Lyndon Baines Johnson has been credited with being one of the most important figures in the civil rights movement. Johnson does have some distracters who believe that he was merely an unprincipled politician who used the civil rights issue when he realised the worth of the “Black Vote”. However Johnson himself claimed to be an idealist who dreamed of making America a “Great Society”. It was Johnson who put the presidential signature to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.



Lydon Baines Johnson with John F Kennedy


Lyndon Johnson’s work for minorities began in 1928 when he obtained his first job as an elementary school teacher; it was, of course, at this time a segregated school attended by only Mexican Americans. Johnson had 28 pupils who he recalled were “mired in the slums”, “lashed by prejudice” and “buried half- alive in illiteracy”. Johnson believed that their only way out was by education and he bribed, bullied, cajoled and encouraged his pupils, and they adored him.

During the Great Depression, Johnson worked for one of Roosevelt’s New Deal Agencies, the National Youth Administration. Johnson was ordered by Washington to have a black leader as a close advisor, Johnson feared he would be “run out of Texas”, feeling implementation had to be slow as so to not upset deep- rooted customs. Despite this Johnson made great efforts to alleviate black unemployment; 50% by 1932. Despite privately referring to African Americans as “niggers”, he sometimes stayed at black colleges and the African American community found him unusually helpful. Johnson however did little to help other minorities such as Hispanics because, there was little political pressure from Washington and Johnson stood to politically gain little from helping them.

When Johnson became a Congressman, he wanted to gain the minority vote and so he considered employing a Mexican or Spanish-American to show his “appreciation” of his Mexican supporters; cynical Texans called his behaviour a publicity stunt. Many felt that any Texan who wanted to represent the segregated state had to appear to be a segregationist and his gesture didn’t. It was however beneficial to Johnson as it won him the minority vote and made him, a politician with national ambitions, look free from sectional prejudices.

Johnson however, due to political expediency, was forced to vote with his fellow Southern Democrats in Congress, against civil rights measures such as banning lynching, eliminating poll taxes and denying federal funding to segregated schools, measures which later would make up ground breaking legislation. As a senator, Johnson’s opposition to Truman’s civil rights programme disgusted Texas blacks. His explanations were clearly within the contemporary Southern political context; he claimed the bills would never have passed anyway. Johnson also claimed he would be more helpful in another place and position, showing his political ambition and recognising he could only go so far in Texas. He also trotted out the standard Southern excuse for not helping African Americans, that he was “not against blacks rights but for states rights”.

Johnson, like Eisenhower, thought civil rights legislation would try to force people to change and lead to violence. Despite this politically correct (in Southern eyes) action, Johnson was behind the scenes working to get black farmers and schoolchildren equal treatment in his congressional district, believing small, but real developments would be better than ground- breaking legislation. In 1938 Johnson secured federal funding for housing in Austin, Texas to benefit Mexican, African American and White slum dwellers. Johnson softened this for racist southerners by stating “This country won’t have to worry about isms [communism and fascism] when it gives its people a decent, clean place to live and a job. They’ll believe in the government.” This behaviour may make Lyndon Johnson seem a Jekyll and Hyde character on race relations, his African American servants were treated well by Johnson in private until other racists visited Johnson and he put on a show for them to gain their support for his political ambitions.

By the mid-1950’s, Senator Johnson was clearly altering his stance on civil rights issues, being one of few Southern politicians who supported the 1954 BROWN decision by the Supreme Court. He did so because he felt it important to uphold the American Constitution and the Supreme Court’s place in that. Johnson felt that the debate of BROWN was merely weakening the Democrats and the whole country. Johnson wanted the South to accept it in order for the South to make economic advances, knowing racial tensions made the area unattractive to investors. By this time Johnson’s presidential aspirations meant he couldn’t appear too narrowly Southern and he was one of only three Southern politicians who refused to sign the Southern Manifesto in protest of BROWN. Johnson’s motivation over this stance was subject to debate; some thinking it was an act of “political valour” and others thinking he used it for political gain.

Johnson continued to remain careful and appeased the Southern racists, such as in 1956 when he killed a civil rights bill in Congress. Again, in keeping with his Jekyll and Hyde stance he changed his opinion in 1957. Whilst assuring Texans that there was “no foundation” to rumours he was promoting a civil rights bill, and stating he was “strongly and irrevocably opposed to forced integration of the races” he orchestrated, though diluted parts which would be offensive to southerners, the 1957 Civil Rights Act

This dilution made fellow Southerner President Eisenhower’s bill into a largely unenforceable voting rights law. The part of the bill, which allowed federal government to promote integration in schools, was lost, due to the hostility BROWN and BROWN II had received in the South. Despite Johnson’s dilution of the act to make it merely a token gesture, the bill symbolised greater federal interest in civil rights and their enforcing; it also paved the way for more civil rights legislation. Johnson was also important in the passage of Eisenhower’s second Civil Rights Act in 1960.

During his period as John F. Kennedy’s Vice- President, racism became an increasingly important political issue. Vice- President Johnson knew something had to be done “The Negro fought in the war [World War Two], and….he’s not gonna keep taking the shit we’re dishing out. We’re in a race with time. If we don’t act, we’re gonna have blood in the streets.” As Vice- President Johnson’s greatest challenge was chairing Kennedy’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity (CEEO).

Johnson didn’t want the job and Kennedy knew it was a ‘hot potato’. Johnson told Kennedy that the CEEO lacked the money and power to be effective, but Kennedy insisted and did his best. He did so because he considered discrimination as ‘un-American’ and damaging to America’s reputation, especially in the Cold War world. James Farmer of CORE, believed Johnson’s motivation to be real and both he and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP rated Johnson higher than President Kennedy on civil rights issues. The CEEO failed to win many plaudits and shortly before Kennedy was assassinated, Johnson urged him to make a ‘moral commitment’ to civil rights.

Johnson became President of the USA, in November 1963 after the assassination of Kennedy. It was then that Lyndon Johnson announced his vision of a “Great Society” for America, with “an end to poverty and racial injustice”. Johnson felt he and Congress owed it to the late president to see his civil rights bill passed. However Johnson was warned by other Southerners that he was staking his political career on passing this bill into law. Johnson was convinced that discrimination was morally wrong and wanted change to lead to economic, political and spiritual reintegration of the South within the nation.

The bill didn’t pass unhindered. There were doubters in Congress and it also had to overcome the longest obstruction in Senate history. Its final passing owed much to Kennedy, who had won over the Republican minority before his death. Johnson was sure the bill would have passed if Kennedy were still alive but that it would have been diluted like Eisenhower’s bills. Johnson must also receive credit as he devoted a staggering amount of his time, energy and political capital to ensure the passage of the bill in it original state. He used Kennedy’s Kennedy’s death, appeals to Southerner’s self- interest and his Southern background to get what has been described as the most important piece of civil rights legislation passed.

The Act has been described by Irving Bernstein as “a rare and glittering moment in the history of American democracy”. However everything wasn’t content in America, there were signs of a northern working-class backlash, shown by the increase in popularity for racist presidential hopefuls, in the presidential primaries. Blacks were also dissatisfied saying it hadn’t gone far enough. The result was riots in black ghettos in East Coast cities. The blacks Johnson thought he was helping, repaid him by embarrassing him and the Democrat Party. Despite this, Johnson bravely planned more civil rights legislation.

Johnson hoped his Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965 would help children to get out of the ghettos. The poorer states like Mississippi benefited greatly from the federal funding and by the end of the 1960’s the percentage of African Americans obtaining a high school diploma rose from 40% to 60%. However, a combination of ghetto peer pressure and traditions and reluctant officials limited the Act’s effectiveness. Johnson’s 1965 Higher Education Act was more successful as it gave significant aid to poor black colleges; it led the number of African American college students to quadruple within a decade. Lyndon Johnson’s introduction of Medicare and Medicaid helped to address the issue of poor health in the minorities, African American infant mortality halved within a decade.

It soon became clear to Johnson that there were still gaps that had been left by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but Johnson feared attempts to close them would be hindered by uncooperative Southern Congressmen. After Martin Luther King’s campaign in Selma, Alabama to get African Americans to register to vote Johnson felt he could act, reminding Americans that one individual’s disenfranchisement “undermines the freedom of every citizen”.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act had a dramatic effect on the South, changing the political complexion of the area, to make it more racially integrated. Lyndon Johnson’s own Democratic Party achieved political gain as a result of the act, the enlarged black vote helped to counteract the loss of Southern whites for the Democratic Party. After this legislation it became increasingly difficult to obtain reforming acts, the 1968 Civil Rights Act doing little more to help the African American community.

Many believe that Johnson was able to pass the 1964 and 1965 Acts because of an exceptional set of circumstances. During his 24 years in Congress Johnson had gained unprecedented experience in getting legislation through Congress. He also had an unusual two- thirds of Congress in his favour and Congressmen felt particularly after Kennedy’s assassination that they should be righting national wrongs. Johnson was himself exceptionally persuasive and determined and had a lifelong commitment to helping the poor.

Lyndon Johnson followed Kennedy’s example in using his executive authority to help the African Americans. 1965-6 Johnson worked to help African Americans through manipulation of federal  funding, such as offering federal subsidies to southern states, which co-operated in school desegregation (despite it being 11 years after the BROWN decision!) so he was using the immense power of the federal purse. Johnson was also seen to be pro-African Americans in other ways, by appointing an African American Supreme Court judge, Thurgood Marshall. Johnson also had African American advisors, hoping this would counteract the images of lawless African American rioters.

Johnson’s positive discrimination, which later became known as ‘affirmative action’ was met with the expected attacks from white bigots, who felt Johnson had done more than enough for African Americans. His attempts were also hampered by the riots in Watts, Los Angeles in August 1965. These were caused by de facto segregation and discrimination, which was unspoken and therefore almost impossible to legislate against. The result of the riots was a white backlash as the purchasing of guns by suburban whites in California soared and many whites turned against Johnson’s reform programme. He himself couldn’t understand how the African Americans could be so politically naïve, failing to realise that their action had undermined his efforts.

After the events in Watts, Johnson kept a lower profile on the civil rights legislation. Johnson was also stopped from doing more by an increasingly awkward Congress which rejected an administration civil rights bill, one aim of which was to prohibit housing discrimination, the basis of the 1968 Civil Rights Act. Johnson’s attempts to integrate housing were hampered by the Watts riots and Stokely Carmichael’s call for “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.

The summer of 1966 saw riots in 38 major American cities. This harmed the image Johnson was trying to mould of the African American community. He tried to excuse them by stating the cause of the riots were poverty and despair, what he had been trying to combat. Another major distraction to Johnson was the Vietnam War, which goes much of the way in explaining why like Kennedy and his distraction of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Johnson was unable to devote more time to America’s domestic affairs. Johnson was also aware that he wasn’t a miracle worker and that the situation was “too critical to our future for any one man or any one administration to ever resolve.”

Johnson didn’t stand for re-election in 1968 and ironically his last public appearance was at a civil rights symposium. When he died a few weeks later, 60% of the people who filed passed his coffin to pay their respects were African Americans.

What had Johnson actually achieved? He played an important role in ending de jure segregation. His 1965 Voting Rights Act transformed Southern politics and gave African Americans the chance to vote without fear; it also saw more African Americans enter politics. Johnson’s Education Acts sped up the process of school desegregation, which had lagged after the initial BROWN decision and also helped African American colleges. Johnson had not only passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act but had also been instrumental in the 1957 and 1960 Acts, all three had given African Americans more political and economic opportunities. Black unemployment had decreased by 34% and in that way he had contributed to his dream of a “Great Society”.

However, Lyndon Johnson did not solve all as most African Americans continued to live in poor housing and suffer above average unemployment. His Great Society programmes soon became unpopular with local politicians, who resented federal intervention and ordinary Americans who disliked the redistribution of resources needed to combat poverty. De facto segregation continued especially in the South and the 1968 Civil Rights Act has been attacked as an ‘empty gesture’ and critics say Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ created a welfare dependent culture.

Some African Americans were dissatisfied with Johnson’s achievements, leading to the riots at Watts in 1965 and during the summer of 1966, which displayed their desire for faster progress. However it is argued that without Johnson’s actions, Black Power would have a larger following. Above all, it must be remembered that Johnson was a politician and therefore always looking out for votes and being cautious not to antagonise too many people. The advances made during Johnson’s presidency can naturally be attributed to his passing of legislation but it must also be remembered that events such as the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King also acted as a catalyst for change.

Johnson like Eisenhower and Truman before him was a Southerner and whether or not he accepted it his roots were inherently racist. Many would look at him and Kennedy and predict that Irish American Kennedy, whose own family had been discriminated against, would be a champion of the civil rights movement. However that was not the case and like his Southern counterparts, it was Johnson who passed the major civil rights legislation.

Many have asked why did Johnson take civil rights so seriously and what was his motivation? Lyndon Johnson was motivated by memories of his own poverty ridden childhood and also his strong belief that helping minorities would be of spiritual and economic benefit to all Americans. Johnson also believed that racial discrimination was ironically damaging the economy of his beloved South and that the area would have to abandon its racist attitudes to gain economic prosperity. Despite Johnson’s ambitions he was also a caring and compassionate man.

Naturally as a politician Johnson was constantly aware of the need to be popular to secure support, that is why he diluted the 1957 Civil Rights Act in order to win support to run instead of John F Kennedy as the Democrat presidential candidate. Lyndon Johnson however didn’t want to be seen as a conservative Southerner and so to prove his ability to rise above his roots, he felt it would be advantageous to promote civil rights legislation. He hoped to stem the flow of African American voters switching to the Republicans. Johnson also acknowledged that in the late 1950’s against the backdrop of BROWN and the Montgomery Bus Boycott the time was right for change. Many genuinely believe and the legislation proves that Johnson did really want to improve life for minorities and build a “Great Society”.


By Sarah Heasman, London University


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