When Martin Luther King Jr. met Lyndon Baines Johnson on December 3, 1963, the latter did most of the talking. King told reporters afterward, I have implicit confidence in the man, and unless he betrays his past actions, we will proceed on the basis that we have in the White House a man who is deeply committed to help us. Despite highs and lows in their relationship, the two men achieved two historic legislative landmarks, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
By the spring and summer of 1965, however, King began to publicly raise doubts about the administration's Vietnam policy. In an April 1967 speech, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient and minister explained his opposition to the war and denounced the country's role in world affairs. Johnson called the speech an act of disloyalty to the country. Nick Kotz tells the dramatic story of these complex men and their tumultuous times in Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Laws That Changed America. Kotz draws on tapes of LBJ's telephone conversations, the so-called Stegall files named after a confidential secretary to LBJ and several thousand documents released in response to Kotz's Freedom of Information Act requests. The effect is a powerful narrative that makes events come alive.
We are made aware of the constant pressures on each man, both from their opponents and supporters. Kotz shows Johnson's legendary skill at guiding legislation through Congress in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. We see how King, though told by both presidents Kennedy and Johnson to stop demonstrations because it made passing legislation more difficult, continued because those who marched believed that traditional methods alone would never win them equality. Kotz shows us that LBJ, not known as a great public speaker, could be eloquent on the subject of civil rights. This well-written study helps us to better understand two men without whom Kotz says the civil rights revolution might have ended with fewer accomplishments and even greater trauma. Roger Bishop is a Nashville bookseller and frequent contributor to BookPage.