“Selma”, the new movie about the Civil Rights Movement, casts Lyndon B. Johnson as a villain. This view is being disputed by historians who write that L.B.J. was committed to the goals of the movement and responsible for passage of the Civil Rights Act in l964 and the Voting Rights Act in l965. Here is L.B.J.s record according to the historians.
After the shock and trauma of John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson had only eleven months to serve as President before the 1964 election. He had been the Majority Leader of the United States Senate for years before he became J.F.K’s Vice President. He was one of the most powerful men to ever hold that position, using his abilities of intellect, persuasion and sheer force of personality to convince members to vote on measures he wanted passed into laws. The Democratic party controlled both houses of Congress when he assumed the presidency, and his experience and influence were of great importance. When he developed his plans and programs, he presented them to Congress as the continuation of J.F.K’s legacy.
On January 9, 1964, President Johnson delivered his first State of the Union address to the joint session of Congress. His words were slow and deliberate in contrast to J.F.K’s brisk cadence. However, L.B.J’s vision for America’s future was clear, strong and optimistic. At the heart of his speech, he announced in dramatic tones, “ This administration, today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge the Congress and all Americans to join me in this effort. It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot lose it.” Johnson presented a moral crusade to eradicate poverty and inspire his listeners He would expand the federal government’s role in health care, education and economic opportunity with the largest reform agenda since Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal brought Social Security to the aged and disabled in America.
Before l935, Will Rogers had quipped, “ The U.S. is the only country where people go to the poor house in an automobile.” Today, many Americans don’t even know what “the poor house” was in towns across the country. And Social Security is taken for granted. This sea change is largely due to laws that were enacted during Johnson’s two terms in office, building on the New Deal. Here are the major laws:
*The Economic Opportunity (OEO) Act was the administrative agency of the War on Poverty programs: Job Corps, Head Start, VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) , Legal Services and Community Action Programs. August 20, 1964
*Medicare and Medicaid were created on July 19, 1965
*Food Stamp Act (SNAP) -August 31, 1964
*Elementary and Secondary Education Act – April 11, 1965.
*Pell Grants: post-secondary federal grants to help low-income families in receiving financial aid as under-graduates in college. November 8, 1965
When Johnson campaigned for his second term in l964, he challenged Americans to build a “Great Society”, incorporating his war on poverty programs as building blocks to the future. His opponent was Barry Goldwater, the wealthy archconservative Republican Senator of Arizona. A popular cartoon of the day lampooned Goldwater as a well- dressed figure whose coat was being tugged by a poor small child in rags. The man looked down and said, “Why don’t you show some initiative and inherit a department store.” Goldwater, as the heir to his family’s merchandising empire, was the obvious political target of the Democrat’s war on poverty. Johnson’s huge electoral college and popular vote victories were the high water mark of his popularity as president.
Equally significant in Lyndon B. Johnson’s legacy were the passage of the Civil Rights Act of l964 and the Voting Rights Act of l965. These two landmark laws came after long years of struggle and dedication by the men and women of the Civil Rights Movement. They were the result of the freedom riders who were stoned and attacked on the buses, the arduous Montgomery bus boycott, the marchers who were beaten on the Edgar Pettus Bridge , and the historic 1963 March on Washington. Lyndon Johnson knew that the key to passage of the two Civil Rights laws was to convince Democratic Southern senators who supported segregation to vote in favor. He used every ounce of his influence and persuasion to accomplish this objective although he knew the Democratic party would lose the South in future elections as a result. His prediction came true, but he was successful in bringing an end to segregation nationwide in all public accommodations: housing, jobs, hotels, restaurants, movies and swimming pools. The Voting Rights Act brought an end to literacy tests and other methods of discrimination against African Americans. It regulated the practices and policies of elections at all levels, federal, state and local.
The “Great Society” programs and legislation brought social improvement in many facets of life during L.B.J’s second term of office. They included:
*The Immigration Act ended discriminatory quotas in effect since l924 based on ethnic origin. The quotas had favored immigrants from Northern and Western Europe while people from Southern and Eastern Europe were severely restricted from immigrating to the U.S. Immigrants from Asia had been completely excluded since 1882.
*An Omnibus Housing Act provided funds to construct low income housing.
* Clean Air and Clean Water Quality Acts tightened pollution controls.
*Standards were raised for safety in consumer products.
* The National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities was established to use public funds for artists and galleries.
* The Wilderness Protection Act saved 9.1 million acres of forest land from industrial development.
By 1966 – 1967, the escalation of U.S. involvement in the Viet Nam conflict began to overshadow domestic achievements of the Johnson administration. As casualties mounted, the president met continually with his advisers who almost all backed a continued increase in American military personnel and fire power. The fear of a “domino effect” of all of Southeast Asia falling to the Communists was the argument of the generals and senior Cabinet members. The American public was dividing into two camps: the hawks and the doves — pro and anti war, with protest rallies and vehement denouncing of Johnson. American units were using napalm, and a devastating picture was taken of children –literally on fire– fleeing down a dirt road from their destroyed village. Angry groups would chant outside the White House gates, “L.B.J… L.B.J.. How many kids did you kill today?”
Johnson watched as the dollars needed for his domestic programs to fight poverty were being diverted to finance the war in Viet Nam. In addition, the conservatives were angry with him for the costs of programs at home, while the liberals were furious for his increasing troops while casualty numbers spiraled. General Westmoreland, the supreme commander in Viet Nam, brought him numbers of those killed and wounded that turned out to be far below the actual losses. Johnson was faced with a war that appeared to have no military solution. Graphic pictures of him at his desk during those months showed a man in deep anguish with his face in his hands.
By 1968, with prospects of campaigning for a second term looming, Johnson saw his dream of a Great Society in danger of being overwhelmed by the Viet Nam War. He also felt that the anger directed at him personally was harming the country. He made the hardest decision a president could make. On March 31, he stunned the nation by announcing on television that he would not seek re-election in November. He would devote his full efforts to working toward an end to the Viet Nam War.
Lyndon B. Johnson gave the American people his legacy of the Great Society and the War on Poverty — as well as the two landmark Civil Rights Acts. All these laws would touch every area of our lives with lasting beneficial effects for generations to come. Keep these historic L.B.J. achievements in mind if you decide to see the movie, “Selma”.