People today applaud Lyndon Johnson’s support of the Civil Rights Act, but in 1964 it was considered a major issue for his presidential campaign – and not in a good way. Jeremy Mayer discusses this topic in an article for Prologue. He writes in his introduction that “the election of 1964 is considered by many to be the most racially polarized presidential contest in modern American history.”
Although it might seem that Barry Goldwater would use race to help him win the election, Mayer argues that both candidates looked to avoid race as an issue, but for different reasons:
Yet what has been missed in previous analyses of 1964 is how assiduously both Goldwater and Johnson worked to take race off the agenda. Johnson believed that if the election became a referendum on civil rights, he might lose. Goldwater believed that history would judge him harshly if his campaign blatantly exploited the racial hatred of whites.
The article goes on to say that this election shaped the politics we know today:
Still, despite these efforts, the racial implications of the 1964 campaign would linger for decades. The first Southerner to occupy the White House for more than a hundred years lost the heart of his region, signaling the dawn of an era of Republican dominance of the South in presidential politics. The first man of Jewish descent to run on a major ticket 3 would lead the Republican Party into a monochromatic whiteness from which it has not yet recovered. After 1964, Democrats could take the black vote for granted as the GOP became the party through which whites expressed their unease over black progress. The contest between Johnson and Goldwater shaped American racial politics for the next thirty-six years.
While Goldwater’s campaign ended up centered against civil rights and playing to racists, he never supported the race riots:
…when the two men met briefly at the White House, even Johnson was forced to concede that Goldwater gave little evidence of playing to the white backlash:
He came in, just wanted to tell me . . . that he was a half-Jew, and that he didn't want to do anything that would contribute to any riots or disorders or bring about any violence, because of his ancestry he was aware of the problems that existed in that field and he didn't want to say anything that would make them any worse . . . thought he could have used it, I thought their intent was to use the White House as some kind of launching pad.
In this and other discussions of his brief meeting with Goldwater, the surprise in Johnson's voice is evident, particularly when compared to the suspicion and venom in his earlier discussions of Goldwater's putative motives. The two men issued a joint statement to the press, foreswearing the use of the riots for political gain, helping to remove the riots from the campaign discourse.
Johnson tried to deal with the Southern backlash voters during his campaign:
Johnson chose to confront his co-regionalists. Johnson calculated that an appeal to Southern gentility would take the sting off of opposition to black progress and sent his Alabama-born wife, Lady Bird, on a train tour of the South. Even so, Lady Bird faced counter-demonstrators and animosity during her tour, including mocking signs demanding "Black Bird Go Home."
On everything but race, Johnson led Goldwater in the polls. He was the incumbent and the US population was fairly happy:
Of all of Johnson's perceived vulnerabilities, an internal memorandum lists only one that could not be spun as a racial issue, the taint of corruption surrounding Johnson. The few other issues that were tilting toward Goldwater were all more or less amenable to a racial characterization in 1964 America: civil rights, juvenile delinquency, welfare cheating, crime and violence generally, and unnecessary government spending.
Yet, Goldwater was hesitant to play the race card and avoided several opportunities to exploit this weakness. This stems from both Goldwater himself and the Republican Party:
Goldwater's reluctance to use racial fear-mongering may have also stemmed from Republican leaders who put increasing pressure on him to relent on civil rights. During the convention, Governor William Scranton had penned an angry public letter that attacked Goldwater for his "irresponsibility" on racial matters. A number of Republicans were also unhappy that Goldwater did not immediately reject an endorsement from the Grand Dragon of Alabama's KKK. Former President Eisenhower convened a conference of leading Republicans in August, at which Goldwater promised to uphold the existing civil rights laws if elected. By the start of the general election season, then, Goldwater had promised two Presidents that he would moderate his rhetoric in areas that touched on race.
Johnson’s victory in 1964 was a landslide, but Goldwater and the Republicans took the South, all the states where the African-American population was the highest. Mayer writes that there is no explanation for Goldwater’s victories in these states except for race as Goldwater was otherwise an unpopular candidate.