[LBJ Library photo by Unknown. #33317]

[LBJ Library photo by Unknown. #33317]

50th Anniversary of Lady Bird Johnson’s 1964 Whistle Stop Tour of the South

Oct 01, 2014


“I want to go because I am proud of the South and I am proud that I am part of the South.” - Lady Bird Johnson

Just three months after the 1964 Civil Rights Act was signed, amidst rising racial tensions in the South and against the advice of trusted advisors, Lady Bird Johnson boarded a train named the “Lady Bird Special” to campaign for her husband’s presidential bid in states from Virginia to Louisiana. President Johnson was ahead of Republican Barry Goldwater in national polls, but he faced an uphill battle in the South.  Although she knew she would face hostile crowds, Mrs. Johnson felt she and the President were a part of the South, and she wanted to carry his message to Southerners and express the Johnsons’ pride in that part of the country.  Born in Texas, she spent much of her childhood with relatives in Alabama, and Mrs. Johnson felt she could relate to Southerners and bring her husband’s presidential campaign to them. As press secretary Liz Carpenter later wrote in Ruffles and Flourishes, “Our star attraction was a Southern-bred First Lady. We were supposed to blow kisses and spread love through eight states and make them like it….”

The journey began in Washington, D.C., on October 6, continued for four days, through eight states, totaled 1,682 miles, and stopped in 49 cities, with the final destination being New Orleans on October 9, 1964.

Joining Mrs. Johnson on the train were Congressional wives from the Southern states, campaign staff, and a group of women in bright blue dresses wearing white gloves who worked the crowds at each stop as “hostesses.” More than 100 members of the news media accompanied the First Lady on her journey. In the dining car, in another nod to Southern hospitality, guests were treated to specialty dishes from each state along the route: Virginia ham,  North Carolina BBQ, Georgia pecan pie, and Louisiana shrimp creole were among the choices.

Along the way, crowds shouted curse words and “We want Barry” at Mrs. Johnson and she encountered hecklers who held signs saying, “Black Bird Go Home.” In his eulogy for Mrs. Johnson many years later, former press secretary Bill Moyers described the peril: “The air has become so menacing, we run a separate engine fifteen minutes ahead of her in case of a bomb.  She later said, ‘People were concerned for me, but I was concerned for the engineer in the train out in front; he was in far greater danger.’ Rumors spread of snipers, and in the panhandle of Florida, the threats are so ominous the FBI orders a yard-by-yard sweep of a seven-mile bridge that her train would cross.”

Through it all, Mrs. Johnson, at times accompanied by her daughers Lynda and Luci, chose to reach out rather than dismiss those who disagreed. In planning the journey, she wrote, “And every time the rest of the nation makes one more snide joke about cornpone or rednecks, the defenses of the South go up more angrily. The dividing abyss widens and the curtain becomes thicker and murkier.  It is partly the South wanting to pull away and partly the rest of the nation misunderstanding – yes even laughing – in a way. None of this is right or is good for the future of our country.” 

In 1967, Virginia Foster Durr, a civil rights activist and friend of the Johnsons, said in an oral history interview, “To come back into the South with a lot of women and face those hostile crowds and travel all through the deepest part of the South and subject herself to this kind of…heckling and hooting and howling was an extremely brave thing. I think that she showed at that point another quality that we Southerners admire so much, which was courage, real moral courage.”

In the 1964 election, Republican Barry Goldwater carried five of the eight states Lady Bird Johnson visited, but President Lyndon Johnson won the national election in a landslide.