Former LBJ aide and CNN President Tom Johnson on the most important message he ever delivered, on 4 April 1968
Tom Johnson has pretty much seen it all. For eight years the Macon, Georgia native served as an aide to President Lyndon B. Johnson, including five in the White House, during some of the most tumultuous years in our history. After LBJ’s death, Johnson eventually served as President and Publisher of the Los Angeles Times, and later as President of CNN during its ascendancy as the premier television news network in the 1990s. A longtime resident of Atlanta, Tom will bring his unique perspective on the city and its place in the last sixty-plus years of national history to bear in his forthcoming memoir. We recently enjoyed a wide-ranging conversation about our hometown and Tom’s extraordinary career, beginning with one of the most important notes ever exchanged in the Oval Office.
TJ: It was April 4th, 1968. With so much attention being focused on the war in Vietnam, it’s sometimes hard to remember just how fragile things were on US soil. It wasn’t just opposition to the war; it was the height of the Civil Rights Movement, one of the most important and most tumultuous phases in American history. At approximately 7:23 in the evening, the Associated Press ticker in the White House Press office erupted with loud and continuous bells ringing. A flash was coming in. Now normally the highest form of alert is described as a “bulletin,” but there is a level of extraordinary news that is called a “flash.” And I happened to be standing very close by both the AP and UPI teletype machines that were then in various locations around the White House.
And I was looking at the words being printed, and the exact words coming across the AP teletype were these: “DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING HAS BEEN SHOT IN MEMPHIS.” I ripped the alert from the machine, a hard copy at that time, and ran no more than 50 feet away, through an office right next to the Oval Office, where two secretaries were seated. I just said, “I must go in.” And I went basically right through two secretaries. That is normally not permitted at all. You must stop and explain to them why you need to see the President, and they frequently need to buzz into him to see if it’s okay that a staff member come in.
But I opened the door to the Oval office and sitting there were President Johnson, and with him on his right was Robert Woodruff, Chairman of the Coca-Cola Company, and former Georgia Governor Carl Sanders. They were visiting President Johnson on a personal courtesy call.
It was a no-agenda meeting, which the President occasionally held with old political friends and leaders. He had developed a friendship over the years with Mr. Woodruff, and in many ways he had formed a close relationship with the Coca-Cola Company. It was interesting that it was sort of a corporate relationship that went back to his years as a senator, his years as Vice President.
I spoke to them as I handed the alert to President Johnson. The President’s daily diary shows that I handed him that message at 7:24, literally one minute after it came across the ticker. LBJ slumped back into his chair as he read it. And I mean, you could just see how he immediately was just really saddened. He then handed the note over to Mr. Woodruff to read, and then Mr. Mr. Woodruff handed it back to the President, who handed it over to Carl Sanders. At that moment, though, the President was immediately on the phone in front of him, calling the Attorney General, Ramsey Clark, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, then Defense Secretary Clark Clifford. He placed a call to Coretta Scott King, placed a call to Mayor Ivan Allen of Atlanta. And then he turned to the three TV sets that were breaking the news on television. I just recall that he was very steady, very emotionally saddened. But he set about immediately calling the highest officials in the government, but also calling the King family.
Mr. Woodruff and Carl Sanders got up to leave, but LBJ told them to just sit there for a minute and they actually stayed in the Oval Office with him until about 7:45, so another fifteen minutes. And I thought it turned out that was a very good idea, because Mr. Woodruff placed a call from another phone in the Oval Office to Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen, and alerted him that President Johnson was being advised that there would be riots in all American cities that night.
I overheard Mr. Woodruff saying to Ivan Allen that it might be necessary for him to take all necessary steps to try to maintain peace in Atlanta, including additional fire and police. He also told Mayor Allen not to worry about who would pick up the extra expenses for the fire department or for the police mobilization, which to me translated to Mr. Woodruff basically saying, “don’t worry about, I’ll cover the added cost.” And of course, for those of that era, Mr. Woodruff was known as “Mr. Anonymous.” He made large gifts to Atlanta institutions, especially Emory, anonymously. It was sort of classic Robert Woodruff.
But as the evening progressed—and when I say “progressed,” time sort of just moved on—we sat and waited, hoping that that Dr. King would pull through. But at 8:00 the Justice Department called and confirmed that they had received word that that Dr. King had died. So from the time he got the news at 7:24, it was not even an hour later that that Dr. King’s death was confirmed.
And there were demonstrations around America, serious ones, including in Washington. And yes, there were demonstrations in Atlanta. But no violent riots occurred in Atlanta as they did in many other cities. I think some of that could be attributed to just the leadership of the Mayor here in Atlanta, Ivan Allen, and the fact that he was able to get Atlanta University Center, Spelman, and other places prepared for it. It was a historic moment. And I should just say after that, President Johnson set all this into motion, particularly talking with the major civil rights leaders by phone. He asked them to come into the White House the following day: men like Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, Bayard Rustin, Walter Fauntroy, Dorothy Height, Leon Sullivan, Walter Washington, and a name that received a great deal of attention because the President had named him to the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall.
And I would say something that to me is so remarkable: Whitney Young, one of the great leaders of the African American community in America, made the position clear that the Black leaders intended to really follow the nonviolent policies of Dr. King. And I’ve thought about that often. The leaders also made it clear that they needed more funding for the cities. But of the eight years I worked for President Johnson in the White House and in Texas, I never saw a finer hour of him, his cabinet and, and the Black leaders that were resolved to unite around non-violence.
I’ve often wondered what it would’ve been like if the country had been led by more violent leaders—people like Rap Brown, or Stokely Carmichael, or Malcolm X. And of course, the country had all of the protests going on on student campuses, opposing Vietnam. And then this news about Dr. King was just, you know, another devastating piece. I’ve thought about 1968 being the most turbulent year of my life, and I happened to be in a place where I was really a firsthand observer. I mean, Tom Brokaw of NBC called it one of the most divisive years in American history. And LBJ later called it one of the most agonizing years that any President ever spent in the White House. I sometimes felt that I was living a continuous nightmare. And, so much else happened that year. The assassination of Senator Kennedy, along with the death of Dr. King, but so much else that occurred in that year that was tremendous. The war in Vietnam escalated to a point where some weeks we were losing as many as many as 400 soldiers a week.
It’s amazing that at this really traumatic moment in American history, Atlanta is right there in the most important room in the country. There’s Robert Woodruff, former Governor Carl Sanders, yourself, and of course at the center of it all, by his sudden absence, King, the most prominent figure ever to come from Atlanta. It’s stunning to think how closely the history of the America in the 20th century is tied with Atlanta at this particular point. I know it’s probably just a coincidence, but it seems so charged.
I think it was a coincidence. President Johnson had great respect for Georgians. He had served with both Senator Richard Russell and Senator Walter George in the Senate. He had become friends of other Georgians—Ralph McGill, the legendary liberal editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He had a very strong supporter from Augusta, J.B. Fuqua, who was chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia and a personal friend. He had a great respect for Georgians, and he turned to Senator Russell for many, many years as a very trusted advisor on military affairs. And yet, of course, in the battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Senator Russell was a strong voice of opposition to the President’s policies in civil rights.
But I think that in many ways the fact that I had come to the White House as a young White House Fellow in 1965, and that he had elevated me several times, was because of my Georgia background. I once asked him, I said, “Mr. President, why is it that you trust me enough to be the note-taker for the Tuesday Lunch, where the most secret discussions about Vietnam and other foreign policy most secret meetings that you have in the White House?”
He said, “Tom, I trust you as much as I do Dick [Russell].” So clearly there was a Georgia element to it. And he needed great strength here in the South, which had been the so-called Dixiecrat bastion of southern opposition to civil rights, and a lot of the people who supported President Johnson on civil rights were really threatened at times because of their more liberal views particularly about civil rights.
There’s a famous photograph of President Johnson and Richard Russell in the Oval Office where they’re arguing with each other and LBJ is just towering over Russell. And they were presumably butting heads about civil rights legislation.
It was a very major split between the two of them. And at one point LBJ was heard to be telling Senator Russell, “you know, Dick, I am going to get this vote passed, and if you aren’t going to help me, I may just find it necessary to run over you.”
Now, literally not meaning to run over him in a car, but run over him politically. And, and that was a really painful, that was really painful. I was at times, a later a link between President Johnson and the Georgia delegation, when he wanted somebody to deliver an in-person message to Capitol Hill on it.
So I saw that, but there also was just tremendous respect. I think about the divisiveness we have today. That year was just an incredibly traumatic year. And of course we’re experiencing another year here in 2023.
Do you think that this argument between Johnson and Russell, was a kind of a pivot, pivotal moment in the trajectory of American party politics, or is it just symptomatic of larger shifts?
I think it was symptomatic. What I saw was that LBJ and Dr. King were able to mobilize these large segments of America—Black Americans, Jewish Americans, the labor movement (particularly the AFL-CIO), liberal Democrats and very enlightened Republicans without whom we could not have passed those bills. Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois is a good example of that, with the power he had, that influence, that melodious voice of his. So much of the legislation that was passed in the Johnson administration had wonderful bipartisan support, and that seems to have disappeared in this era.
Woodruff was a real pragmatist when it came to the image of Atlanta. What saved Atlanta from a lot of the violence that was happening in places like Memphis and DC and elsewhere had a lot to do with a strong commitment to self-image more than anything else. There was a shared sense that “racism just doesn’t look good.” But also at the same time, the Governor of Georgia in 1968 was Lester Maddox, who was an old school segregationist from Atlanta, who represented the antithesis of Woodruff’s vision.
I believe that Robert Woodruff strongly wanted for Atlanta to be a city that would be very good for business, very good for Coca-Cola, a city that would be a really enlightened center. I think there are many examples of how he used his quiet power, his enormous power, to get the leaders to do the right thing. I think that is true with the desegregation of the public schools of Atlanta. I was here as a young reporter for the Macon Telegraph covering the desegregation of Atlanta schools. I basically was assigned to another Telegraph reporter who later became the editor of the AJC. These meetings were held at the Commerce Club with the Black and white leadership of Atlanta. And Mr Woodruff apparently made his views known not only to the Coke top high command, but, but to others in the community. Because of his almost fierce determination to remain anonymous, I don’t think that Robert Woodruff even today has received, outside of the sort of insiders in Atlanta history, all of the attention that is his role.
But you have had a pretty big role to play in Atlanta, too, especially Atlanta’s contribution to American and world history in the 20th century. When you were head of CNN, you were there when CNN became the go-to news organization for the country.
I came here to work with Ted [Turner] in 1990. I emphasize that Ted created CNN in 1980 at a time when he had significant debt. And yet he was willing to put tremendous resources behind the creation and the building of CNN. I’ll never forget: after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, I went to Ted with Ed Turner, my Chief News Executive, and said, “Ted, when you hired me, you said you wanted CNN to be the best news organization on the planet.” And I said, “if we are to do the finest job of all news organizations, we have to prepare for war in the Gulf.” At that point, Secretary of State James Baker was negotiating with Tariq Aziz, the leader of the diplomats for Iraq. But it was clear there wasn’t going to be a [diplomatic solution]; it was clear to those of us following it, that war was most likely.
Well, anyway, I said Ted, “if we are to do that, I’m going to need to go over budget by a large amount, to be prepared.” And two things happened. One, he said, “how much?” And I told him somewhere between $5 and $30 million over budget. And I said, “Ted, what am I authorized to spend?” His exact words were: “you spend whatever you think it takes, pal.”
And so I walked out of that room with Ed Turner and authorized the leasing of transponders, the placement of portable ground stations in many areas, including in the middle of the Saudi desert, shifting of staff to the region, beefing up establishing a four wire so that we could communicate and bypass the Iraqi communication system.
So when the bombs fell, CNN was the only channel to be able to report with John Holliman and Peter Arnett and Bernie Shaw from downtown Baghdad, and it was just Ted. And Ted deserves so much credit for the globalization [of news]. I think of what Robert Woodruff did with Coca-Cola, what the Delta Airline pioneers did, going all the way to Ed Baskin of today, and what CNN and Ted Turner did. Then of course, along comes the Olympics. The business-commercial side of Atlanta, and the civic side of Atlanta, and the Black and white Atlanta—the dynamics of this—Michael Russell has just been elected the new President of the Commerce Club—an African American. How proud his dad [Herman Russell, founder of H.J. Russell & Co.] would be that, that Michael is the new President of a revitalized commerce club on it.
But, you know, there’s just been something about this Atlanta cooperation, not without its major problems, at times. And, and, and, and certainly so many of the leading companies here being bought like Georgia Pacific and, and some of the others. And now Turner Broadcasting having been sold. So it’s a different world.
The current slogan you know see on t-shirts around Atlanta is, “Atlanta influences everything.” Is that all just kind of clever marketing or do you think there’s something to this idea of Atlanta as almost a model city for the future?
It’s all about leadership. Leadership of the present, leadership of the future. It is about women and men who act not only as chief executives of companies and foundations and organizations and not-for-profits, but leaders who really believe in serving. That is one of the biggest both opportunities and difficulties that Atlanta confronts in the development of the leaders of tomorrow. Where are the Mills Lanes and the Richard Riches and the Ivan Allens and the and, and, and Robert Woodruffs? I’m thinking of the election of Michael Russell as the head of a revitalized Commerce Club.
Atlanta has had every reason to be proud, but it can’t forget, you know, the Temple bombing. It can’t forget the days of segregation. And so much of that exists now. We’ve got to be a place where we really do act on racism and do what we can not only in our schools, but in all of our organizations, to work to make it into a better place. I’m very troubled about racism.
I’d like to see things happen, not just talk about them, but actually see them occur. But there’s so much that needs to be done. And listen, there’s a lot of potential. You know, one of the encouraging parts, as I see it, is that even our current governor has some quite enlightened views about mental health, and the determination to support programs that are needed. We’ve got a long ways to go in comparison with others, and we are not where we should be. But more important is to show concrete examples of what can be done, and get it done.
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Thank you for focusing on this rather than the circus dominating the news. I’ve heard little to nothing about the historical significance of this day otherwise, a day I still vividly remember.