A half century after he enacted two landmark civil rights laws during his presidency, Lyndon Baines Johnson was honored last week by what is known as the “president’s club.”
The “club” includes the nation’s current president and three former presidents. All four heaped lavish praise on LBJ for his historic legislative accomplishments – laws which would be impossible to pass in today’s deadlocked Congress.
But LBJ’s landmark civil rights legislation is not why he left a huge footprint on Mississippi political history.
It’s because of the “LBJ Special,” the 1960 campaign train Johnson rode across the Southern one-third of the state.
LBJ was carrying the flag of the Democratic ticket, as John F. Kennedy’s running mate.
Even though the Kennedy-Johnson ticket didn’t have a prayer of winning the state, every major state Democratic elective figure rode the campaign train. Now, in hindsight, it might be said that the LBJ special marked the origin of the eventual disintegration of the Democratic label as the state’s dominant political brand.
Here’s how I pinpoint the Johnson campaign trip as the starting point of the eventual transformation of political power in Mississippi. The segregationist white Citizens Councils, though denying it was an undercover wing of the Republican Party, in 1960 made defeat of Kennedy their top priority.
Bill Simmons, the major domo of the politically potent Councils vowed to seek defeat of every state Democratic official who rode the train. To a degree, their threat became effective.
In 1960, it must be remembered that while the Kennedy-Johnson ticket barely won nationally, Barnett’s unpledged electors overwhelmingly carried the state. During several days when the election outcome was doubtful, Mississippi’s seven electoral votes became a national story.
I was one of several reporters who posted ourselves outside the closed door of a room in Jackson’s old Heidelberg Hotel when the state’s electors huddled with Gov. Ross Barnett. When the door opened briefly to admit one person, not surprisingly, Citizen Councils’ guru, Bill Simmons entered. Momentarily, Simmons emerged and announced the electors would give their votes to the elderly anti-civil rights U.S. Sen. Harry Byrd of Virginia.
As a political writer (then state correspondent for The Times-Picayune) I of course rode the LBJ Special.
Mississippi’s leading Democratic figure on the train was senior senator, Jim Eastland, a close friend of LBJ – then the highly effective Senate Majority leader. Though politically powerful in the state, Eastland knew Yankee Jack Kennedy would be a tough sell. So, both he and his Democratic colleague, John Stennis, pushed the fact LBJ of Texas was on the ticket.
Somehow, even though I had criticized Eastland for his racial stance, Big Jim liked me. Though newsmen were kept back from the train’s club car reserved for LBJ and his family I saw Eastland in the coach having a drink at a big round felt covered table. Spotting me, Big Jim motioned to join him. At the time, Johnson was speaking to a crowd from the rear platform. As the train pulled away, a smiling LBJ waved to the crowd as he entered the club car.
“Lyndon, I want you to meet my friend Bill Minor, he’s a newspaperman,” Eastland said. Within seconds, LBJ’s smile disappeared and his eyes became BB-sized. I shook the big man’s outstretched hand, and quickly got out of there.
Of course, none of us there that day could imagine the tragic events that would occur on a Dallas street three years later that would leave Kennedy dead and LBJ president of the United States.
Syndicated columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at email@example.com.