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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

Civil Rights Protests and the White House

The White House serves as a stage for ceremonial visits, performances, and international diplomacy, but it is also the backdrop for many of the country’s transformative moments. On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, the most comprehensive civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex, or national origin, while also mandating equal access to public spaces and the desegregation of schools. A year later, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, expanding voting rights for all Americans. He also signed the 1968 Civil Rights Act, known as the Fair Housing Act, which built upon the 1964 legislation and prohibited discrimination in housing. Although these landmark pieces of legislation were essential to the successes of the Civil Rights Movement, they were the culmination of decades of protest outside the White House. Throughout the twentieth century, civil rights leaders, activists, clergymen, students, and concerned citizens staged demonstrations both in and outside of the White House, demanding equality before the law in regard to racial discrimination.

Some of the earlier civil rights demonstrations occurred during the 1940s in the form of anti-lynching protests. One of the most notable protests took place on July 29, 1946, when over 100 demonstrators marched to the White House, protesting the lynching of four African Americans in Monroe, Georgia.1 On July 25, 1946, two couples, Roger and Dorothy Malcom and George and Mae Murray Dorsey, were dragged from their car at gunpoint and then tied up and shot sixty times at close range. The incident became known as the Moore’s Ford lynchings.2 The demonstration that followed was sponsored by the National Negro Congress. Marchers began at Union Station and then proceeded to the White House. They demanded immediate federal action against the violation of civil rights. Many carried signs with anti-lynching slogans: “Pass the Anti-Lynch Bill Now,” “Outlaw All Race Hatred Groups,” and “What the Hell Did we Fight For—Lynchings?” After reaching the White House, the group continued on to the Justice Department and then to the United States Capitol Building, repeating their demands.3 These protests and outcries over the Moore’s Ford lynching did push President Harry Truman and his administration to support anti-lynching legislation in Congress. Unfortunately, like all other previous anti-lynching legislation, it was unable to pass the southern Democratic voting bloc in Congress.

In this photograph taken by White House photographer Cecil Stoughton, President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act in the East Room of the White House. President Johnson is flanked by members of Congress and civil rights leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rep. Peter Rodino of New Jersey standing behind him. The bill prohibited job discrimination on the basis of race, sex, color, religion, or national origin, ended segregation in public places, and the unequal application of voting requirements.

Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Tensions continued to rise as the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum in the 1950s and 1960s. News cameras captured examples of racial injustice and violence across the United States, from the Montgomery bus boycott, to the murder of Emmett Till, to the desegregation of schools following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Many large marches and protests were organized in Washington, D.C. and the White House once again became a site of civil rights protest.

On August 28, 1963, more than 200,000 demonstrators descended upon the nation’s capital for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march intended to put pressure on President John F. Kennedy to continue working with Congress to pass a strong bipartisan civil rights bill. Demonstrators gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for a series of performances and speeches. Musicians such as Marian Anderson, Odetta, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan took to the stage for equality. Civil Rights leaders including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) President Roy Wilkins and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader John Lewis delivered powerful speeches.4 Near the end of the program, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. took the podium and delivered his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”5

After delivering this powerful speech, King’s work for the day was not finished. As the crowd dispersed, King and other civil rights leaders traveled to the White House for a meeting with President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. During this seventy-five minute meeting, movement leaders brought their ideas directly to the president, indicating the need for strong bipartisan support for civil rights legislation.6 Although President Kennedy died before the resulting legislation could be passed, the political prospects of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were both strengthened by the March on Washington and the meeting between civil rights leaders and President Kennedy.

This photograph taken on March 12, 1965 by Warren K. Leffler, depicts demonstrators in Lafayette Park. After the events of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama on March 7, demonstrators began to gather daily in front of the White House demanding justice and an end to police brutality.

Library of Congress

Perhaps the most significant civil rights protest to take place at the White House occurred in response to “Bloody Sunday.” On March 7, 1965, peaceful marchers advocating for voting rights were brutally beaten by police in Selma, Alabama, as they attempted to march to the state capital of Montgomery. Live television coverage of the horrific events stunned the nation. Civil rights activists called for President Lyndon B. Johnson to take actions to protect protestors from the police.

Several days later on March 11, 1965, a group of twelve young demonstrators took their complaints to the People’s House, staging the first ever White House sit-in. On the morning of March 11, the group met at St. John’s Episcopal Church on the north side of Lafayette Square. They crossed the park and entered the White House through the visitor’s entrance as part of regularly scheduled visitor hours from 10:00 am to 12:00 pm. They proceeded through the White House, finally sitting down near the Library and Vermeil Room on the Ground Floor around 11:15 am. At this point Major Ralph C. Stover, the Chief of the White House Police, found the protestors and told them to move. One of the protestors indicated that they would “stay right there until the President did something about the situation in the South.” They were then told that they would be arrested for unlawful entry. As a result of the protest, the public tours were halted, and visitors were cleared from the White House as a precaution. At 1:15 pm, the protestors moved over to the East Garden Room.7

President Johnson was informed about the sit-in at around 11:20 am and was kept updated on the situation by staff and Secret Service throughout the rest of the afternoon. A note in the president’s appointment book reveals concerns about the protest: “Agent Youngblood said that their were mainly of student age—not over 25 years of age. And that at the beginning there were 6 white students and 6 Negro students—at this point 2 had left—The problem concerned—was not that the students were of a violent nature. But that it was a ‘touchy’ problem of ‘throwing’ them out since the closing time of the White House tours was 12:00 noon.”8

On August 28, 1963, after participating in the March for Jobs and Freedom, Civil Rights leaders met with President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson in the Oval Office. This photograph shows (left to right): Mathew Ahmann (National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice); Whitney Young (National Urban League); Martin Luther King, Jr.(SCLC); John Lewis (SNCC); Rabbi Joachim Prinz (American Jewish Congress); Reverend Eugene Carson Blake (United Presbyterian Church); A. Philip Randolph; President John F. Kennedy; Walter Reuther (labor leader), with Vice President Lyndon Johnson partially visible behind him; and Roy Wilkins (NAACP). Not shown: Willard Wirtz (Secretary of Labor); Floyd McKissick (CORE).

Library of Congress

Eventually, President Johnson ordered the removal of the protestors after leaving them alone for several hours. At 4:55 pm, Johnson summoned Secret Service Agent Rufus Youngblood to the Oval Office where the president delivered instructions for removing the protestors. President Johnson suggested using white and black police officers in street clothes to remove the demonstrators and take them to different police stations. The police planned to charge the protestors with “illegal entry.” The removal then took place, while Johnson was away from the White House Grounds.9

Meanwhile, outside the White House, a separate group of demonstrators began picketing in Lafayette Park, urging the government to take action against the horrific injustices in Selma, Alabama. During the day, picketers organized themselves to parade by the White House each day from 7:00 am to midnight. Then, on March 10, the newly organized D.C. Committee for Federal Protection in Alabama, began holding midnight to 7:00 am vigils in the park, led by local religious leaders.10

Five days of picketing and vigils culminated in a large interfaith demonstration called “Convocation of Concerned Citizens” in Lafayette Park on March 13. Prior to the event, committee leader, Reverend Walter Fauntroy, asked local clergymen to dedicate sermons and prayers. On the day of the event, demonstrators converged on Lafayette Park from all directions. Three groups organized by the D.C. committee departed at 1:00 pm from All Souls’ Unitarian Church at 16th and Harvard St. NW, the city library at 7th and Massachusetts Avenue, and Washington Circle. A fourth group, organized by Northern Virginia Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Arlington NAACP chapter, and the Gum Springs Citizens Association, marched in from the Virginia side of the Arlington Memorial Bridge. Two additional busloads of CORE demonstrators from Baltimore also rode in for the event.11

In 1965, twelve young protesters staged a sit-in on the Ground Floor of the White House and announced that they would not leave until they could talk to the President about the events in Selma, Alabama.

Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

The purpose of the demonstration was to protest police treatment of African Americans and peaceful demonstrators in Selma, Alabama, while also urging federal intervention to protect citizen safety and voting rights. Many attendees wore black armbands in memory of Reverend James Reeb and Jimmie Lee Jackson, two civil rights activists killed during separate attacks in Selma, Alabama.12

As a large crowd of an estimated 1,500 participants gathered in Lafayette Park, President Johnson was meeting with Alabama Governor George Wallace inside the White House to discuss the situation.13 Wallace was notorious for his strong stance on segregation, including his physical refusal to step aside and let African-American students Vivian Malone and James Hood enter the Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama and register for classes in 1963. He only backed down after President Kennedy federalized the National Guard and ordered him to stand aside.14 During his 1963 gubernatorial address he famously declared, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” This irony was not lost on the crowd. Some held signs reading “Help Stamp Out Governor Wallace” and “Wicked, Wicked, Wicked, Wicked, Wicked, Wicked, Wicked, Gov. Wallace.”

The crowd remained peaceful throughout the afternoon. Well-wishers drove by in cars and distributed sandwiches, while St. John’s Episcopal Church distributed paper cups with water. At one point a rumor spread through the crowd of an attempt to rush the White House gates, but it never materialized. At around 5:00 pm prayers started. Protestors knelt as Reverend Cajetan Menke asked God to “bless the President and the Congress with an understanding that this is not a political but a moral issue.” Another speaker said a Jewish Prayer for the dead in honor of Reverend James Reeb.

After the prayers concluded, the crowd began marching away from the park. The Washington Post poetically described this departure: “Then the hundreds of housewives, clergymen, schoolteachers, college students, the sincere and the thrill seekers, the committed and the curious, stood again and began their slow, counter-clockwise march into the civil rights movement. Their joyful poise in the near presence of Gov. Wallace of Alabama yesterday may have earned them something more.”15