An audio clip recently released into the public domain by the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, Texas captures an Oct. 9, 1964 stump speech by Lady Bird Johnson at the dedication of the Phoenix Fire Museum on South Claiborne Street in downtown Mobile. At the time, the popular First Lady was completing a four-day, 28-city whistle stop tour of the South with her daughters Lynda Byrd and Luci Baines campaigning for her husband, who had inherited the presidency just 10 months earlier after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
The 23-minute, 45-second clip, which was uploaded without fanfare to YouTube earlier this month as a small part of an interactive anniversary project by the library’s audio/visual department, is a snapshot of national politics at the time, when the electorate was less concerned with border security, the Islamic state or Ebola than it was with Civil Rights, poverty and the Vietnam War.
But some believe the otherwise routine campaign appearance had damning implications for the city later, as it was one of the few stops where the First Lady faced open opposition from supporters of U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater, the Democratic president’s divisive Republican opponent.
History Museum of Mobile curator Scotty E. Kirkland had previously read an account of the visit, but said the audio “puts the event into quite a different context,” with “Mrs. Johnson attempting – and I think failing – to not let the divided crowd raise her ire.”
Lady Bird was born Claudia Alta Taylor in Texas to two wealthy, native Alabamians, given her nickname in infancy by a housemaid and was briefly enrolled as a student at the University of Alabama. She notes in her speech that she spent several summers in Alabama in her youth, visiting relatives.
As First Lady, she was mobilized by the Johnson campaign to sweep through the South and win back conservative voters opposed to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in July 1964.
On the campaign trail, the First Lady arrived by train at the former L&N Depot at the foot of Government Street before enjoying a brief motorcade to the museum. Her tone – and familiar southern accent – generally sounds inviting and gracious during the speech, even as she is occasionally interrupted by protesters chanting “we want Barry” or shouting “go home to Texas.”
A Mobile Register report published the day after her speech – alongside black and white ads for pill box hats, floral draperies and modern kitchen appliances like a $7 toaster – noted that 10,000 to 12,000 people witnessed at least some portion of Lady Bird’s visit, although the audience at the museum was primarily teenagers and children.
She was introduced by Mayor Charles S. Trimmier and U.S. Sen. John Sparkman, who awarded her a key to the city and issued a proclamation marking it “Lady Bird Johnson Day.” The First Lady herself spoke only for about 10 minutes. Other participants, not all of whom are recorded on the audio clip, included: U.S. Rep. Hale Boggs of Louisiana, who was the Democratic Majority Whip; Mrs. Donald Russell, the wife of the governor of South Carolina, Rev. A. William Crandell, president of Spring Hill College, who offered the invocation; Monde Murphy, the 11-year-old daughter of Mobile Housing Board Director John Murphy; Fire Chief Dan Sirmon; Dewey Crowder, representing the Mobile Historic Development Commission and City Commissioner Joseph Langan.
The newspaper report indicated the McGill Toolen band also played at the event and someone held a sign reading “WATUSI WITH LUCI,” encouraging the Johnson’s youngest daughter to participate in a popular dance of the era.
Eventually of course, Johnson won re-election in one of the most lopsided victories in U.S. history. But Goldwater did win the state of Alabama, along with Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina and his native Arizona.
Kirkland said it has long been rumored that Lady Bird’s “cool reception” in Mobile, and the state’s broader support for Goldwater, played into the decision – just a few weeks after the election – to close Brookley Air Force Base.
“Historians can, of course, cite other factors, like the age of the facility, the changing needs of the Armed Forces, etc.,” Kirkland said. “But listening to the clip I can certainly see both sides … ”
Kirkland further noted, “President Johnson was almost universally disliked in Alabama – and Mobile – by the time of her speech … Johnson’s marshaling of the Civil Rights Act through Congress was certainly a key factor for a good deal of these attitudes. But it ran deeper than just one bill, even if it did break down segregation’s already crumbling walls. The upcoming 1964 election was in many ways a rejection of the era of New Deal liberalism in the South. Johnson typified a generation of politicians that many southern voters had grown to despise, in spite of the many positive, and concrete, advantages New Deal Democrats had showered upon the city. Near the end of the clip you hear Joseph Langan – Mobile’s last New Deal Democrat – spouting off a long list of improvements to Mobile (the Bankhead Tunnel, Brookley, etc) and giving Johnson and his two Democratic predecessors FDR and JFK all the credit.
“But there is something characteristic of the era that is typified in Lady Bird’s visit to Mobile, which in the understatement of the speech she refers to as ‘this lively city,’” Kirkland continued. “Picture it: The constant struggle of Mobile’s postwar modernity and the need for historic preservation which the fire station then was certainly an emblem for, the new political reality of a city not just leaning but running toward a resurging GOP, and Mobilians for Goldwater shouting over the First Lady, most of them hidden behind a coterie of Azalea Trail Maids and schoolchildren. It’s a fascinating little snapshot of Modern Mobile with all its eccentricities.”
The Phoenix Fire Museum, which is operated by the History Museum of Mobile, is open every Tuesday through Thursday from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.
TRANSCRIPT (Beginning at 7:38):
What a happy day this is for me. Can you hear me out there? (Cheers) This is a mighty happy day for me. I am proud to be here in the state that sent our great Senators, Lister Hill and John Sparkman (mixed audience reaction), to serve their neighbors and their nation with such distinction. They are the men my husband depends on and we count them old a valued friends.
I am delighted to be here (shouts) in this lively city of Mobile. By coming just a few block from the station, I’ve already been impressed by the happy results obtained when modern ingenuity and pride and preservation work hand in hand. It is exciting to find that the respect for tradition has been harnessed to do justice to Mobile’s history (children cheer).
Mr. Mayor, in accepting the key to your city and your proclamation, I want to tell you that a ceremony such as this, fusing the best of the old and new South is one that gives me great satisfaction (jeers and cheers). As honorary chairman of the American Landmark Celebration, Imm am certainly proud to be here to dedicate the historic Phoenix Fire Station. I know that young and old will walk through this museum and be inspired by the resourcefulness and valor of our volunteer firemen of the early days. It does us all good to be reminded of how hard it was then to meet the emergencies of everyday life.
As the wife of a politician, I have known many smoke-filled rooms, but I am happy to report that we’ve never had to call out the fire department yet. As many of you know, Alabama is close to my heart. I am proud to be in the state where my mother and father were born and raised and being in Mobile is part of a sentimental journey for me. I used to visit here with my University of Alabama roommate … and I’m glad to say that on the train, one of the nice things about it, on the train, her sister … joined me and we had a chance to visit coming in.
And I’m mighty glad to be in that part of the country where although you might not like all I say, at least you understand the way I say it (children cheer, followed by jeers).
From the time I was six-years-old, summer meant coming back to Alabama. As I think back to my girlhood, I have so many happy memories filled with the special charm of the people and their ways. Memories that float back of watermelon cuttings, of hay rides, of visiting uncles and aunts and cousins in Selma and Montgomery and Billingsley and Prattville. And there were about seven cousins on the train with me, and when I got to the foot of the steps there were about three more, and as we started driving through the streets I’d see two more and we stopped and brought them in with us.
I hope maybe we can get our picture made as we are departing.
Standing here today, (interrupted by jeers and cheers) I feel that having spent so much of my life in the past here and having traveled quite some since, I can speak about what the New South means to the nation. I can talk about the warmth and the courtesy of the South of my youth, which will never change and about the New South that I saw in Huntsville, (chants of “we want Barry” begin) where man turns his face to the moon and the New South I see here in Mobile.
Here in this teeming harbor, ships fare forth to every port in the world. In 1960, your export and import trades amounted to $272 million. By the end of 1964, it is estimated that it will reach $458 million. The increase in exports will be 110 percent (Protester: “Go home to Texas!” Followed by children chanting “We love Lady Bird!”).
There are signs of prosperity everywhere. The rate of unemployment has dropped and isn’t that a good thing for all us? It has dropped from 6 and 8/10 percent in ‘61 to 4 and 6/10 percent in ‘63. the Alabama increase in capital income is 13 percent, the national increase is only 8 percent and the administration’s tax cuts will create 24,000 new jobs. All of that means something to us young people – you young people and us mommas and papas – but we still have a big task ahead of us. 39 percent of the people of the state are below the poverty line. This must be changed for the good of us all.
The landmarks of the past serve us only as a challenge to build the landmarks of the future (applause).
I find myself in complete accord with Mr. Dewey Crowder, the president of your Mobile Historic Commission who said, “There is no merit in recalling the past at all unless it helps us to a greater fate in a greater effort toward a richer future.”
So today, Mr. Mayor, you have tended me a homecoming as well as an honor. And because I feel so close to the people of this state, I must also speak of what is in my heart.
Ten months ago, on a dreadful day that shook our country, my husband became our president. Since then, he has tried with all that is in him to keep our country on a steady course of economic prosperity, to face the world with firm strength and to seek practical ways to help those Americans still in need.
It is our privilege to choose our leader (protesters shout “Barry!”). In doing so, we make a constant choice in shaping our personal destiny. Thomas Jefferson said, ‘let the people know the facts and they will decide wisely.” History has proven him right (protesters: “For Goldwater!”)
I believe in our president and I believe in your right to choose and in your wisdom to do so wisely. I thank you one and all and I can’t close without saying how much this means to me, that all of you would come out and greet me. It’s a colorful, beautiful picture that I will keep in my heart always, and all you pretty little girls, all of you look so lovely in those costumes (applause).
For some of us that were on the train with us and I did not know but just found, that they are Azalea Trail Ladies (pause and chanting “WE WANT BARRY!”).
Just a moment please. Just a moment. This is a free country and I respect your right to your opinion. Now will you give me just one minute to finish this?
The Phoenix Fire Station, built in 1859, relocated from 154 S. Franklin St., the city of Mobile, this historic restoration right behind us and now, we are going to have the dedication. And I thank you one and all.