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Eartha Kitt and Lady Bird Johnson
*On this date in 1968, Eartha Kitt addressed racism in America at a White House luncheon hosted by Lady Bird Johnson. In early 1968, the first lady hosted the first of a series of “Women Doer” luncheons, intended to gather women leaders from around the country to address a variety of growing or endemic problems.
The first one was titled, “What Citizens Can Do to Help Ensure Safe Streets.” In her trademark southern accent, Mrs. Johnson told the women invited to the event that it was a “grim subject for a pleasant meeting like this.” The reaction to Mrs. Johnson and the three women speakers who followed seemed to only make Kitt visibly nervous and agitated guests all the more upset. Waving her hand so she could speak, while Mrs. Johnson told her “Eartha, you will be able to speak.” When she did, the actress rose and unwound a monologue aimed at the First Lady and criticizing the President’s Vietnam War policy:
“…I have lived in the gutters. I know the youth of America today are not rebelling and are not hippies for no reason at all. We don’t have what we have on Sunset Boulevard for no reason. They are rebelling against something. There are so many things burning the people of this country, particularly mothers. They feel they are going to raise sons – and I know what it’s like, and you have children of your own, Mrs. Johnson – we raise children and send them to war. I am sorry Mrs. Johnson if I am going to offend the President or you, but I am here to say the youth do not want to go to school because when they come out, they will be snatched from the mother and sent off to Vietnam. The boys of this country are doing everything they possibly can to avoid being drafted…They feel that ‘if I have any kind of life at all, I am going to enjoy it as best I can because I may not be here tomorrow…’If I get thrown in jail I don’t stand a chance of going off and being shot in Vietnam.’ They will smoke a joint and get high in order to avoid whatever it is to get shot at. You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot. In case you don’t know what that is, it is marijuana.”
Lady Bird Johnson was reported to have tears in her eyes, shocked at this first direct confrontation ever of a First Lady in the White House. She had, however, already encountered anti-war protests at Yale University and Williams College when she came to speak there. She gathered her thoughts and addressed Eartha Kitt:
“Because there is a war on – and I pray that there will be a just and honorable peace – that sty ill does not give us a free ticket not to try and work on bettering the things in our country that we can better. I am sorry I cannot understand as much as I should because I have not lived in the background as you have. Nor can I speak as passionately or as well as you can. But I think we must keep our eyes and our hearts, and our energies focused on constructive aims. Violence will not help.”
Alerted to what was going on, President Johnson entered the luncheon held in the Family Dining Room. Kitt asked him in a rambling manner about when he would end the war, and why so many young men were being killed. It was an elliptical question and she got an elliptical answer. The incident captured the next day’s headlines across the country.