President Lyndon Johnson had every reason to feel confident about his campaign stop in Augusta 50 years ago this week.
He came with Gov. Carl Sanders, an Augusta native, as well as U.S. Sen. Herman Talmadge, an influential state leader.
Johnson’s national election over Republican Barry Goldwater appeared certain, and a week later he would easily trounce the Arizona Republican.
Lyndon Johnson, however, would not carry Richmond County on Election Day 1964, and he probably got a hint of things to come during his speech before a crowd gathered in front of the Augusta-Richmond County Municipal Building.
He was heckled.
At least four times during a routine stump speech, calls from the crowd interrupted the former vice president who had taken office less than a year before with John Kennedy’s assassination.
“We want Barry!” people would shout.
Each time, The Augusta Chronicle reported, Johnson would stop, wait until the catcalling halted, then respond from the large platform filled with Augusta movers and shakers, who sat unsmiling behind him at the Municipal Building’s Greene Street entrance.
The negative shouts from the audience seemed to throw Johnson off his main speech, which had been about the need for peace in the world, and prompted him to recall a time four years before when he had been jeered and even spit upon by a hostile political crowd in his native Texas.
“They called us traitors, treason artists,” Johnson said. “They dealt not in the issues we were debating, but in petty things because they were little, petty people.”
Nowhere in Augusta’s history of presidential visits had there been a record of one being jeered and the disruption seems to have surprised everyone.
Until the speech, Johnson’s Augusta visit had appeared to follow the script. He arrived about 4:30 p.m. Oct. 26 on what everyone described as a beautiful autumn Monday.
According to a copy of his itinerary on file at the Johnson Presidential Library, he was scheduled to spend about two hours in Augusta before flying to Columbia.
Smiling faces greeted him as he landed at Bush Field. Counting the crowd at the airport, those standing along his route into town and the audience at the Municipal Building, The Chronicle loosely estimated the crowd at between 25,000 and 80,000. Richmond County’s population at the time was 162,000.
The president – planned according to the itinerary – shook hands with the crowd gathered along the fence at the airport.
He was then driven downtown to the Municipal Building where the Rev. Paul Cook, then 29, was among the onlookers.
“His itinerary was made public,” Cook recalled last week. “On the day of his visit I was standing on the corner of Gordon Highway and Watkins Street with hundreds of other people. As his limousine turned onto Watkins Street he was riding in an open convertible. This was less than a year after President Kennedy was assassinated and I was shocked that President Johnson was not protected ... because anyone could have shot him. I am thankful that he was not harmed.”
But the president was embarrassed, and so was much of Augusta.
“No one likes to see anyone be disrespectful to the president of the United States,” Sanders said the next day, while predicting Johnson would win Georgia handily. “This heckling is the type of tactic that the opposition has to offer,” Sanders said. “It was by an organized minority and the people generally resent it.”
The Chronicle expressed the feelings of many in an editorial apologizing for the city, and decrying the lack of decorum.
“… Their rudeness, however, was nothing short of a denial to an American citizen the right to express himself openly and without interruption,” the editorial said. “The conduct is more to be expected in a Communist-controlled atmosphere than in an area of the United States where gentility and good sportsmanship are traditional. That the discourtesy they displayed in their juvenile antics was directed against the president of the United States shames them as citizens and mortifies their neighbors.
“The Chronicle feels it speaks for the good people of Augusta – Republicans as well as Democrats – in apologizing to the President.”
Whether they felt sorry or not, the voters supported Goldwater.
A week later on Election Day neither Richmond County nor Georgia voted in the Lyndon Johnson national majority. Goldwater took Richmond County 21,511 to 13,545, and Georgia, too, winning 54 percent of the vote.
Augusta businessman J.B. Fuqua, a state senator and Georgia’s Democratic Party chairman, blamed the loss on a lack of support from many state leaders including U.S. Sens. Talmadge and Richard Russell, men known to feel Johnson was pushing civil rights too quickly.
Most historians agree. Johnson didn’t carry The Peach State because he had become unpopular among whites in the Deep South for his civil rights initiatives, according to Merle Black, an Emory University professor who has spoken and written on Southern politics over the years.
Black recalled the Augusta incident in his 1992 book The Vital South: How Presidents Are Elected, which he wrote with Earl Black. He also described Johnson gaining the crowd’s support with the anecdote about his earlier abuse by hostile crowds.
“Earl Black and I wrote in The Vital South that, ‘There was no more booing from the young Goldwaterites after he finished his story,’” Merle Black wrote in an e-mail from Atlanta. “President Johnson’s leadership in passage of the civil rights bill was the main reason he lost Georgia that year.”
That also is the way the Rev. Cook remembers it.
“I was not surprised because there was a lot of racial bigotry, prejudice, and hatred against President Johnson because he was a great supporter of civil rights,” he said Wednesday in an e-mail. “ Sadly, there would be a lot of the same kind of racial heckling against President Obama if he visited Augusta today.”