Lyndon Baines Johnson was born into poverty near rural Stonewall, Texas, in 1908. From these roots, he would later become a President who stressed fighting poverty, strengthening education, and improving race relations.
Although his family was poor, his mother ensured he received a proper education. His father was a populist, and Lyndon was influenced by his father’s political views and activities. Although he did not pass the entrance exam to Southwest Texas Teacher’s College on his first try, he was able to gain acceptance after further study and tutoring. While teaching high school in Texas, his father recommended him for a job as Congressman Richard Kleberg’s secretary, which he received. Since Kleberg was usually away from the office, Johnson took control of the office.
Johnson was soon named the head of the National Youth Administration, and returned to Washington in 1938 as a Congressman. After a stint in the Army, Johnson was elected as a Senator from Texas in 1948. He quickly became the most powerful man in the Senate, pushing through controversial legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1957. After he lost the Democratic presidential primary to John F. Kennedy in 1960, Kennedy asked him to be Vice President because of the sectional balance he would bring to the Democratic ticket.
As Vice President, Johnson was uncomfortable with his role. After Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson assumed the presidency, and he used the position to push forward a new Great Society program. At his first State of the Union address, Johnson called for an unconditional war on poverty and supported legislation to use federal government resources in inner-city areas.
In his second term, Johnson passed new legislation to this effect. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 called for an end to segregation of public facilities and schools, prompting Johnson to comment that he had just handed the South to the Republican Party.
When in March 1965 he addressed the nation in response to the white violence against demonstrators crusading for voting rights in Selma, Alabama, Johnson used the language of the civil rights movement – “We Shall Overcome.” This reference highlighted the movement’s success in swaying popular opinion. In August 1965, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law and in so doing opened the way for greater political participation by blacks in southern politics. He also established an Office of Economic Opportunity, increased educational spending, and established the Medicare and Medicaid programs to benefit the poor and elderly.
As the Chicago Freedom Movement was unfolding, another civil rights bill, which contained a section prohibiting housing discrimination, was under discussion in Congress. Johnson himself never sought to harness support for this bill by pointing out the white violence against open-housing marchers in Chicago. In part this was because he did not want to stride to forcefully into Chicago politics which was the preserve of the powerful Mayor Richard Daley who was a leading figure in the Democratic Party. While the civil rights bill of passed the House in its weakened form, it faced strong opposition from many senators. The Senate majority leader, Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois, specifically mentioned the tactics of the Chicago Freedom Movement in his opposition speech. He denounced “the other leaders who’ve gone into white areas of Chicago, for instance; that is, after all, calculated harassment.” [Ralph 192] The bill was killed by the Senate.
Ultimately, the unpopularity of the Vietnam war, which Johnson had decided to escalate, led to Johnson’s decision not to run for a second full term. Johnson did see the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 which contained a fair-housing provision. His later life was spent at his ranch near his birthplace in Texas, where he died of a heart attack in 1973.