In 1967, Eartha Kitt was arguably at the height of her fame. But a luncheon at the White House in 1968 nearly left her hard-won career in shambles.
Always outspoken, Kitt was able to channel her celebrity into activism. In May 1967, she testified before Congress, along with Washington D.C. youth group Rebels With a Cause, on behalf of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s juvenile delinquency bill.
Lady Bird Johnson subsequently invited Kitt to her Women Doers’ Luncheon on Jan. 18, 1968, for a discussion of what women could do to help eradicate crime on the streets.
Towards the end of the luncheon, Lady Bird asked the room of 50 women, from groups such as the Association of Colored Women’s Club and the League of Women Voters, including a few governor’s wives, for their comments.
Kitt raised her hand and told the first lady of the United States exactly what she thought — juvenile crime was in part a pushback against being drafted to serve in the Vietnam War.
“Boys I know across the nation feel it doesn’t pay to be a good guy,” Kitt said. “They figure with a record they don’t have to go off to Vietnam. You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. They rebel in the street. They will take pot and they will get high. They don’t want to go to school because they’re going to be snatched off from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam.”
Kitt continued: “Mrs. Johnson, you are a mother too, although you have had daughters and not sons. I am a mother and I know the feeling of having a baby come out of my guts. I have a baby and then you send him off to war. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot. And, Mrs. Johnson, in case you don’t understand the lingo that’s marijuana.”
Her comments stunned the first lady. Some media reports erroneously stated that Lady Bird burst into tears. Women in the room ran to the microphone to defend the Johnsons and level outrage at Kitt.
The cultural and political backlash was swift. The Washington Post reported at the time that President Johnson had Kitt blacklisted. According to Broadly, Kitt alleged that the White House, which had sent a car for her, didn’t arrange a car for her departure and she had to catch a cab.
Unable to get jobs in the United States, Kitt was forced to perform in Europe until she returned to America in 1978 to headline the Broadway musical Timbuktu! It was later unveiled by the New York Times that the CIA, prompted by the Secret Service in 1968, had kept a dossier on her.
“It was really heart-breaking to her and very upsetting that her own government turned on her for something as simple as just giving an honest response to a question,” said Kitt Shapiro, Eartha Kitt’s daughter. “And that was really something, I think, that she really never let go of, that disappointment.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson is asked a question by Eartha Kitt at the Women Doers Luncheon on 1/18/1968.
President Lyndon B.Johnson .
Johnson is asked a question by Eartha Kitt at the Women Doers Luncheon on the Vietnam war.
Reports about the incident made it seem that Kitt, was an ‘angry black woman’ who had made Lady Bird cry.
“My mother said she never saw any tears. She didn’t feel that she was being disrespectful. She didn’t raise her voice,” said Shapiro. “That being said, my mother was not one who feared upsetting the avant-garde. And if you asked for her opinion, you better be prepared (because) you were going to get it.”