Lyndon Johnson

Lyndon Johnson

During his presidency, Lyndon Johnson witnessed the passage of more civil rights legislation than any other president. He signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting RIghts Act. However, whilst some historians credit him with being one of the most influential figures in the civil rights movement, others argue that he was motivated by political ambition. For Johnson himself, equal rights were integral to his vision of America as a “Great Society”.

Born 27 August 1908, Lyndon Johnson’s first job was as an elementary teacher. He taught Mexican American students in a segregated school, who he described as “mired in the slums”, “lashed by prejudice” and “buried half alive in illiteracy”. Johnson firmly believed that education was the key to fighting poverty.

In 1937, Johnson campaigned for the House of Representatives on a New Deal platform. He helped secure loans and federal grants for farmers, schools, housing for the poor, roads and public libraries for his Texan constituents. By the end of the 1930s, Johnson was being called “the best New Dealer from Texas”. However, he was still constrained by his Southern upbringing and the expectations of other conservative politicians.

In order to enter the Senate in 1948, Johnson had to move strategically to the right. Once he became a congressman he had little choice but to vote with his fellow Southern Congressmen against bills that promoted civil rights, such as eliminating poll taxes and outlawing lynching. He opposed Truman’s civil rights programme and, in doing so, alienated Southern Blacks. Johnson’s argument was that he was constrained by the Southern political context - if he went against the status-quo there would be no way of realising his political ambition.

Johnson also believed that a government could not force civil rights legislation on those who didn’t believe in it. Despite this, Johnson fought for equal treatment for school children and black farmers in his congressional district. He believed that real change would happen by taking small, important, steps at a local level. Johnson also managed to secure federal funding for housing for minorities living in slums in Austin, Texas.

Johnson’s shrewd political maneuvering makes it difficult to understand his true stance on the issue of civil rights.

However, over time Johnson made his support for civil rights clearer. He supported the 1954 Brown v Board decision by the Supreme Court when the majority of Southern politicians did not. Johnson believed that it was important for the South to accept it, knowing investors were put off by racial tensions. Johnson was also aware that he could not show himself to be too Southern. His decision not to sign the Southern Manifesto in protest of the Brown decision was evidence of this - although his true political objectives for this are up for debate.

The president remained politically shrewd on the subject of civil rights. He was careful to appease the Southern conservatives, whilst also supporting some civil rights legislation. In keeping with this Jekyll and Hyde stance, in 1957 he assured Texans that there was "no foundation" to rumours he was promoting a civil rights bill, whilst simultaneously orchestrating the passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act.

However, he diluted the bill to appease Southerners. This made it almost impossible to enforce the bill, making it more of a goodwill gesture than a useful piece of legislation. However, it did suggest that the government was ready to tackle civil rights, paving the way for future legislation.

During his period as John F. Kennedy’s Vice-President, civil rights became a pressing issue. As Vice-President, Johnson’s biggest challenge was hosting Kennedy’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity (CEEO).

On the day of Kennedy’s assassination on 22 November 1963, Johnson was sworn in as President. He knew that his early moves were critical for securing public support. He knew that he had to push forward Kennedy’s unfinished work on civil rights. At the time of Kennedy's assassination, his civil rights legislation outlawing racial segregation in schools, public places and employment had stalled in its passage through the House of Representative.

Johnson faced challenging in pushing the bill through Congress. There were Southern Congressmen who fervently opposed it, but since Kennedy’s death it had amassed public support. However, Johnson must still be given credit for tirelessly working to ensure it was not diluted as it passed through Congress. He used his Southern background and Kennedy’s recent death to harness support. It was signed on 2 July in the White House five hours after the House of Representatives passed it by 289 to 126 votes.

To secure his re-election, Johnson had to move fast with his plans for his “Great Society”. Through legislation such as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, and the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, he aimed to fight poverty.

In many respects, this was a success. By 1970 the percentage of black students obtaining a high school diploma had jumped from 40 to 60 percent in the historically poor state of Mississippi. Minorities were also helped by Medicare and Medicaid, which was brought in by Johnson as part of his “Great Society”. Notably, African American infant mortality halved within a decade.

Despite the 1964 Civil Rights Act, civil rights activism continued. Johnson knew that the public support for further legislation outweighed opposition from Southern Congressmen. Martin Luther King’s voting campaign in Alabama had provided Johnson with the public support he needed to act.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act drastically changed the South. Lyndon Johnson’s own Democratic Party benefited politically from the act. The Democratic Party gained a substantial black vote, which made up for the Southern whites moving away from the Party. After this legislation it became increasingly difficult to pass further civil rights legislation.

Some argue that Johnson could pass both the 1964 and 1965 Acts because of an advantageous political climate. During his 24 years in Congress, Johnson had gained unprecedented experience in pushing through legislation. During his presidency, the majority of Congress were Democrats, making it far easier to push through his agenda. Johnson was a skilled politician who was incredibly persuasive.

Lyndon Johnson followed Kennedy’s lead by using his executive power to advance the civil rights cause. Johnson helped African Americans by manipulating federal funds, for instance he offered federal subsidies to those southern states who desegregated their schools.

Johnson was also seen to be promoting the African American cause in other ways. For example, he appointed the first African American Supreme Court judge,Thurgood Marshall. Johnson also had African American advisors, hoping this would provide a positive example for Black Americans.

Johnson’s attempts to increase the number of African Americans in high status positions - known as affirmative action - was counteracted by attacks from white supremacists. Riots broke out in Watts, Los Angeles in August 1965 as a result of de facto segregation - something that was very hard to stamp out in some parts of the US. White Americans saw the riots as evidence of African American’s criminality and the number of guns purchased by suburban whites in California soared. Johnson was frustrated by the riots which served to undermine his efforts.

Later on in his presidency, Johnson was forced to keep a lower profile on civil rights issues. Congress was becoming increasingly opposed to further civil rights legislation and Johnson’s attempts to integrate housing were hampered by the Watts riots and the rise of “Black Power”. Local and State authorities also showed their reluctance to co-operate with Johnson’s programmes, meaning that whilst Acts passed into law, they were still not implemented.

During the summer of 1966, riots broke out in 38 cities across the US. This violence damaged the image of African Americans, but Johnson quickly jumped to their defence by claiming the reasons for the riots were injustice and poverty - the problems he was trying to tackle.

The Vietnam War was also becoming an ever increasing distraction. He was unable to devote more time to America’s domestic affairs. Johnson also knew that he had to be realistic about what he could achieve and the situation was "too critical to our future for any one man or any one administration to ever resolve."

Despite opposing every civil rights bill in his first 20 years in Congress, during his presidency Johnson pushed through landmark civil rights legislation.Not only did he sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 1968, but he outlawed most forms of racial segregation and provided equal housing opportunities regardless of race, creed or national origin. He also passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which outlawed discrimination in voting.

He also appointed Thurgood Marshall as the first African American justice in the Supreme Court and signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and Higher Education Act to improve funding to schools, especially those in poor districts.

However, Johnson did not defeat poverty nor racism. His Great Society programmes were resented by local politicians who saw it as unwanted interference from Federal government. What’s more, Americans largely disapproved of the idea of redistributing resources fight poverty. In the South, de facto desegregation continued, leading to descriptions of the 1968 Civil Rights Act as an ‘empty gesture’. Moreover, politicians accused Johnson of creating a ‘welfare state’ with his plans for a ‘Great Society’.

As a politician, Johnson was acutely aware of his popularity. This meant he naturally focused on the issues that would gain him support. While Johnson played an important role in the advancement of civil rights, he was also reacting to a widespread desire for change.

Johnson championed a civil rights agenda for a number of reasons.His motivations included his own poverty-stricken childhood and the belief that minorities had great economic potential for America. Johnson also believed that racial discrimination was damaging the economy of the South.

Lyndon Johnson was first and foremost a politician. He knew that by opposing civil rights legislation he would be considered a conservative Southerner. But he also knew that to win support he needed to dilute the 1957 Civil Rights Act. He hoped to attract the ‘black vote’ through a civil rights agenda. Johnson also acknowledged that the public were calling for change in the late 1950s.

See also: 1964 Civil Rights Act

MLA Citation/Reference

"Lyndon Johnson". 2023. Web.

Key facts

Name: Lyndon Baines Johnson
Birth Date: 27 August 1961, Stonewall, Texas
Death: 22 January 1973, Stonewall, Texas
In Office: 22 November 1963 - 20 January 1969
Known for: The 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Acts, Great Society, War on Poverty