McKeithen, LBJ and civil rights
Though former Gov. John McKeithen died some 17 years ago, Big John came back to life in the past week thanks to a well-written article by Patrick Richoux, a young man enrolled in the Manship School of Mass Communication at LSU in Baton Rouge.
Richoux’s piece focused on McKeithen’s involvement in quelling Klan violence in Louisiana during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. FBI documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Manship School’s Civil Rights Cold Case Project served as Richoux’s primary source.
According to FBI documents, McKeithen arranged payments for various Ku Klux Klan leaders, including Robert Fuller of Monroe. In exchange, the Klan supposedly agreed not to employ violence to thwart civil rights protests in Louisiana, particularly protests waged by black Americans.
Gus Weill was one of McKeithen’s political advisors at the time. Now retired and living in Baton Rouge, Weill told Richoux he knew nothing about the Klan payments. It makes sense, though, according to Weill, because McKeithen was pragmatic and didn’t wish for Louisiana to become mired in the bloody violence that was so common on the civil rights front in Mississippi and Alabama.
Those who knew McKeithen and supported him politically, particularly during his two terms as governor from 1964-1972, are prone to argue McKeithen was one of the finest governors of the 20th Century. At least that was my father’s take on McKeithen, but Daddy was a bit biased. He and McKeithen were close.
From hill country in Caldwell Parish, McKeithen was no racist. That didn’t stop him, though, from running for governor as a segregationist. It worked, too, evidenced by McKeithen “out-segregating” Shelby Jackson in the ’63 election for the Democratic Party nomination. No one could get further to the right than Jackson on segregation, but somehow McKeithen pulled it off and went on to defeat Charlton Lyons, a Republican, in the general election. He defeated Lyons with Klan support.
But McKeithen moderated once he became governor. The Civil Rights Act became the law of the land in ’64 and one year later, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. Times were changing. McKeithen recognized it, too, especially the potential strength of the black vote. By then, the Klan had cooled on McKeithen and eventually labeled him an enemy of segregation. In time, McKeithen became somewhat of an advocate of the civil rights movement. And the strength of the black vote was coming into play.
We’ll never know for sure whether McKeithen arranged payments for the Klan. Weill said he didn’t know about it, and if he did, obviously he’s not talking about it. Everyone else who could have known is dead. But the “story” certainly points to an interesting tale, true or not, because any narrative created by the FBI at the time was entirely controlled by the director, J. Edgar Hoover, who was no fan of the civil rights movement.
Yet, the irony of it all is rich in more ways than one. For there was the occasion, according to Weill, when Johnson, as president, paid a visit to New Orleans and in a private meeting at the Roosevelt Hotel, Johnson said to McKeithen, “John, how’s your n***** business?”
Even the Godfather of the civil rights movement recognized the balancing act southern governors had to employ during those times to keep the peace while not alienating the very voters who elected them to office.
Without a doubt, Johnson and McKeithen were two pragmatic politicians. One was a president who altered the course of American history; the other a governor whose career was shaped by a cornerstone of the Johnson presidency.
Sam Hanna is a state