This Day In History: March 20, 1965

March 20, 1965 LBJ pledges federal troops to Alabama civil-rights march

On this day in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson sends a telegram to Governor George Wallace of Alabama in which he agrees to send federal troops to supervise a planned African-American civil-rights march in Wallace’s home state.

Later that day, from his ranch in Texas, LBJ read the telegram to reporters at a news conference. He told the press that he supported the constitutional rights of the marchers to walk peaceably and safely without injury or loss of life from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama and expressed dismay at the governor’s refusal to provide them the protection of the Alabama police.

Earlier that month, civil-rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. had led two attempts to march to Montgomery but both ended when the marchers encountered tear gas and billy-club attacks by Alabama police. On March 18, Wallace, who epitomized southern opposition to integration, phoned Johnson for advice after learning King had planned a third march for March 21. Johnson, a civil rights advocate who in 1964 passed the Civil Rights Bill, did not want to alienate any more southern voters and told Wallace he would support his decision to call out the Alabama National Guard to maintain order. However, Wallace appeared on television that evening and demanded that Johnson send in federal troops instead. Wallace’s demand was a calculated ploy–he excused Alabama state police from their duty and left the responsibility to keep the peace in Johnson’s lap. If Johnson’s federal troops got involved in a violent altercation between marchers and white segregationists, Johnson, not Wallace, would appear as the bad guy. Johnson reacted to Wallace’s double-cross by calling him a no-good son of a b—-! during a taped phone conversation at the White House.

Johnson’s March 20 telegram to Wallace contained a plea to all parties for civil order as well as a public warning to Wallace that over the next several days the eyes of the nation will be upon Alabama. Johnson told the governor that the march should be allowed to proceed in a manner honoring our heritage and honoring all for which America stands. In his closing comments to reporters, he urged Wallace to heed Abraham Lincoln’s advice to cater to the better angels of our nature on the day of the march. Hundreds of people joined what turned out to be a peaceful 54-mile march under the guard of Alabama state troopers and federal soldiers, as the conflict between Johnson and Wallace turned an even brighter spotlight on the need to address American race relations, particularly in the southern states.

D. K. Smith

D. K. Smith

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