When asked by the First Lady, Eartha Kitt responded: '"You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. They rebel in the streets. 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."
There was a general commotion amongst the fifty ladies present, and comments of shock that Ms Kitt could bring up the subject of the war in such a way. Several ladies spoke to assert their pride that sons and husbands were doing their duty and serving in the armed forces. The group applauded each time, and Eartha stood, arms folded.
Mrs Johnson answered her guest. "Because there is a war on - and I pray that there will be a just and honest peace - that still doesn't give us a free ticket not to try to work for better things such as against crime in the streets, better education, and better health for our people. Crime in the streets is one thing we can solve. I am sorry I can't speak as well or as passionately on conditions of slums as you, because I have not lived there."
Eartha Kitt, realising that she was in a minority of one in her opinions, but deciding that she had to persist, told Mrs Johnson: "I have to say what's in my heart. I have lived in the gutters."
The First Lady was reportedly either visibly shaken or on the verge of tears, according to different witnesses. She finally turned to Eartha Kitt and brought the conversation to a close: "I am sorry. I cannot understand the things you do. I have not lived with the background you have."
The Johnsons were keenly aware of what needed to be done to change America. They were not like Mr Dalton in 'Native Son', the liberal benefactor who can never understand that his donations to the South Side Boys Club will never change how his own companies refuse access to housing in other areas of Chicago and then overcharge on the rent due to 'high demand'. The Johnsons had tried to do many important things to promote greater equality for black Americans, and the meeting itself was supposed to discuss issues such as housing and employment, at the core of those inequalities. But they were unable to accept in their minds that a war had an impact upon their domestic agenda, despite the 30 billion dollars spent on it in that year that even saw the Defence Department request spending cuts on non-frontline military equipment to compensate. The Great Society was in peril. Which was the greater issue for them? One young woman had asked them.
Eartha Mae Kitt, January 17th 1927 - December 25th 2008
Events related by Mark Kurlansky in his book "1968", based on reports in TIME magazine, January 26th 1968 and other press coverage. Photos from the White House Museum.