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LBJ's Domestic Policy, 1963-69

Lyndon Baines Johnson, 1963-1969: The Domestic Scene

Lyndon B. Johnson

Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) became President of the United States when John F. Kennedy was murdered by Lee Harvey Oswald on November 22, 1963; people had assumed that it was safely put on the sidelines when Kennedy had chosen this tall Texan as his running mate in 1960. Johnson had been a contender for the presidency but anti-Southern sentiment in the US was impossible to overcome. Kennedy chose him as his running mate, however, so he would have a chance of carrying some Southern states. Although the Kennedy people and the Johnson people did not like each other much, LBJ had done his duty and campaigned hard and loyally. Now, with the president murdered in Dallas, Texas, LBJ has succeeded to power. He announced that he would honor the martyred president's memory by pushing through his legislative program.

LBJ was able to did it not just because of the shock of Kennedy's death but also he had been one of the most effective Majority Leaders in the history of the Senate. He was a master at cajoling people to do what he wanted and at making the deals necessary to build the coalitions. Although he was a Southern Democrat, he had avoided the racism so characteristic of that wing of the part. He had engineered the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, working with Republicans and liberal democrats,

Kennedy's Civil Rights bill had passed the House of Representatives on November 20, 1963 but what blocked by Southern Democrats in the Senate. Hubert Humphrey, the Senate floor manager, could not get the bill passed. LBJ used his persuasive powers with both parties to break the deadline. He got the conservative Everett Dirksen, Republican of Illinois, to get cloture, breaking the Southern filibuster. The law was signed on July 2, 1964. It outlawed racial discrimination is public accommodations engaged in interstate commerce. Since the economy had become national and international in scope, very few businesses would be exempt.

He got passed a very large tax cut of $11.5 billion passed in 1964, trimming the budget from $101.5 billion to $97.9 billion.

In his State of the Union address of January 8, 1964, he announced a War on Poverty, vowing to bring the 1 in 5 (20%) of Americans living in poverty out of that condition. It was passed in August, 1964. He chose a Kennedy brother-in-law, Sargeant Shriver, to head the Office of Economic Opportunity, the chief anti-poverty agency. A Job Corps was created, VISTA which was a domestic Peace Corps, Community Action, and Community Legal Services. The War on Poverty was not won but it reduce the number of poor people from 35 million to 12.5 million.

Robert Kennedy, the former president's brother and the Attorney General, chafed at working for LBJ, a man he did not like or trust. Some of it was Johnson's tremendous power. Some of it was the different cultures from which they came. He was a wealthy Massachusetts man from a large ambitious family whereas Johnson came from a poverty-stricken Protestant background in Texas. Kennedy's family has send him to Harvard; LBJ had worked his way through Southwest Texas State University. So Kennedy moved to New York and was elected US Senator in 1964.

LBJ pushed through more Great Society legislation. (See Great Society Legislation for a list of laws). Passed were the Elementary and Secondary School Act ($1 billion for public schools and $100 million for purchase of library and textbooks); Medicare; Medicaid; the Voting Rights Act which put an end to literacy tests and established voting registrars which could be sent to locales which had a history of denying people the right to vote; and the Omnibus Housing Act which provided $7.5 billion for low-income housing and aid to small businesses displaced by urban renewal. The Department of Housing and Urban Development was created as well as the National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities including the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Anti-pollution efforts were begun with the Water Quality Act and the Air Quality Act which created auto emission standards. Immigration laws were revised so that immigration would be based on skills needed instead of ethnicity or nationality. The Higher Education Act gave increased support to colleges and universities. Affirmative Action was established by executive order.

The Voting Rights Act had been prompted by the denial of the right to vote to African Americans in much of the South. The problem was brought to the forefront when Martin Luther King, Jr. and other black leaders began a march from Selma, Alabama to the state capital in Montgomery on March 7th. They were beaten by policemen, attacked by dogs, and injured by high pressure water hoses. The police again attacked two days later. The brutality shocked the nation which saw it on national television. LBJ went on national TV to condemn it and to announce that he was sending a bill to Congress to guarantee voting rights.

However, the Civil Rights movement and black unhappiness with second class status grew, often erupting in violence. Whereas King stressed non-violent protests to show the moral corruption of segregation and segregationists, younger men such as Stokely Carmichael, who took control of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, in 1966 argued for black power. Clearly, he was saying the blacks should fight back when struck but his argument was more subtle than that, for he argued that blacks needed to develop economic and political power. H. Rap Brown, who emerged in 1967, was more militant and seemed to threaten violence. The Black Panther Party, which had strength in only a few parts of the nation, scared white with its militancy and seeming willingness to use violence. Complicating relations between blacks and whites were the riots in the black sections of Los Angeles (Watts) in 1965, Chicago, Cleveland, San Francisco, and other cities in 1966, and in Newark and Detroit in 1967. It seemed that the urban ghettos were exploding every summer. Most black people disapproved of the riots but they could not stop them. When King was murdered in Memphis in April, 1968, riots broke out across the nation. Johnson had appointed the Kerner Commission to investigate and its March 1, 1968 report blamed white racism as the principal cause of the riots. Regardless, the solution lay in something other than a government report. Some had hoped that Robert Kennedy, a champion of the underdog and the poor, would win the Democratic nomination in 1968 and then the presidency but he was murdered in June, 1968.

Middle class university students also began rebelling in the mid and late 1960s. This baby boomer generation expected to get what it wanted; it always had. But, in 1964, the University of California at Berkeley tried to limit the right of students to give political speeches on campus. The students protested, occupied university buildings, and won. The Free Speech movement represented a shift towards student power. Whether it was dress codes or civil rights or the war in Vietnam, students demanded to be heard and that the society change to their liking. Most students did not get involved in protests or "drop out" of society, of course. Southern students rarely did. But the net effect was to change in loco parentis (in the place of parents) from the stern parent who expected his child to obey the rules and work hard to the indulgent middle-class parent who could nit give his/her child enough. Universities became very student oriented and students gained extraordinary power to determine how they would be educated.

The 1960s were the product of American business and industry which reshaped national values in order to earn profits. Working through television and movies, they chose which values to stress and teach either by the advertisements they ran or which programs they would fund. The power of television, especially color television which was coming into its own during the decade, was all pervasive. Americans thought and did what hey saw and heard on TV. As students changed their own clothing, such as wearing T-shirts, which were underwear or writing slogans on T-shirts, American business turned these into commercial items. Working men's garb, blues denim jeans, became the uniform of young people. When they converted delivery vans into passenger vehicles, Detroit started manufacturing passenger vans. But it was the power of advertising, especially television advertising, that changed the US culture.

The war in Vietnam also affected the course of US history. See Vietnam War Foreign Policy, 1953-1973 for brief looks at that conflict.