Historic Events for Students: The Great Depression. Editor: Richard C Hanes & Sharon M Hanes. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2002.
“[W]e have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society. The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time.” President Lyndon B. Johnson (served 1963-1969) spoke these words at a college commencement ceremony on May 22, 1964, introducing the goals of his Great Society programs to the nation (quoted in Johnson, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965, 1963-64, Book I, p. 704). The program would lead to landmark changes in civil rights laws and social welfare programs.
In the mid-1960s on the heels of President John F. Kennedy’s (served 1961-1963) assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson launched a massive legislative program of social reform. The nation’s shock over Kennedy’s death combined with an escalating civil rights movement and a growing public awareness of the poverty within the nation’s own borders to provide a unique occasion for major social reform activity. In addition the nation was in a period of sustained economic growth. Money was available to fund reform programs, unlike during the economic hard times of the Great Depression. President Johnson realized he had to act quickly, anticipating the support of Congress and the public might not last long. The challenge Johnson perceived was how best to apply the nation’s wealth to improve the quality of American life.
By July 1964 several pieces of key legislation had passed, including the sweeping Civil Rights Act. Following his landslide presidential reelection victory in November 1964, President Johnson further expanded on his vision of a “Great Society.” He declared “war on poverty” in a State of Union address on January 4, 1965. Johnson called for many actions, including federal support for education, expanding Social Security to the aged for medical care, and increasing voting rights protection. Through the next two years, the overwhelmingly Democratic Congress passed almost all of the proposed measures.
The Great Society was clearly created in the New Deal tradition. The uncommon nature of the first two years of Johnson’s presidency reflected President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (served 1933-1945) first years. As in the 1930s, a special mix of factors came together, propelling social change much faster than the normal pace. As had Roosevelt, President Johnson played a central role in taking advantage of this opportunity. Congress responded to Johnson’s lead much as it did to Roosevelt’s during the first one hundred days of his presidency. A sweeping package of legislation passed, touching just about every aspect of American life and offering something for everyone.
Later, in Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (1976, p. 226), author Doris Kearns Goodwin would summarize the vast diversity of what the Great Society programs had to offer:
Medicare for the old, educational assistance for the young, tax rebates for business, a higher minimum wage for labor, subsidies for farmers, vocational training for the unskilled, food for the hungry, housing for the homeless, poverty grants for the poor, clean highways for commuters, legal protection for the blacks, improved schooling for the Indians, rehabilitation for the lame, higher benefits for the unemployed, reduced quotas (a set number of people from a specific nation or region) for the immigrants, auto safety for drivers, pensions for the retired, fair labeling for consumers, conservation for the hikers and the campers, and more and more and more.
Other major events, however, came along to prevent President Johnson from seeing many of his reforms fully take shape. Adding to the civil rights movement came the peace movement in response to the escalating Vietnam War, environmentalism, and women’s liberation. Race riots swept across the nation. In reaction to these events, a white middle-class backlash erupted, destroying that fragile political environment in which Johnson was operating. Despite the major gains made in some specific programs, the Great Society became considered by many as a lost opportunity to substantially improve the standard of living for all Americans.
The Democratic Coalition, forged by President Franklin Roosevelt in the mid-1930s, remained a sufficiently strong political force to help President Lyndon Johnson shepherd social reform through Congress. The Coalition was a loose combination of diverse segments of U.S. society supporting New Deal politics and Democratic Party candidates for their own various reasons. New Deal politics meant having a strong federal government role in U.S. society through funding of public programs and oversight of various social and economic activities.
Unlike the New Deal, Great Society programs came at a time of economic affluence in the United States. From 1960 to 1965, corporate profits rose 67 percent, and take home pay of workers rose 21 percent. Very little inflation existed, and unemployment was at a low 3.9 percent in January 1966. Many believed the rapid economic growth was permanent. Great Society proponents wanted to tap into this affluence to fund the much-needed social programs to help those left behind in this economic surge.
Though President John F. Kennedy had plans to introduce social reforms as part of his New Frontier proposals, his administration was substantially sidetracked by foreign crises. In addition, conservatives of both political parties who dominated Congress largely blocked his domestic programs. Kennedy did gain approval of two programs, the Peace Corps and the Alliance for Progress. Both programs involved providing assistance to foreign nations. One, the Peace Corps, provided technical assistance through skilled volunteers, while the Alliance offered assistance through loans and other means.
In 1963 Kennedy submitted a civil rights bill to Congress designed to protect the rights of minorities seeking legal, economic, and social equality. Civil rights refer to the personal liberties promised in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and in other laws. However the bill stalled.
President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963, suddenly changed the politics of Washington, DC, at least for a period of time. The newly sworn president, Lyndon B. Johnson, was an exceptionally shrewd politician, and he fully understood that a unique opportunity to take action had arrived and might not last very long. Johnson seized the situation to break the congressional logjam. On November 27, 1963, five days after President Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress. While seeking to calm the nation and mark the transition to his presidency, Johnson strongly urged Congress to pass Kennedy’s legislative agenda stalled in congressional committees. Johnson particularly focused on Kennedy’s tax cut and civil rights measures. As Johnson stated, “No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill” (Johnson, 1965, 1963-64, Book I, p. 9).
Tax Cuts and Civil Rights
Congress responded quickly to Johnson’s plea of November 27. The Tax Reduction Act was passed in February 1964, cutting corporate and individual taxes by over $11 billion. As intended, the tax cut further stimulated the nation’s ongoing economic growth. Business investment and consumer spending both increased, leading to higher corporate profits as well as increased government tax revenues. The federal budget deficit would decrease from $6 billion in 1964 to $4 billion in 1966.
Also in February 1964, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an even stronger civil rights bill than what Kennedy had previously submitted. The bill, however, did not pass the Senate until June due to an 83-day filibuster by southerners opposed to the act. The debate was one of the longest in Senate history. On July 2, 1964, President Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act into law. The act prohibited racial discrimination in places that commonly serve the general public (such as hotels, restaurants, and theaters) and prohibited racial and sexual discrimination in employment and unions. The act also gave the U.S. Justice Department authority to sue local school boards to end discriminatory practices. The Supreme Court upheld the act’s constitutionality in the Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States decision later that same year. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 marked the beginning of Johnson’s Great Society program. It was the most important piece of legislation during the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s.
Later, President Johnson would declare it was not enough to legally prohibit racial discrimination; the social custom of racial segregation had to be changed as well, particularly in the South. Segregation is the practice of keeping races apart in public. Johnson introduced affirmative action, a program designed to offer black Americans opportunities in areas where discrimination had a long history and still persisted. Affirmative action means that black Americans and other racial minorities might legally receive favored treatment in such business practices as hiring, school admissions, and job advancements. Many schools and businesses began adopting affirmative action programs of hiring and advancement. This program quickly proved effective and helped spur growth of a black middle class and largely black suburbs.
The New Deal did not tackle civil rights issues, such as racial segregation or discrimination, because Roosevelt did not want to lose the support of Southern democrats for his New Deal legislation. President Roosevelt had approached civil rights issues only as the industrial mobilization for World War II (1939-1945) was beginning, and as they pertained to hiring in the home front war-related industries. The military itself remained racially segregated.
War on Poverty
With the tax cut and civil rights bills successfully passed, Johnson turned to his more ambitious goals, including a declaration of war on poverty. Johnson firmly believed that bold government action could change the lives of millions who had no hope of attaining the American Dream, even during this time of prosperity.
Johnson had begun his congressional career in 1937 as a strong supporter of President Roosevelt and his New Deal policies. New Deal programs largely focused on public works programs. These programs used public funds to pay salaries for workers. They provided the unemployed immediate job relief as well as valuable job training. A major focus was on youth. In fact, Johnson had previously administered a New Deal youth program in Texas. Johnson borrowed directly from Roosevelt’s New Deal strategies in formulating his own social reform program. Like Roosevelt in the 1930s, to spur social reform Johnson sought to centralize governmental powers more tightly under presidential control. Following the New Deal’s blueprint, Johnson also looked at changing the responsibilities and authority of existing agencies to better achieve his reform goals.
Much like Roosevelt’s Brain Trust that included his key advisers in 1932, President Johnson established special task force groups in 1964 to develop public policy options. Like Roosevelt’s Brain Trust, the 17 task groups consisted mostly of scholars and experts. The groups worked in secrecy under the leadership of presidential aides Joseph Califano and Bill Moyers. Key issues of the mid-1960s included civil rights, poverty, urban decay, medical care for the aged, increasing pollution of the air and water, and inadequate public support for education and the arts. The key overall goals of the experts were to provide basic economic security and an improved quality of life to the public and to bring the poor into the ever-growing economy.
The experts identified a number of major behavioral problems in U.S. society they believed perpetuated poverty. To have any success in eradicating poverty, they believed these problems would have to be corrected. The problems included the rising number of broken households, escalating crime rates, high percentage of school dropouts, poor work habits, and increasing numbers of teen pregnancies. By mid-1964 the task groups had created a comprehensive legislative agenda to tackle these problems.
Unlike the public outcry for government action in the early 1930s, little grassroots support initially existed for President Johnson’s antipoverty agenda. Consequently, the resulting legislative agenda developed by the task groups represented to many an elitist approach orchestrated by national leaders in power. The agenda lacked input from those who would be most affected by the programs, such as the poor and elderly. Like the New Deal, the proposed solutions would greatly expand government into a new bureaucracy unfamiliar to many. Soon programs would try a more community-based action approach to improve effectiveness.
Owing in large part to President Johnson’s ability, with the Coalition’s support, to guide legislation through Congress, the programs soon began to take shape. The main war on poverty measure, posing a strong resemblance to New Deal programs, was the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA) passed in August 1964. Johnson’s war on poverty started with $1 billion dollars in federal funds in 1964 and an additional $2 billion through the next two years. The act created youth programs, small business loans, job training, and other antipoverty measures. Among the programs established was the Job Corps, modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The program would teach young men new skills. Work training and work-study programs included the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). VISTA was basically a domestic peace corps through which middle-class youth were sent out to help poor neighborhoods. The act also created Project Head Start, an educational program for underprivileged preschoolers.
The EOA established the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), charged with running the various antipoverty programs. Though located in the Office of President, the OEO introduced the idea of “community action.” Through this approach communities had a greater role in determining how the programs were carried out. For example, the poor would be able to participate in establishing public works programs.
Johnson Gains a Mandate
Barry Goldwater of Arizona, one of the eight senators who had voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, was nominated as the Republican Party presidential candidate to oppose President Johnson in the November presidential elections. Goldwater provided a strong contrast to Johnson. Goldwater asserted that government had no business promoting social and economic change in such areas as racial discrimination and economic opportunity. He campaigned to make Social Security voluntary and to abolish the Tennessee Valley Authority. The election went in a landslide to Johnson. Johnson gained 61 percent of the popular vote, the most since President Franklin Roosevelt in 1936.
Johnson received 90 percent of the electoral vote. Goldwater did gain impressive victories in the southern states, however, indicating a growing weakness in the Democratic Coalition. Nevertheless, for the time being Johnson was free to pursue his Great Society goals.
The first piece of Great Society legislation passed by the 89th Congress was the Appalachian Regional Development Act of 1965, designed to raise living standards in 12 states located in the Appalachian region of the eastern United States. The act provided financial aid for highways, health centers, and resource development. Unlike the later focus of Great Society programs on black inner city ghettos, this bill addressed poverty in white rural America.
In the early 1960s, very few black Americans could vote in the South. They were commonly denied the right to vote by having to pass literacy tests, pay poll taxes, or being faced with physical threats. As with civil rights, voting rights issues were not addressed by the New Dealers in the 1930s. In 1964 the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, abolishing the poll tax in federal elections, but other impediments remained.
Public protests and voter registration drives designed to overcome these restrictions met with intense opposition from whites and local authorities. On March 7, 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King launched an all-out drive for black voter registration by leading a protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. In response Governor George C. Wallace sent the state police to intervene. The nation watched the resulting news films with alarm, as police brutally whipped unarmed marchers with clubs. President Johnson ordered U.S. troops to Alabama to end the violence.
Johnson also had the Justice Department draft a voting rights bill that he would present in a speech to a joint session of Congress on prime time television. The speech was epic and established Johnson as the nation’s moral leader. Five months later Congress passed the Voting Rights Act. Designed to ensure voting rights for black Americans, the act outlawed state laws that imposed certain voting restrictions, such as literacy tests. The act specifically stated that a person’s right to vote could not be denied on the basis of race, color, or membership in a language minority group. The act also gave federal officials authority to oversee, and in some cases supervise, voter registration.
The Voting Rights Act was very effective in bringing the voting right to thousands of southern blacks. The act had other effects as well. Persons running for public office had to tone down their white supremacy perspectives. White supremacy refers to the belief that white people have a natural superiority over blacks and must keep blacks socially and economically suppressed. Also, a significant increase in elected black officials resulted in areas previously controlled by whites.
The 1965 act actually targeted only seven southern states—Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. In 1982 the act was extended to all states. Importantly, the act ended the long-held legal tradition allowing states to handle all matters related to voting and elections.
Education and the Arts
A former educator himself, President Johnson believed education was the key to ending poverty. Johnson expressed desires to be remembered in history as “the education president.” The New Deal education programs had primarily focused on vocational training and programs for preschool children. Job training came through various New Deal programs, including the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and the National Youth Administration (NYA). Johnson had administered NYA programs in Texas. However the New Deal had not brought federal assistance to public schools.
A key Great Society program was designed to provide significant federal aid to public education. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 offered funding assistance to public school districts. Johnson signed the act on April 11, 1965, at the one-room schoolhouse near Stonewall, Texas, where he had begun his education. His first teacher, Mrs. Kathryn Deadrich Loney, sat at his side, and former classmates attended as well. Among other things, the federal aid helped schools purchase textbooks and library materials. Funds were divided among the states based on the number of impoverished children in each state. This act was the first major federal aid package for education in U.S. history.
Other education bills followed as Congress also passed the Higher Education Act of 1965. The act provided federally funded scholarships and low-interest loans to needy college students. Later in 1967 Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act creating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and providing financial aid for educational television and radio.
In addition to education, President Johnson also sought other ways to elevate the quality of life and provide balance to the major technological advancements of the post-World War II period. While may New Deal programs, mainly in the WPA, focused on the arts, Johnson also sought to greatly increase public support for the arts. Whereas the New Deal assisted the arts through public works programs, Johnson would offer grants to applicants. Congress passed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act in 1965. The act established various funding programs, including the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA). The NEA provides financial assistance to painters, actors, musicians, and others involved in the arts. Most of the grants go to institutions such as museums, theaters, and symphony orchestras. Some go to individual artists.
Adequate housing was a key concern of Johnson’s antipoverty program. The New Deal first brought the federal government into housing issues through various programs. For example, the House Act of 1937 was the first federal housing legislation in U.S. history to recognize housing as a social need and use public funds to build housing for the poor. Most New Deal housing programs earlier in the 1930s had focused more on white, middle-class housing issues such as being able to make house payments during the Depression.
The Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965, following in the same spirit as the 1937 act, made available money for low-income housing in the form of rent supplements for the poor. Also in 1965 the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was formed to administer the federal housing programs. Creation of a full department raised the importance of the issue to a cabinet-level position, a position from which the president could be advised directly. The following year Congress passed the Demonstration Cities and Metropolitan Area Redevelopment Act. The act established a program to select “model cities” to rebuild slum areas, provide mass transit, and make other improvements.
Later, during Johnson’s last full year as president, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The act was designed to end racial discrimination in the rental and sale of houses and apartments. Congress also provided over $5 million in federal funds to help the poor buy houses and rent apartments. Money was provided to build 240,000 low-rent public housing units and also to help moderate-income families afford better private housing.
Not only did black Americans benefit from Great Society programs, but those wishing to immigrate to the United States did as well. The Immigration Act of 1924 and National Origins Act of 1929 had established strict limits on immigration of people based on what nation they were coming from. The restrictions were particularly tight for nations other than those in Western Europe.
Johnson’s Great Society program greatly changed these immigration policies. The Immigration Act of 1965 replaced the national origins system of the 1920s and instituted less complicated restrictions based on the two global hemispheres of East and West. Significantly the act opened the door to non-European immigration. Major increases in Asian Americans resulted through the next thirty years.
President Roosevelt had expressed a great deal of concern over environmental issues through his New Deal programs. In the 1930s environmentalism was commonly considered more as conservation of natural resources. The New Deal’s Social Conservation Service taught farmers how to conserve soils. The Civilian Conservation Corps employed youth to replant forests, fight wildfires, and make range improvements to protect public grazing lands in the West. The 1960s brought a new perspective on environmentalism.
A public groundswell grew following publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 to clean up and protect the nation’s rivers. In 1965 Congress passed the Water Quality Act requiring states to clean up their rivers. In signing the bill, President Johnson declared “Today we begin to be masters of our environment.” The act also gave the federal government authority to search out the worst polluters. Johnson proclaimed, “There is no excuse—and we should call a spade a spade—for chemical companies and oil refineries using major rivers as pipelines for toxic wastes. There is no excuse for communities to use other people’s rivers as a dump for their raw sewage” (Johnson, 1966, 1965, Book I, pp. 1034-1035). Also passed in 1965 was the Wilderness Preservation Act which set aside over nine million acres of national forest lands for management as wilderness.
Air quality also became a target. Congress passed the Clean Air Act Amendment in 1965 directing the federal government to establish emission standards for new vehicles. In 1967 Congress went further by passing the Air Quality Act. The act set overall air pollution guidelines and increased the federal government’s power to enforce air quality standards. Through the Great Society the environmental movement in the United States was born.
One of the last New Deal measures passed by Congress in the 1930s was the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938. The act greatly expanded consumer protection by giving broad powers to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA could establish standards for the quality of food and drug products.
Increasing consumer protection concerns gave rise to several acts in 1966 and creation of a new major federal department. In a major breakthrough for consumers, Congress, building on the Federal Drug Act of the New Deal, passed the Truth in Packaging Act. The act set standards for the labeling of consumer products.
Congress also passed the National Traffic Motor Vehicle Act setting federal safety standards for automobiles and tires, and the Highway Safety Act requiring states to establish highway safety programs. Vehicles were now required to have headrests, padded dashboards, seat belts for all passengers, and other safety features. Additionally, Congress passed an act that President Johnson signed on October 15, 1966, creating the new cabinet-level executive department to oversee the various transportation programs affecting air, railroads, and highways.
Adding to the earlier consumer protection bills and expanding FDA responsibilities, Congress passed the Wholesome Meat Act in 1967 and the Wholesome Poultry Products Act of 1968. A 1960 congressional investigation had earlier revealed that 25 percent of all commercially prepared meat products were not subject to inspection because they were not involved in interstate commerce. In response, Congress passed the meat act, which extended inspection requirements under the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906 to apply uniformly to all meat products shipped within the United States and to foreign countries. The 1967 act allowed states to operate their own inspection programs with substantial funding support by the federal government. The 1968 Poultry Act was modeled after the Wholesome Meat Act.
Ralph Nader, who formed a group of lawyers known as “Nader’s Raiders,” influenced other consumer protection laws. These included the Child Protection Act of 1966 banning dangerous toys, and the Flammable Fabrics Act of 1967 that included changes in children’s clothing.
Great Society’s Achievements
By the time the 89th Congress adjourned in October 1966, President Johnson had promoted two hundred pieces of legislation. Congress passed 181 of them. These bills addressed just about every social issue possible. Johnson saw this legislative package as building on the New Deal and perhaps even completing it. Like the New Deal, the Great Society posed a major change in the U.S. by further interjecting government into the everyday lives of citizens. The United States had joined the other industrial welfare states of Western Europe and Scandinavia in the public services provided its citizens.
The list of accomplishments by President Johnson and Congress was very impressive. Created were HUD, the Department of Transportation, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, air and water standards, a Model Cities program for urban redevelopment, Upward Bound to assist needy high school students going into college, legal services for the poor, the food stamps program, and Project Head Start. Food stamps had first been introduced in 1939 but dropped during World War II. With a partial revival in 1961, Congress passed the Food Stamp Act in 1964 making the program a permanent fixture in assistance to the needy.
Opposition to the Great Society Grows
Public and political support for new Great Society initiatives soon came to an end in the late 1960s. The increasingly radical and violent civil rights movement, together with a raging controversy over the Vietnam War (1964-1975) led to a fracturing of the coalition’s diverse elements as it finally gave out in the 1960s.
Even while the Great Society’s legislative agenda was still forming in 1964, signs of future political problems were appearing. During the 1964 presidential primaries, Alabama Democratic governor George Wallace attracted between 30 percent and 45 percent of the vote in strongly blue-collar areas of the North and Midwest. This strong showing revealed a basic weakness in the Democratic Coalition. In addition, a southern white backlash was growing against federal efforts spurred by Democratic Party leader Johnson to end long held segregationist attitudes and policies of the South. While embracing white supremacy views, however, Wallace still promoted a New Deal-like economic liberalism. For example Wallace promoted increases in Social Security, expansion of health care insurance, labors’ right to collective bargaining, and better housing.
As the 1960s progressed, both the Vietnam War and liberal radicalism grew. Conflict within the Democratic Party between liberal factions and the socially conservative Wallace supporters escalated. During 1965 and 1966, the Great Society programs became increasingly intertwined with black American issues. Whites felt threatened by affirmative action policies and charged “reverse discrimination” by the government, schools, and employers. Many claimed the Great Society policies gave special privileges to blacks and exempted them from job and educational competition that whites must endure. It was long forgotten how black Americans lost jobs to unemployed whites in the Great Depression.
Whites also did not see the government programs teaching the values of self-reliance and the Protestant work ethic. As a result, the white backlash against Great Society ideals was even more apparent in the congressional elections of 1966.
Economic issues joined race as the basis for opposition to Great Society programs. Opposition came from the increasingly financially squeezed middle class. Spiraling taxes to pay for the Great Society’s welfare programs drained monies from the working and middle classes.
Meanwhile, as the white backlash to Great Society programs grew, black Americans became increasingly frustrated over issues of poverty, joblessness, and inequality. The quality of life for those living in the inner-city slums was not showing any immediate improvement due to the government’s actions. As throughout the twentieth century, inner-city residents still suffered from malnourishment, unemployment, decaying school buildings, and lack of sufficient medical care. It was becoming obvious that the needs of the black community exceeded what the government could provide.
Rise of Black Power
Tiring of Martin Luther King’s nonviolent tactics, the black movement took on an increasingly violent nature. Groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which previously supported King’s nonviolent approach to the fight for civil rights, grew increasingly frustrated with the violence being perpetrated against civil rights activists. Stokely Carmichael, chairman of the SNCC from 1966 to 1968, was instrumental in shifting the focus from King’s style of nonviolent civil rights activism to the more aggressive “black power” movement. Black nationalism spread through the northern ghettos. Rather than seeking integration into white society, the new black leaders called for separate self-sufficiency of black communities.
In Los Angeles the Watts riot in August 1965 presented a major turning point in the white perception of the black movement. The steadily increasing public support black issues had received through the early 1960s which led to the establishment of Great Society programs dramatically declined following the riot. Whites began increasingly viewing black ghettos as places lacking civility. The ghettos were seen as harboring drug addiction, high street crime, sexual irresponsibility and illegitimate births, and increased percentages of female-led households. In the next few years, the Watts riot was followed by riots in Cleveland, Ohio (1966), Newark, New Jersey (1967), Detroit, Michigan (1967), and Washington, DC (1968).
Various prominent black organizations began to appear. The Black Panther Party was founded in 1966, promoting revolution to combat violent police activities. Stokely Carmichael and others who distrusted white leaders behind the Great Society programs led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). They called for “black power” by encouraging blacks to gain economic and political control of their communities. Fearing an approaching “race war,” President Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to study the situation. The panel concluded that U.S. society was indeed close to breaking in two.
Great Society Becomes a Threat
By the late 1960s, racial integration was viewed with alarm by white communities. White residents feared inner-city crime would be transported out of the ghettos to the suburbs. The Republican Party seized on the increasing fears of white America by adopting a strong “law and order” theme. As a result, in 1966 conservative Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan, a Democrat turned Republican, swept into victory for governor of California, defeating the previously popular incumbent Democratic governor Pat Brown.
Given these growing stresses in the general population, the Democratic Party showed greater signs of unraveling. Middle-income Democrats felt threatened and forgotten by the Democratic Party. Liberal Democrats were considered their adversaries. Liberalism, they believed, posed a threat to their communities, their sense of fairness, their livelihoods, their children and safety, and their basic values.
The Presidential Election of 1968
With race riots and antiwar protests filling the streets and casualties mounting in Vietnam, public support for President Johnson and his programs was plummeting. Johnson, in a national address in May 1968, stunned the country by announcing he would not run for reelection. His announcement was soon followed by the assassination of presidential candidate Robert Kennedy in June in Los Angeles.
Based on his success in the 1964 presidential primaries, George Wallace decided to leave the Democratic Party and form the American Independent Party, running for independently for president. The race riots following Martin Luther King’s assassination in April 1968 made George Wallace’s presidential candidacy platform focusing on law and order even more attractive to a frightened white population.
Amid the turmoil within the party, a classic New Deal Democrat, Hubert Humphrey, who had been Johnson’s vice-president, received the party’s nomination. The Democratic Party convention in Chicago was held under siege as police rioted with antiwar demonstrators in the streets around the convention. During the convention changes within the party were beginning to take shape, with women, blacks, and youth gaining greater influence, and the influence of whites, labor unions, and traditional big city party leaders declining. The old Roosevelt Coalition was disappearing.
The November elections marked the end of the Great Society social reform period. Taking advantage of Democratic turmoil, the Republicans, seeking to broaden their popular appeal, offered a conservatism tailored to the middle class. They particularly aimed at the South and Midwest. It was in the 1968 elections that this new conservative movement came to the fore-front. Wallace ran strongly in racially divided cities such as Cleveland, Ohio, and Gary, Indiana. Almost 10 million Democratic voters voted for Wallace. The white segment of the Democratic Party had become split as the working and lower-middle classes shifted toward Republican conservatism.
Humphrey won only 30 percent of the vote in the South. Wallace and Nixon split the rest. Johnson’s political demise, Robert Kennedy’s death, and Humphrey’s election defeat essentially spelled the end for Democratic control of the White House for much of the 1970s and 1980s.
From 1968 through 1988, the Democrats won only one presidential election. In 1976 Jimmy Carter, who opposed New Deal type of programs and ran against a Republican Party severely wounded by the Watergate scandal, was elected. Traditional Democratic constituencies that were part of the Democratic Coalition, including southerners, ethnic Catholics of the North and Midwest, blue-collar workers, and union members, became part of the new Republican conservatism. A politically conservative middle America had emerged, and dreams of further progress on Great Society programs had dwindled. Later, author James Sundquist summed up the factors leading to the backlash aimed at Great Society programs and New Deal politics in Dynamics of the Party System: Alignment and Realignment of Political Parties in the United States. (1983, p. 383):
In the public’s perception, all these things merged. Ghetto riots, campus riots, street crime, anti-Vietnam marches, poor people’s marches, drugs, pornography, welfarism, rising taxes, all had a common thread: the breakdown of family and social discipline, of order, of concepts of duty, of respect for law, of public and private morality.
Birth of New Deal Politics
The New Deal programs and policies born in the 1930s marked a major change in American society. Government dramatically expanded into various realms of everyday life. Social reform programs primarily sought to help the working poor through economically tough times. The New Deal did not attempt to change society in a fundamental way, such as redistributing wealth. Also, no programs were specifically aimed at black Americans or any other minority groups. The New Deal’s goals were short-and medium-term economic recovery and long-term reform, with social insurance a key part of the long-term focus. The New Deal, however different in specific goals from Johnson’s Great Society, helped establish the precedent of using the government for the improvement and benefit of society that was necessary in the creation and implementation of many of the agencies and programs proposed in the Great Society.
The Warren Court
The substantial social activism coming from the legislative and executive branches of federal government in the 1960s was fueled in part by the judicial activism displayed by the U.S. Supreme Court beginning in the mid-1950s. Through new interpretations of the U.S. Constitution, including equal protection of the law, freedom of expression, rights of the accused, and representation in government, the Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, had a profound effect on U.S. society.
Beginning with the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education ruling that school segregation was unconstitutional, numerous other critical Supreme Court decisions followed through the 1960s. Not only were existing rights strengthened, but a new right of privacy was established.
Key decisions also affected criminal justice procedures, such as prohibiting the use of illegally obtained evidence in trials and the creation of what became known as the Miranda rights protecting the accused from self-incrimination. The Warren Court, so-called after its chief justice, strove for social justice and the protection of individual rights from governmental powers. The Warren Court decisions first fueled and then supported Great Society measures. Together the Warren Court and the Great Society brought major social change and greatly increased public awareness of social problems in the nation.
The Persistent Democratic Coalition
A major political outgrowth of the New Deal in the mid-1930s was the creation of the Democratic Coalition. The Coalition was a fragile political union of liberals, members of the working class, southerners, and black Americans. President Roosevelt’s decision not to press for prohibitions against segregation kept the southern support behind his New Deal policies, and black Americans needed the New Deal programs.
Following World War II into the 1960s, a number of New Deal programs remained largely intact. The general public remained fairly satisfied with the benefits they were receiving. Despite the continued white supremacy thrust of the South, southern whites still largely remained loyal Democrats, as they had been since the Civil War (1861-1865). Concerns by southerners over “creeping socialism” and subversion of traditional American values by northern Democrats persisted, but at a low level. Lower-and working-class Americans still supported government welfare measures and maintained an allegiance to the Democratic Party.
Many in the nation interpreted the victory of Harry Truman in the 1948 presidential elections as confirmation of the continuing overall support for New Deal social policies. This conclusion, however, was contradicted by some indications of the Democratic Coalition weakening, such as the withdrawal of southern Democrats—who became known as Dixiecrats and who were led by Strom Thurmond—from the party over civil rights issues in the 1948 election.
Other indications of a weakening Coalition arose. During the 1950s a growing segment of upper-middle-class business and professional workers began joining the Republican ranks. In addition, sweeping Supreme Court civil rights decisions from the Warren Court, and more aggressive efforts by the federal government to combat white supremacy in the South energized a broader-scale resistance movement among southern whites. Nevertheless, the Democratic Coalition made it through the 1950s largely intact, as the Democratic Party candidate, John F. Kennedy (served 1961-1963), was able to narrowly defeat Republican candidate Richard Nixon (served 1969-1974) in 1960.
Supporters and Critics of the Great Society
Despite the unusually rapid pace of major bills introduced and passed by Congress between 1964 and 1967, social change in the 1960s was progressing even more quickly. These changes in U.S. society came faster than government reform efforts could keep up. This made government, despite all of the activity, seem unresponsive. Political radicalism and cynicism consequently grew even before the Great Society programs had fully begun to take effect. Given this response, Johnson increasingly steered the Great Society programs more to appeal to the middle class. As in the 1930s, radicals on the Left demanded more basic change in the nation’s political, social, and economic institutions. Groups such as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and SNCC sought to redistribute wealth as well as political power. They believed the Great Society was only addressing the symptoms of the social problems, not going after the causes.
Many of those in the middle, the centrists, believed that government had the capability to solve the complex social problems. President Johnson, for instance, believed that basic institutions of the United States were sound, they just needed some technical adjustments. Once the corrections were made, more people would have greater economic opportunities.
Critics to the Right called Johnson’s Great Society programs, such as Economic Opportunity, “warmed-over” New Deal policies. In contrast to demands for more government, conservatives promoted free-market strategies. They opposed government intrusion into “natural” business processes. They argued that Great Society programs actually hindered opportunity, not enhanced it, by inhibiting the nation’s economic growth through greater regulation and taxes.
One reason for the lack of substantial grassroots support for social reform in the 1960s was that the public was split over whether poverty was the fault of the individual or if the individual was a victim of society. For those who thought the individual was at a fault, they believed it was up to that person to help him or herself by improving his or her own life. In the 1930s protests and riots were limited because many individuals believed they were at fault for their problems.
Stemming from ideas planted in the minds of many Americans in the 1930s, others considered poverty to be a social problem, not an economic one. The New Dealers of President Roosevelt’s administration believed the economic crisis of the Great Depression was not a result of the shortcomings of individual workers, but rather a result of a national economic system driven by the greed of major business leaders. For example, as profits had greatly increased in the 1920s before the crash of the stock market, wages of workers had increased much less. In addition, unemployment of the 1930s was a result at least partly of corruption in the trading of stocks on Wall Street. Therefore, they believed national economic problems were a result of the social environment that shaped an individual’s life from youth. Social reformers in the 1960s believed that if a person could acquire the necessary education and skills, then poverty would end. Though conservatives staunchly believed that only economic growth could cure the poverty and other social problems, poverty persisted during the years of substantial economic growth.
Additionally, though most poor Americans were white, almost all black were poor. Consequently, many saw poverty more as a racial issue. The Council of Economic Advisors in 1964 reported that 20 percent of Americans were poor. Of those, 78 percent were white, and 50 percent were elderly. Forty percent lived on family farms. Still, Great Society programs tended to focus on the urban black population.
Some claimed the Great Society a success because it produced substantial gains in civil rights, reduced the poverty level of many Americans, helped underprivileged children get a head start in school, and increased public awareness of pressing social issues. Critics claimed it led to creation of big government, interfered in the free enterprise system, and further trapped people in a cycle of poverty. Big government brought with it numerous regulations, increased waste and fraud, and a quickly rising annual federal budget.
A Vulnerable Coalition
In the 1930s some critics of Roosevelt saw him as a political opportunist who shaped his New Deal policies based on how it would benefit him politically rather than on what the public most needed. Similarly, some saw President Johnson’s Great Society programs as a political strategy to keep the Democratic Coalition together.
The 1964 presidential election demonstrated that the Coalition was vulnerable, as a large number of southern white voters swung toward the Republicans. Although Johnson defeated his Republican opponent Barry Goldwater handily, Goldwater received many southern Democratic votes, highlighting a future weakness in the Coalition. Nonetheless, nationally Johnson’s election was the largest percentage of victory ever in a presidential election, as he won 61.3 percent of the popular vote and all but six states: Arizona (Goldwater’s home state), Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina. In addition to winning the White House in a landslide, the Democrats also gained a strong hold on both houses of Congress. In the Senate, Democrats ruled 68 to 32 seats, and in the House 295 to 140.
During the political campaign, conservatives had called for economic growth policies of cutting both taxes and government spending, of reducing the power of labor, and making local governments responsible for aid to the needy. The 1964 election results clearly rejected these ideas, however, and created a liberal majority in Congress for the first time since the New Deal era of the early 1930s.
Democratic supporters sought a renewal of New Deal social activism within the postwar economic boom. The civil rights struggle of the 1950s and early 1960s had led to the rebirth of this liberal idealism. Because the Great Society was to be built in a period of prosperity rather than depression, like the New Deal, President Johnson believed the Great Society could reach beyond what the New Deal was able to achieve. With the commanding majority, the Democrats were able to alter House rules, making it easier to pass bills.
America under Siege
As the Great Society programs were taking shape, the nation was increasingly experiencing both physical rebellion and intellectual protests. While nurturing the Great Society programs, Johnson sought to keep them distinct from all the other issues swirling around the nation. This was particularly true of the growing Vietnam War and its associated rising tide of anti-Americanism. Other demands for reform came from the counterculture and women’s movement. Beginning in the mid-1960s, American traditional values were increasingly being challenged from many directions.
President Johnson’s Great Society was caught in a collision between his own social reform activism coming out of Washington, DC, and the rapidly emerging grassroots activism across the nation. In addition, the Civil Rights Act not only was a landmark in outlawing fundamental discriminating practices in society, but it also spawned an increased white backlash against governmental integration policies. Candidates for public office opposing racial integration became more vocal, and racial violence grew.
New Deal and Great Society
The Great Society program was the most important expansion of the federal government since the New Deal. The numerous social and economic initiatives came largely between 1964 and 1967, greatly expanding federally funded social programs. Like the New Deal, the Great Society was amazingly vibrant during the early years of its existence. Also like the New Deal it interjected government into the world’s private business more than ever before and extended social insurance programs, particularly medical care for the elderly.
The Great Society programs differed from New Deal programs in some basic ways, however. Great Society programs went well beyond social insurance—which was a key focus of the New Deal—to include racial segregation issues and voting rights, as well as a broader range of poverty issues. Whereas the New Deal focused on social classes, particularly the poor, the Great Society increasingly through the 1960s focused more on race and the plight of black Americans.
The Great Society’s war on poverty increasingly targeted jobs, income, and housing for blacks. Many believe the most important achievement of the Great Society was President Johnson’s translation of the civil rights movement into federal law. The Great Society offered the most important legal protections for civil rights since the Civil War. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination in education, employment, and public accommodations. The Voting Rights Act politically changed the South. For the first time since the post-Civil War days of Reconstruction in the 1870s, black Americans could register to vote. President Johnson also appointed the first black American Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall.
With this focus on racial issues, the Great Society programs served to further associate the Democratic Party with black America and at the same time turn away middle-class whites. This trend was a clear departure from the New Deal alliances, especially among the New Deal’s Democratic Coalition. As a result, Democratic Party supporters became poorer and less likely to be white. For the next two decades, from 1968 to 1988, the only Democratic candidate to receive more than 40 percent of the white vote was Jimmy Carter. In 1984, 74 percent of white Protestant male voters voted for Republican incumbent Ronald Reagan over Democratic candidate Walter Mondale.
Also, unlike the New Deal labor relations and industrial production patterns, remained largely unaltered. In fact, the labor movement, so encouraged by Roosevelt’s New Deal, was largely ignored by Great Society reforms much as the black American population was largely ignored during the New Deal. President Roosevelt had feared losing white southern support for his economic programs.
With all these differences between the New Deal and Great Society, one fundamental aspect was the same. Neither attempted to alter existing economic and political power structures. White intellectuals held political control over both programs.
Department of Transportation
Since its beginnings, the federal government had wrestled with what its role should be in promoting the nation’s transportation systems. Through time, transportation responsibilities had steadily been added, but these responsibilities were scattered among various agencies. In June 1965 the head of the Federal Aviation Agency proposed a new cabinet-level department, an idea that had been considered for almost a century without action being taken.
Interested in improving public safety and establishing a coordinated transportation system, Johnson adopted the idea and pushed Congress for approval. As part of the Great Society programs, Congress established the U.S. Department of Transportation on October 15, 1966. The act represented a sweeping reorganization of the federal government. Many agencies that regulated various aspects of transportation were transferred to the new department, and its head serves on the presidential cabinet.
The Department of Transportation’s primary function is to ensure safe, efficient, and economical transportation on the land and sea and in the air. The 12 major divisions of the department include the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Railroad Administration, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard, and various research programs.
Through these agencies the department oversees the air traffic control and air navigation systems; certifies pilots, aircraft, and interstate motor carriers; establishes safety standards for railroads; provides federal aid to construct airports, highways, and bridges, and to support Amtrak passenger rail service; supports vehicle and traffic safety programs; oversees the U.S. merchant marine; subsidizes mass transportation programs; and funds research programs related to transportation issues.
Healthcare and Other Achievements
The Great Society program, though having lost momentum by 1968, still offered some signs of success. The number of poor dropped from 25 percent of the U.S. population in 1962 to 11 percent in 1973. The Education Act provided the first substantial public funds for education. Healthcare became provided for the aged through Social Security benefits.
Programs with lasting social value included the resurrected food stamps program and Head Start. Medicare and Medicaid grew to be a major part of the federal budget and covered millions of people. Prior to passage of the Medical Care Act of 1965 only half of the elderly in the United States had health insurance. Introduced as Great Society programs, Medicare and Medicaid provide healthcare benefits to the aged and poor, respectively. Both programs went into effect in 1966. Medicare legislation, originally submitted by President Harry Truman (served 1945-1953), became the topic of congressional debate for almost two decades. Passed in 1965 as amendments to the New Deal’s Social Security Act, the two programs represented a first step toward creating a system of national health insurance. This was the first major change in Social Security since it was first established as part of the New Deal in 1935.
Medicare benefits are available to everyone over 65 years of age regardless of financial need. Payments to hospitals and doctors are coordinated with the existing private insurance system in the United States. Medicare is composed of two related health insurance plans—a hospital insurance plan and a supplementary medical insurance plan. The hospital plan is funded through Social Security payroll taxes. Medicare pays costs for inpatient hospital care, nursing home care, and some home health care services. The plan meets most of the hospital expenses up to ninety days for each illness.
Most people covered by Medicare also enroll in the supplementary plan. Supported by general tax revenues and enrollees’ monthly payments, the supplementary plan boosts payment amounts for medical services covered under the main insurance plan. The rapidly rising costs of Medicare through the 1970s became alarming. In response Congress set standards beginning in 1983 for charges of specific medical procedures in an effort to control the drain on public funds. Key problems affecting the program were that people were living longer, health care was becoming more expensive, and the percentage of elderly in society was increasing. By the 1990s Medicare costs were increasing 10 percent each year despite efforts to control expense. The primary success of Medicare was that by the end of the twentieth century most elderly citizens had health insurance.
Medicaid is designed to help low-income people under 65 years of age. It also helps the poor over 65 years of age by supplementing Medicare. States are required to offer the program to all persons on public assistance. States are left to determine who is actually eligible for coverage. The federal and state governments jointly fund Medicaid costs with the federal government providing 50 percent to 80 percent of expenses. As with Medicare, the costs of Medicaid rose quickly. By 1972 Congress began limiting the amount of expenses the government will pay. As a result, by the early 1980s increasing numbers of doctors refused to treat Medicaid patients because of the low rates of government reimbursements.
Other achievements under the Great Society had the federal government assuming new responsibilities over the environment, education, and the arts. The Great Society passed legislation amending the Clean Air Act of 1963 three times, establishing emissions standards for automobiles and stationary sources such as factories, increasing local air pollution control programs, and creating Air Quality Control Regions (AQCRs) to monitor air. By the 1980s America’s air and water was cleaner than earlier in the century. During the first thirty years of the National Endowment for the Arts, the number of art organizations in the United States dramatically increased. The number of symphonies doubled, and the number of dance companies and theaters increased significantly.
The End of New Deal Politics
Because of the monetary drain posed by the escalating Vietnam War and the related decreasing public support for President Johnson, the push on the war on poverty and other Great Society programs ended prematurely, and many goals were not reached. Many of the social and economic problems fought by the Great Society programs in the 1960s, such as widespread poverty and city decay, persisted.. This ineffectiveness created disillusionment among Great Society supporters and inspired a conservative backlash. Conservatives would later argue that the New Deal and Great Society proved that government could not effectively solve social problems.
The 1972 presidential election between Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat George McGovern marked an end to Democratic liberal politics as a national force. With the Democratic Party supporting the antiwar movement, civil rights, gay rights, and women’s rights, the Democratic voters who strayed to George Wallace in 1968 turned to Nixon in 1972. The new Republicanism relied on lower-and middle-class resentment of government and blacks.
A major political shift was evident for the next two decades, demonstrated by President Ronald Reagan’s and President George Bush’s administrations. The Republican Party used an anti-New Deal/Great Society argument to their advantage in the 1994 mid-term congressional elections. The Republicans swept into Congress blaming the Great Society and New Deal policies for many of the social problems plaguing the nation, involving poverty, welfare, education, growth of government regulation, public housing, and higher taxes
Declining Voice of the Poor
With the demise of the Democratic Coalition, the economic interests of the lower half of the wage earners were represented less and less in national politics through the 1970s and 1980s. As the middle class was increasingly pressed to pay for the new social programs, a tax revolt developed, lending further support to the growing Republican-led conservatism. The New Deal promise of continuing economic growth and improving the standard of life for each generation was no longer believed by many.
The Republicans adopted the push for major tax cuts. This strategy gained the Republican Party power not seen since the 1920s. Carrying this message forward in 1980 was Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, who bridged the gap between the working class and the Republican elite, which was composed of top corporate supporters. As tax cuts took hold, government programs providing benefits to the poor greatly declined as did the political voice of the lower middle class.
This decline in the voice of the poor and lower classes was further aided by the growth of political action committees (PACs). PACs are organized interest groups that can provide political candidates considerable sums of money. As special interest lobbyists gained significant power, the working class lost influence. Lobbyists and PACs replaced the traditional neighborhood-based clubs and organizations as driving forces of political decisions. Other new changes in national politics included growth of political think tanks, media relations firms, expensive television commercials, and scientific polling strategies. All these factors led a shift to expensive technology and increased the importance of fund raising.
The increased importance of money was to the advantage of the Republican Party, which was becoming favored by corporate America due to its general stance of noninterference by the government in private business and industry. Wealthy business owners and corporations were more supportive of the pro-business platform of the Republicans. The Democrats lost some ground in this new political climate. The Democratic Party was known more as the party of the people, representing the interests of the average American and placing the protection of the interests of private citizens above those of corporate America. The affluent gained a greater influence on politics and an elite, independent group of public and private specialists determined political strategies and government policy. Corporate interests became more of a concern than those of common citizens.
By the late 1980s, most personal income gains were occurring in the top 5 percent of the population. In addition, with a greater emphasis placed on national defense budgets under Reagan, the portion of U.S. monies going to education, social services, health, housing, and other such domestic programs declined from over 25 percent of the national budget in 1980 to near 18 percent in 1987. These economic trends dramatized the post-New Deal period of American politics.
Declining Voice of Labor
By 1970 the growth of labor unions had come to a halt. From 1970 to 1980, the percentage of nonagricultural workers who were members of labor unions fell from almost 28 percent to 23 percent even as the size of the workforce increased. Through the 1980s, under Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the decline accelerated, with the percentage dropping to 17.5 percent by 1986. During this time the manufacturing, mining, and construction industries gave way to the technology and service industries. These new industries were less susceptible to unionization and came to be characterized by low-wage part-time jobs.
Corporations became more boldly aggressive towards labor unions. They threatened to relocate manufacturing facilities to other countries that had cheaper labor standards or to the less unionized parts of the American South and Southwest. This decline of organized labor further weakened the traditional Democratic Party support. Unions were one of the last institutional links between working-class voters and the Democratic Party that had lasted since the Roosevelt days. Black Americans, ethnic minorities, and women replaced labor and the working class as the keys to Democratic support.
Lady Bird Johnson (1912-)
Given her political activity while First Lady, Lady Bird was often compared to Eleanor Roosevelt during her years in the White House. Lady Bird and Eleanor were quite different personalities, however. Eleanor liked to promote issues—even those not endorsed by her husband. Lady Bird was more focused on promoting issues important to her husband, President Lyndon Johnson. She vigorously campaigned on behalf of her husband’s bid for the presidency in 1964 and was credited for gaining key votes from Texas. While in the White House, she concentrated on Head Start, the program designed to help preschool children from impoverished backgrounds. She left a lasting mark by raising national awareness of environmental protection issues through her “beautification” initiatives. For example, in an effort to improve the appearance of the nation’s highways she successfully promoted passage of the Highway Beautification Bill in October 1965 despite strong opposition from billboard advertisers. Such active participation in the legislative process was rare for a First Lady. In 1969 she retired with Lyndon Johnson to their Texas ranch where she continued her environmental interests through the National Wildflower Research Center, which was renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildlife Center. She remains one of the more highly regarded First Ladies in U.S. history.
Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)
Dr. Martin Luther King greatly influenced the course of the Great Society programs by dramatically leading a crusade to end racial segregation and protect voting rights of minorities A gifted student, King entered college at age 15 at Morehouse College in Atlanta and eventually earned a Ph.D. in theology from Boston University. While assistant pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, King at the age of 26 in December 1955 became the chosen leader in an effort to end segregation on the city’s public buses.
After successfully achieving integration on the Montgomery bus system, King broadened the civil rights movement by establishing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). King began operating throughout the South and the nation espousing, nonviolent resistance to what were considered socially unjust laws and practices.
King was a very skillful speaker and inspiring personality. His influence was at its height from 1960 to 1965, as he led nonviolent protest marches and demonstrations. In the spring of 1963, in an effort to end racial segregation at Birmingham lunch counters, he was jailed along with many others, including hundreds of school children. The Birmingham police had also turned dogs and fire hoses on the black demonstrators, drawing much national attention.
To further dramatize the plight of black Americans, King and other civil rights leaders organized the historic March on Washington on August 28, 1963. Two hundred thousand blacks and whites peacefully gathered on the Mall in Washington, DC, to hear King give his famous “I have a dream” speech. King demanded equal justice for all. The event strongly affected national opinion and led eventually to passage of the Civil Rights Act in July 1964, the first major act of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program. In December 1964 King received the internationally prestigious Nobel Prize for Peace.
Though still highly influential, a protest march in Selma, Alabama, in March 1965 promoting protection of voting rights avoided confrontation with Alabama state troopers by turning back. In reaction the growing number of black radicals withdrew their support for King and his nonviolent ways. Nevertheless, within days of the march President Johnson submitted a sweeping voting rights bill to Congress that was passed as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 five months later.
As violent racial confrontations began growing across the nation, King attempted to launch a campaign in Chicago against segregation in housing. This effort, however, did not successfully develop. Despite losing momentum King pressed on, attempting to form a coalition of both blacks and whites to fight poverty and unemployment. With plans under way for a Poor People’s March to Washington in the spring of 1968, a sniper assassinated King at the age of 39. Though King’s influence helped bring about an end to segregation laws in the South, racial problems of the northern cities and elsewhere proved too complex to solve in such a brief span of time.
George C. Wallace (1919-1998)
Wallace, son of an Alabama farmer, worked his way through the University of Alabama Law School, graduating in 1942. Following service in World War II, Wallace served in various public offices, including state’s assistant attorney, two terms as an Alabama legislator, and as a judge. After losing a race for the governorship to a segregationist, Wallace shifted from a moderate position on race relations to being an opponent of racial integration.
As a segregationist Wallace won the race for governor in 1962. In June 1963 Wallace gained national notoriety by blocking the enrollment of black students at the University of Alabama. He relented when the federalized Alabama National Guard came to enforce the enrollment. Similar confrontations occurred at other locations in the state.
In 1968 Wallace ran a tough campaign for the presidency as a third party candidate of the American Independent Party. He drew strongly from white southerners and blue-collar workers, normally Democratic supporters under the New Deal coalition. Wallace won 13 percent of the national vote and five southern states. With the Democratic vote split between Hubert Humphrey and Wallace, Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon won the election.
While campaigning for the presidency again in 1972, Wallace was shot and left paralyzed. Two years later, in 1974, he was reelected governor. By the 1980s Wallace renounced his segregationist viewpoints and sought reconciliation with black leaders. In 1982 he won the governor’s race again, gaining substantial backing from black voters. Suffering increasing ill health, Wallace retired from politics in 1987.
Though unsuccessful in his bids for the presidency, Wallace greatly influenced American politics in general by pulling together the southern vote. This political development contributed to the ultimate demise of New Deal politics in particular.
Earl Warren (1891-1974)
Warren was born in Los Angeles, California, the son of a railroad worker and immigrant from Norway. He earned a law degree from the University of California at Berkeley and served for a half century in public office. His positions included district attorney of Alameda County, California (1925-1939), California attorney general (1939-1943), and California governor for three terms from 1943 to 1953.
Thanks to his having helped Dwight Eisenhower win the 1952 presidential election, President Eisenhower rewarded Warren with a nomination for chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1953. The resulting Warren Court lasted until 1969 and introduced sweeping changes in U.S. constitutional law. The Warren Court was most noted for expansion of individual liberties, gaining equal representation of voters in elections, and protection of the rights of those accused of crimes.
On November 29, 1963, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Warren chairman of the commission created to investigate the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the murder of Kennedy’s suspected assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. The Warren Commission Report was completed in September 1964 and later published. Earl Warren died on July 9, 1974, in Washington, DC. Warren is regarded as one of the great Supreme Court chief justices in U.S. history.
Whereas President Franklin Roosevelt orchestrated the New Deal legislation with an air of optimism and charm, President Lyndon Johnson had a much more aggressive style. Stewart Alsop reported one such occasion in the Saturday Evening Post, December 14, 1963, entitled “The New President.”
The Majority Leader [Johnson] was, it seemed, in a relaxed, friendly reminiscent mood. But by gradual stages this mood gave way to something rather like a human hurricane. Johnson was, striding about his office, talking without pause, occasionally leaning over, his nose almost touching the reporter’s, to shake the reporter’s shoulder or grab his knee … Appeals were made, to the Almighty, to the shades of the departed great, to the reporter’s finer instincts and better nature, while the reporter, unable to get a word in edgewise, sat collapsed upon a leather sofa, eyes glazed, mouth half open.
The Beginnings of the Great Society
Lyndon Johnson was busily forming his legislative agenda for the Great Society programs in early 1964. He described visions for America in his Great Society speech of May 22, 1964, which is reproduced in Johnson’s Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, (1965, 1963-1964, Book I, p. 704):
The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community. It is a place where man can renew contact with nature. It is a place which honors creation for its own sake and for what it adds to the understanding of the race. It is a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.
A Plea for Voting Rights
The year 1965 was a tumultuous one in U.S. history. Confrontations were escalating between blacks and whites over the basic principles of freedom. In Selma, Alabama, Martin Luther King, Jr. led two attempts to march to Montgomery, Alabama, to protest the discrimination against blacks trying to register to vote in Selma. The first day, March 7, 1965, known as “Bloody Sunday,” was marked with violence as state troopers beat and then arrested many of the marchers. King terminated the second march on Tuesday, March 9, and traveled that night to Washington, DC to prevail upon Johnson to step in on behalf of the protestors and the voting rights movement. Rising to the occasion, Johnson gave the following speech to a joint session of Congress and the country on national television. It proved a momentous speech which led to passage of the Voting Rights Act, and is reproduced in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson (Book I, pp. 281-287):
I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy.
I urge every member of both parties, Americans of all religions and of all colors, from every section of this country, to join me in that cause.
At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was a Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama …
There is no constitutional issue here. The command of the Constitution is plain. There is no moral issue. It is wrong—deadly wrong—to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country. There is no issue of States rights or national rights. There is only the struggle for human rights.…
This time, on this issue, there must be no delay, no hesitation, and no compromise with our purpose …
What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice …
I do not want to be the President who built empires, or sought grandeur, or extended dominion. I want to be the President who educated young children to the wonders of their world. I want to be the President who helped to feed the hungry and to prepare them to be taxpayers instead of taxeaters.
I want to be the President who helped the poor to find their own way and who protected the right of every citizen to vote in every election …
God will not favor everything we do. It is rather our duty to divine His will. But I cannot help believing that He truly understands and that He really favors the undertaking that we begin tonight.
Suggested Research Topics
- Discuss the pros and cons of government involvement in the nation’s social problems. Are such problems too ingrained in society to make them vulnerable to improvement by government? Was more radical action by Congress and President Johnson needed?
- Discuss the Economic Opportunity Act programs. Who were the programs intended to benefit? Why did these people need assistance? What economic programs at the beginning of the twenty-first century help needy people?
- Debate the effectiveness of Great Society programs. Did these programs encourage dependency of people on government benefits? Or did they give the people a needed boost to help themselves?
- Research the most pressing problems of your neighborhood or community. Propose a social program that would address these problems.