“What the Hell is the Presidency for? LBJ’s Battle for Civil Rights” Premieres on HISTORY

Jun 29, 2016

Premieres on HISTORY Saturday, July 2 at 6 p.m. CT


Exactly 52 years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act became law, a new HISTORY documentary, narrated by actor Anthony Mackie, takes a contemporary look at President Lyndon Johnson's contributions in civil rights and social justice and how those reforms resonate today.


(AUSTIN, TX. - June 29, 2016) – HISTORY premieres a new documentary "What the Hell is the Presidency for? LBJ’s Battle for Civil Rights" on Saturday, July 2 at 6 p.m. CT, titled after one of Lyndon B. Johnson's most famous quotes. Shortly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Johnson told his aides that passing Kennedy's civil rights bill was at the top of his agenda. When his aides advised that pursuing this might jeopardize his chances of winning the presidency in his own right, he replied simply, "Well, what the Hell is the Presidency for?"

Opening with video of civil unrest on American streets today, the documentary takes a modern-day look at how Johnson, working with civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and with Republicans in Congress, passed major civil rights bills and Great Society legislation that forever changed the landscape in America. "What the Hell is the Presidency for?" details how the partnership between Johnson and Dr. King resulted in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Narrated by actor Anthony Mackie, who plays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the HBO film "All the Way," the documentary features comments from President Barack Obama; Congressman John Lewis; Johnson’s daughter Lynda Johnson Robb; historians H. W. Brands, Bob Dallek, and Doris Kearns Goodwin; former aides Joe Califano and Larry Temple; advisor Ben Barnes; and Rasheen Aldridge, who is leading efforts to improve his community in Ferguson, Missouri. 

Mark K. Updegrove, historian and LBJ Presidential Library Director, who also appears in the documentary, said, "This film provides a view of the seminal partnership between LBJ and Martin Luther King in making equal rights in America a reality. In so doing, we see the presidency's vast potential in meeting our democratic ideals."

Created by NYC-based creative agency Translation, the documentary employs state-of-the-art graphics along with historical video, audio, photos, and newsreels to present a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the political process Johnson used to get things done. 

Viewers will:

  • Hear Johnson and King on the phone, working as partners to pass civil rights bills.
  • Witness the "Johnson Treatment" where Johnson employed charm, manipulation, knowledge of the inner workings of Congress, and his physical presence.
  • Sense Johnson’s urgency. Early in his presidency, Johnson knew he was popular and had political power. He didn’t hesitate to use his mandate to accomplish his goals.

In addition to civil rights laws, Johnson, with bipartisan support in Congress, passed more than a thousand landmark laws that impact all Americans today: Medicare, Medicaid, aid to education, immigration reform, support for the arts and humanities, preserving the environment, and the War on Poverty, to name a few.

Today, just as in the 1960s, more needs to be done. The documentary calls for citizens to engage in civic participation and go to the ballot box, knowing, just as Johnson did, that progress takes hard work, will, and courage.

Media Contact:
Anne Wheeler
LBJ Presidential Library
[email protected]
(512) 721-0216