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Examining the shared civil-rights legacy of LBJ and MLK Jr.

In "Judgment Days," award-winning journalist Nick Kotz examines these leaders' intertwined accomplishments. Here's an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY

Opposites in many ways and wary of each other, Lyndon Baines Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr., came together after John F. Kennedy's assassination and helped pass the nation's most influential civil-rights legislation. Through hundreds of interviews, taped conversations and logs, journalist and author Nick Kotz weaves together the detailed story of the two men who helped put an end to discrimination. Here's an excerpt from "Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Laws That Changed America."

The Cataclysm
The day began in triumph for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Riding through the sunny streets of downtown Dallas in an open convertible, his young wife, Jacqueline, beside him, the president of the United States beamed at the cheering crowds. Two cars back in the motorcade, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who knew he had been Kennedy’s choice for vice president principally to keep the South in the Democratic fold, felt vindicated by the warm reception in his home state. Both men had been apprehensive about open hostility from angry Southerners in the wake of Kennedy’s call for a new civil rights law.

Instead, thousands of ebullient Texans applauded and waved at their handsome young president and at their own Lyndon Johnson. In the front car, Nellie Connally, wife of Texas governor John Connally, turned back toward John Kennedy. “You can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you,” she beamed.

An instant later, Nellie Connally heard a loud noise, followed rapidly by several more explosions. She saw President Kennedy grip his throat with both hands and heard her husband moan, “Oh, no, no, no,” and then, “My God, they are going to kill us all!” Kennedy was slumped over, bleeding, as was Governor Connally, whom she cradled in her arms as the convertible sped away.

Two cars behind them, Secret Service agent Rufus Youngblood yelled, “Get down!” and shoved Lyndon Johnson to the floorboard. The agent threw his own two hundred–pound body across Johnson to protect the vice president. Pinned down and unable to see, Johnson heard tires screeching as he felt the car accelerate. He heard the radioed voice of agent Roy Kellerman from Kennedy’s car shouting, “Let’s get the heck out of here!” Then he heard still another agent’s voice: “The President has been shot. We don’t know who else they are after.”

Moments later, Secret Service men rushed Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, into Parkland Memorial Hospital, where they huddled silently together in an examining room with the shades drawn. In an adjoining room, Secret Service agent Henry Roberts spoke into his radio to headquarters in Washington. “We don’t know what the full scope of this thing is,” he said. “It could be a conspiracy to try to kill the president, vice president — try to kill everybody.”

Less than an hour after the shots were fired, at 1:22 p.m. Central Standard Time, November 22, 1963, White House aide Kenneth O’Donnell came into the Johnsons’ room. “He’s gone,” he told them. At that moment, fifty-five-year-old Lyndon Baines Johnson became the thirty-sixth president of the United States.

In his two-story frame home on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. struggled awake late that November morning, physically and mentally exhausted from too much travel and too little sleep. During the previous seven days, King had been constantly on the road, first for a rally at Danville, Virginia, where the sparse turnout of supporters suggested that the civil rights leader would have trouble launching a planned major campaign there. The young minister was deeply worried that the civil rights movement was losing momentum and perplexed about where he should now direct the energies of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to pressure Congress into approving civil rights legislation. If not Danville, where should King go next? With conflicting advice coming from his aides, King did not know what to do.

After Danville, he had flown to New York to meet privately at Idlewild Airport with two key advisers, attorneys Clarence Jones and Stanley David Levison, who both urged him to launch a new campaign, lest the mantle of civil rights leadership pass to younger, more radical men. He then stopped off at a resort in New York’s Catskill Mountains at the national convention of United Synagogues of America to receive its annual leadership award. Next, he flew to Chicago to speak to the annual convention of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, representing Reform Jews. Such speeches, more than 150 a year, left him constantly tired.

They were necessary to build support and raise the funds needed to keep the SCLC afloat, yet aides constantly reminded King that those activities were no substitute for the kinds of direct-action demonstrations that had catapulted him to prominence. It had been just such an action in Birmingham, Alabama, six months earlier that had prompted President Kennedy to introduce a civil rights bill, after two years of urging from movement leaders. His proposed bill would outlaw segregation in public accommodations, forbid discrimination in employment, and withdraw federal aid from state and local governments that discriminated against anyone because of race, national origin, or religion. But now the legislation faced poor prospects in Congress, and King feared that Kennedy’s enthusiasm for the bill had waned as his 1964 reelection campaign drew nearer.

A television set flickered in the background as King tried to rest in his upstairs bedroom. At the first news bulletin, he shouted downstairs to his wife, “Corrie, I just heard that Kennedy has been shot, maybe killed!”

Coretta Scott King, who had been writing notes at her desk, rushed upstairs to her husband’s side. Horrified, the couple stared at scenes of the Dallas motorcade and the vigil at Parkland Memorial Hospital.

“This is just terrible,” cried King. Death threats had become a constant in the King home. “I hope he will live … I think if he lives — if he pulls through this, it will help him to understand better what we go through.”

Moments later, the television news anchor announced that the president was dead.

“This is what’s going to happen to me,” an agonized King told his wife. “This is such a sick society.”

Lyndon Johnson’s first fear was that the Soviet Union might have unleashed an attack against the United States. If the Soviets had shot the president, he thought, who would they shoot next? And what was going on in Washington? And when were the missiles coming? With these thoughts racing through his mind, Johnson ordered the Secret Service to delay public announcement of Kennedy’s death until he and Lady Bird had left Parkland Hospital.

As they prepared to leave, Johnson urged his wife to go see “Jackie and Nellie.” In a narrow hallway outside the main operating room, Mrs. Johnson found Jacqueline Kennedy standing alone, her face frozen in horror, her pink suit spattered with her husband’s blood. “God help us all!” Lady Bird said, embracing John F. Kennedy’s young widow. Lady Bird next went to her old friend Nellie Connally, who was being reassured by doctors that her husband would live.

The Johnsons then were rushed out a side door of the hospital and into separate unmarked police cars. Eight minutes later they arrived at Love Field. Scrambling up the ramp into Air Force One, Lyndon Johnson faced his first decisions as president. General Godfrey McHugh and other White House aides had been urging that the president’s official plane take off for Washington the moment the Johnsons came on board, but Lyndon Johnson countermanded the general’s order.

He would not leave Dallas without Jacqueline Kennedy and the body of her husband — then en route to Love Field — nor without first taking the oath of office as president. With that ceremony, he meant to show the world that the government of the United States was still functioning in an orderly manner. U.S. district judge Sarah Hughes, an old Johnson friend and supporter, was summoned from her office in Dallas. Hughes boarded the Boeing 707, and as Lyndon Baines Johnson placed his hand on a Bible, she administered the oath of office. Lady Bird Johnson and Jacqueline Kennedy stood at his side. After kissing each woman on the cheek, President Johnson commanded Colonel James Swindall, the pilot of Air Force One, “Let’s be airborne!”

As the plane sped toward Washington, Johnson telephoned Rose Kennedy, mother of the murdered president. “I wish to God there was something I could do,” he said. “I wanted to tell you that we were grieving with you.” Choked with emotion, Johnson handed the telephone to Lady Bird to try to console Mrs. Kennedy.

Over the jet’s sophisticated communications system, Johnson then arranged for congressional leaders and national security advisers to meet at the White House upon his arrival in Washington. And he instructed six members of the Cabinet aboard an airplane bound for Japan to change course and return to the capital. A few minutes earlier, Secretary of State Dean Rusk had informed that planeload of Cabinet members, reporters, and their party that President Kennedy had been shot, but they had not been told his condition. The delegation sat in stunned silence. When the airplane began to make a slow U-turn over the Pacific and head back toward the United States, they knew that their president was dead.

Two hours and ten minutes after leaving Dallas, Johnson stood in darkness on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington. His craggy face illuminated by klieg lights, the new president spoke to the nation:

“This is a sad time for all people. We have suffered a loss that cannot be weighed. For me it is a deep personal tragedy. I know the world shares the sorrow that Mrs. Kennedy and her family bear. I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask for your help and God’s.”

Touching down on the South Lawn of the White House after a ten minute helicopter ride from Andrews, Johnson strode deliberately toward the entrance of the Oval Office. Then, abruptly changing his mind, he walked through the White House basement to his vice presidential suite in the Executive Office Building. There he asked the assembled congressional leaders for their support. He approached each member of Kennedy’s Cabinet and staff and asked them all to stay on. “I need you more than the President needed you,” Johnson told them. He called Keith Funston, chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, to thank him for shutting down the market as soon as news broke of the assassination. He phoned Richard Maguire, treasurer of the Democratic National Committee and chief fundraiser for the expected 1964 Kennedy presidential campaign, and asked him to continue his work. He contacted former presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower to request their advice. He arranged to meet Eisenhower in Washington the following morning. Johnson also tried to reach the oldest living ex-president, eighty-nine-year-old Herbert Hoover, but was unable to do so and instead left a message with Hoover’s son.

FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called the new president with disquieting information about Lee Harvey Oswald, who had just been arrested and charged with Kennedy’s murder, a story that hinted at Cold War conspiracy.

A former U.S.Marine, Oswald had lived for several years in the Soviet Union, where he had married a Russian woman and tried to become a Soviet citizen. Oswald had worked for a group supporting Cuban Communist leader Fidel Castro and recently had visited the Soviet consulate in Mexico City.

The news could hardly have been more ominous. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was raging across the world — from the divided city of Berlin to Vietnam. Only thirteen months had passed since the United States and the Soviet Union had come within an eyelash of nuclear war over the presence of Soviet missiles on the island of Cuba, ninety-two miles from the American shore. After a nerve-wracking thirteen-day standoff, the crisis had ended when the Soviets agreed to remove the missiles.

Despite his own fears about Soviet involvement in the assassination, Johnson knew that the nation needed his reassurance. Concerned that Dallas district attorney Henry Wade might rush to a public judgment involving Oswald in a Communist plot, the new president asked his longtime adviser Horace Busby to assign Texas attorney general Waggoner Carr to take command of the assassination investigation.

For most of his life, Lyndon Johnson had dreamed of becoming president. Now, under nightmarish circumstances, his wish had been fulfilled, and he faced a nation stunned by sorrow, fear, and troubling questions:

Who had killed Jack Kennedy and why? And who was this hulking Texan with the deep Southwestern twang who had suddenly taken Kennedy’s place as president of the United States?

Excerpted from "Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Laws That Changed America," by Nick Kotz. Copyright © 2005 by Nick Kotz. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.