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The Civil Rights Tapes

by Jonathan Rosenberg & Zachary Karabell

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-393-05122-6
Publisher: Norton

A collection of primary, hitherto unknown documents in the history of the civil-rights movement.

Drawing on archival materials available only 40 years after the fact, and centering on a trove of audiotapes now housed at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, historians Rosenberg and Karabell (Parting the Desert, p. 443, etc.) offer a fly-on-the-wall view of the often tense, often combative stance of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in pressing for equality across the land. One question to ask of those documents early on, the editors suggest, is this: “Why did Kennedy and Johnson come to believe that civil rights reform was the single most important domestic issue facing the nation and decide it was worth fighting for?” Both presidents, after all, had much to lose in potentially alienating the South. Yet, as is clear from the transcripts of meetings and telephone conversations presented here, both Kennedy and Johnson took to the cause, often playing hardball to get their point across, as when Kennedy clashed with Mississippi governor Ross Barnett over James Meredith’s effort to enroll in the state university in 1962. (Kennedy: “I’d like to get assurances from you that the state police will take positive action to maintain law and order.” Barnett: “Oh, they’ll do that.” Kennedy: “Then we’ll know what we have to do.”) Kennedy may not have always known the players—at one point he wonders who Dick Gregory is, asking, “Is he highly regarded by the Negroes”?—but his heart was clearly in the right place, as was Johnson, who emerges from these pages, as from Robert Caro’s recent Master of the Senate, as a consummate politician not afraid of breaking a few bones while engaging in a little friendly arm-twisting. The result, of course, was the groundbreaking Civil Rights Act of 1964.

A notable effort, essential for the study of the civil-rights movement.