Lyndon B. Johnson and the Ku Klux Klan

Written by: Lily (Runhe) Li

Lyndon B. Johnson is the president known for contributing the most to the civil rights movement by passing large legislature such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act. What many do not know is that Lyndon B. Johnson took a personal stance against the Ku Klux Klan, fighting to prosecute them and to eliminate the organization from America.

A Personal Cause

Lyndon B. Johnson’s grandfather (known as “Big Sam”) and father (“Little Sam”) were both politically active. The two Sams sought clemency for Leo Frank, a Jewish victim who was lynched by a mob in 1915 in Atlanta. Due to their outspokenness, the Johnsons were threatened by the Ku Klux Klan in Texas. If they did not withdraw their support for Leo Frank, the Johnsons would be killed. The Johnsons later told friends that they had hid in the cellar of their home while Lyndon Johnson’s father and uncles stood guard on their porch holding shotguns just in case the Ku Klux Klan made good on their threats. These incidents are often cited by Johnson are the cause of his opposition to the Ku Klux Klan’s ideals.

Same Party Enemies 

Johnson became the first president to prosecute and arrest Klansmen in the last 93 years (since Ulysses S. Grant). Johnson’s decision to alienate the Ku Klux Klan was 
even more shocking because he was a Democrat, who relied on the South for a steady vote. Due to his very vocal and daring criticism of the Ku Klux Klan, Lyndon B. Johnson and the Ku Klux Klan became fierce political and ideological enemies. 

On March 25th 1965, Viola Liuzzo, a Unitarian Universalist civil rights activist from Michigan was murdered by four Ku Kluz Klan members. The four Klan members were quickly arrested; with “a hooded society of bigots”. Johnson claimed that Viola was killed by “the enemies of justice who for decades have used the rope and the gun and the tar and the feathers in twenty-four hours, President Lyndon Johnson appeared on national television to announce their arrest. In that televised report, Johnson criticized the Ku Klux Klan as to terrorize their neighbors.” Johnson even went as far to say that the KKK “struck by night… for their purpose cannot stand the light of day”. Johnson warned the KKK member to leave the Klan and “return to a decent society before it is too late”. Starting on March 26th, President Johnson called for a full investigation of the Ku Klux Klan. Lyndon Johnson used this opportunity to condemn the actions of the Ku Klux Klan members and used this bout of infamy to persuade Congress to pass the Civil rights Act of 1964.

The Elections of 1964 

During the 1964 elections, the Ku Klux Klan fully placed their support on Barry Goldwater. Because a large amount of the Ku Klux Klan were Southern Democrats, this was the first time a Republican made headway into the South, which was previously dominated by the Democratic party. As a result, some of the dirtiest and harshest campaign videos emerged from both sides. Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration did not hesitate to use the fact that the Ku Klux Klan was a supporter of Barry Goldwater to portray him as a man who supported lynching and burning crosses, terrorists and murderers. Johnson was able to successful dirty Goldwater’s name and isolate the Southern Democrats and the Ku Klux Klan in the process. To retaliate, the Ku Klux Klan funded a commercial criticizing the immoral America that seemed too obsessed with sex and luxury, attributing such moral corruption as reflective of the corruption of America’s leader, Lyndon B. Johnson.

A Brave Man

Lyndon B. Johnson may have left office due to his actions in Vietnam, but his loyalty towards domestic matters, especially civil rights cannot be ignored. Although it hurt him politically, Johnson stuck by his values and fully persecuted the Ku Klux Klan, an issue that so many Presidents avoided in order to preserve their political careers. But then again, it does make sense that the tall, charismatic man who towered over you and poked you in the chest while making his point was also the man who had the courage and the unshakable sense of justice to go after one of the most infamous and terrible groups in the United States’s history.