Eisenhower was really reluctant to have that meeting, but King really pushed him into it. King was only 29 years old at that time, so he was the extraordinary influence already.

CONAN: Okay.

Lee White, I just wanted to get your general reaction of David Nichols' broader point that until 1963, in fact, race relationships took a step back when Kennedy took office.

Mr. WHITE: Yeah, well, I was waiting for the opportunity to respond. I was about to say something nice about President Eisenhower that you didn't say Mr. Nichols. And he had the guts to send the Army into Little Rock, Arkansas. And that took a lot of guts for him and I want to give him credit for that.

Mr. NICHOLS: Yes, he did.

Mr. WHITE: But as far as President Kennedy, I hope I was making a point that he did an awful lot by executive order. We weren't stepping backward; we were stepping forward. And each president is, in my view, more costly compared to his predecessor. And the attitude was when President Kennedy - the young guy took over from the old guy - was in the black community, here is a kindred soul. And they knew that they were in happy house when they met with him. It's true that we didn't move as fast as they would like, but nobody would've moved as fast as some interest group for the like and this was the most powerful interest group in the country. So a lot was accomplished. And I just wanted to make sure that the record was clear on that.

CONAN: And if you want to find out more about what was accomplished in the Eisenhower administration, "A Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Movement." David Nichols, thanks very much for your time today.

We'll continue with more of your calls for our guests and the Opinion Page. This is NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In a few moments, our regular Opinion Page weekly segment. But first, we want to continue our conversation about King and the presidents. Our guests include Roger Wilkins, former assistant attorney general in the Johnson administration; and Lee White, a former assistant special counsel to President Kennedy, a former special counsel to President Johnson and author of "Government for the People: Reflections of a White House Counsel to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson."

And if you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255. E-mail is

And Dave(ph) is on the line. Dave, calling us from Boston.

DAVE (Caller): Hi. I'll give you an anecdote that illustrates a little what you've been talking about. I worked in the office that organized the 1963 March on Washington. It was Bayard Rustin, who was the main person responsible. And pardon my memory here, but early in the process, somebody from the Kennedy administration called up. I guess they spoke to Bayard. And they strongly urged them not to do it. They said, you know, don't come down here and make trouble. We'll resist it all we can.

And by later in the summer, around the end of July or beginning of August, we had chartered every bus in the northeast. And somebody else from the administration called up and said, gee, well, the president wants you to know we're glad you're coming down to support his program.

I think this reinforces the point that several people have made that this wasn't a top-down process. This was really a bottom-up process. And it was caused by, you know, it was motivated by people in the streets while the people on the top who were forced or empowered to do something - I don't think it really matters. It was really the movement at the bottom that caused it. And then I think we can see a lot of parallels, and what's happening now is that the general population is ahead of their so-called leaders.

CONAN: I wonder, Lee White, is that your memory of that? Did it shift in that manner or…

Mr. WHITE: Well, I don't know who Bayard Rustin talked to, who told him not to come. That would be a very tough thing. It is true that the administration did not generate the project. It was from the leadership who said we should come. But…

CONAN: The civil rights leadership.

Mr. WHITE: The civil rights leadership, yes. And that made sense. But what the administration had to do was to prepare for it and to make sure that it came off as smoothly as it could. And it did. Bobby Kennedy, as attorney general, appointed assistant attorney general John Douglas, the son of former Senator Paul Douglas as the point man to do whatever has to be done logistically.

And the military had troops stationed around the city perimeter to - in the event there was - we didn't know what's going to happen. Today, our Washington police force is much more sophisticated than it was back in 1963. And so as a responsible administration, we had to be alert to the problems that might flow. But the gentleman is correct, that it was bottom-up, not it was - not the administration's doing. And it turned out to have gone so smoothly that everybody heaved a sign of relief.

CONAN: And those thousand fathers then came out of the woodwork.

Mr. WHITE: The thousand fathers came out of the woodwork. Correct. Everyone of us have - yeah, we were all for it.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Dave.

DAVE: All right. Thanks.

CONAN: So long. And Roger Wilkins, I wanted to ask you, in a way you had a feet in both camps, did you feel ambivalent about your role in government at all?

Mr. WILKINS: Very much. I was - as I said, I was - when I was in the foreign aid program, I was very critical of President Kennedy and his stand. And I also, I have to say, just in the side about President Eisenhower, I accept everything that was said about him. But the issue that really concerned black people in the '50s was the Brown decision. And whether the Brown decision would be implemented, enforced, whether - and what the mood of the country was in terms of accepting this new paradigm.

And we all - I've clerked with Thurgood Marshall between the summer of 1955, when I'm still a law student. What we all wanted was a ringing affirmation from the White House that this was the law of the land. The Supreme Court had spoken, this is what the Constitution requires and I, President Eisenhower, expect you to receive this peacefully and constructively. That never came. What…


Mr. WILKINS: …came from the White House were suggestions that the president's silence indicated that he was unhappy with the decision. He did send troops to the - to Little Rock, but that was about insubordination by a governor with respect to the dealing with the National Guard. And he had to do it as chief law enforcement officer but as head of state, what he could have done to support Brown v. Board on - was in the view of the young Roger Wilkins and the very old Roger Wilkins - a great, great error.

CONAN: David Nichols, to be fair, also pointed out that neither President Kennedy nor President Johnson made that speech you're talking about.

Mr. WHITE: That's not quite correct. They weren't president when the decision was issued and I don't really know that they didn't say. In fact, I'm - I'll have to search the record but I can't believe that neither - certainly, President Kennedy would have said he approved of that decision. I don't know where Mr. Nichols got that information but that's something ought to be examined.

CONAN: Okay. Let's get one last caller in. This is Barbara(ph). Barbara with us from Phoenix, Arizona.

BARBARA (Caller): Yes. My husband and I were in Washington, D.C. in 1963. He was stationed in the Air Force and we were so impressed with that beautiful speech of Dr. King's that when we moved back to Milwaukee, that still was resonant in our heart. And my husband and I marched with Fr. James Groppi and people of Milwaukee that were for open house and for fair housing and civil rights and we were photographed. They photographed us each time we marched and we also felt that our phones were tapped. And so I didn't feel much support from the government of the people of the government of Milwaukee. It was definitely a bottom-up process. It definitely it was something that came from the people.

CONAN: Thank you very much for that. Appreciate the phone call.

BARBARA: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: And Roger Wilkins, again, this sounds like it was local rather than federal but nevertheless, people often saw the government as an adversary in this entire enterprise.

Mr. WILKINS: I think that's even though there were some of us who thought that the Kennedys were slower than they should be, we always felt that they were on our side and moving in the right direction. And in fact, by 1963, President Kennedy was saying things that were very powerful and very constructive.

From the beginning of his term in office, President Johnson, starting with making President Kennedy's death the occasion for passing the Civil Rights Bill in his honor and then he just pressed on and on and on, and it was quite clear where his heart was. As to the problem with the government, Father Groppi…

CONAN: In Milwaukee enacted…

Mr. WILKINS: …in Milwaukee a very activist priest for whom people in the movements, black people movement, had high regard was regarded by the FBI as a difficult and perhaps subversive person. I remember this very clearly because when Father Groppi brought a group of people from Milwaukee to the Poor People's Campaign, which Martin King had started and then was murdered before he was able to lead it, one of the warnings that came out of the FBI about the Poor People's Campaign and the people were coming was a warning about Fr. Groppi and his radical Wisconsin group. And so I think your caller probably was not being paranoid. I'd suspect that there probably were people taking her picture.

CONAN: We want to thank you both very much for joining us on this Martin Luther King Day.

Roger Wilkins, former assistant attorney general in the Johnson administration and now teaches history at George Mason University. And also with us, Lee White, author of "Government for the People: Reflections of a White House Counsel to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson." They both joined us here on studio 3A and we thank them very much for your time.

Coming up next, the Opinion Page.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.