The Enduring Legacy of President Lyndon Baines Johnson
Jul 06, 2015
Originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of Austin Woman Magazine
On the 50th anniversary of the passage of President Johnson’s landmark legislative initiatives, Americans look to the past to find hope for the way forward in the struggle for equality and civil rights.
By Andy East
Although 50 years have passed since President Lyndon B. Johnson's landmark civil-rights legislation, his legacy could not be more relevant today. Austin Woman sat down with Catherine Robb, granddaughter of President Johnson and founder and honorary chair of the LBJ Future Forum, as she looks to the future to honor her grandfather’s legacy. Mark Updegrove, director of the LBJ Presidential Library, also weighs in on LBJ’s enduring legacy.
The world held its breath as President Lyndon B. Johnson approached the rostrum of the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol to address a special joint session of Congress. It was Nov. 27, 1963—just five days since Johnson had been thrust into the presidency in the wake of the assassination of his predecessor, President John F. Kennedy, in Dallas—and fear and uncertainty had swept the nation.
While Johnson tried to assuage the public's fears, little did people know that he was about to embark on a historic legislative agenda to ban racial segregation and "discrimination because of race, color, religion, sex or national origin." It would lead to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Great Society legislation in years to come, but the president's efforts would turn much of his own political party against him and culminate in one of the most contentious political battles in U.S. history—a battle that is still playing out today.
"No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil-rights bill for which he fought so long," Johnson told Congress that day, knowing he was in for the fight of his career.
"Now, it's hard to believe that not everybody would say, 'Of course it's a great thing to do' to have something like the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act," says Catherine Robb, granddaughter of President Johnson and founder and honorary chair of the LBJ Future Forum, an organization that seeks to engage people of all ages in public-policy debate and programming at the LBJ Presidential Library. "At the time, it was very unpopular, even with a lot of his friends. And he and my grandmother [Lady Bird Johnson] and a whole lot of other people stood up with him and said, 'It's the right thing to do and we’re going to do it and consequences be damned.'"
The stakes were high. The dawn of the 1960s was met with much of the same racial turmoil that had plagued the U.S. since the end of the American Civil War. Segregation was the order of the day. Blacks and whites could not eat at the same restaurants, drink from the same water fountains, stay at the same hotels or attend the same schools. Police brutality and violent crackdowns on peaceful demonstrations led by civil-rights leaders were rampant. Undaunted, the civil-rights leaders did not give in.
Just three months before Johnson stood before Congress in November 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. had stood at the other end of the National Mall in front of nearly 250,000 demonstrators and delivered his famed "I have a dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
In Austin, students picketed businesses on Congress Avenue to push for integration at lunch counters. There were demonstrations on The Drag against the segregated Texas Theatre, and a homemade bomb was set off at an integrationist meeting at the University of Texas' YMCA.
"Through much of our country, it was apartheid," says Mark Updegrove, director of the LBJ Presidential Library. "It was a very different and bifurcated society 50 years ago, and LBJ, with sweeps of his pen, changes things."
But Johnson faced a bruising battle in the Senate. By the time he addressed that joint session of Congress, the civil-rights bill had been in legislative limbo for five months, and a coalition of staunch segregationists who would come to be known as the Southern Bloc would seemingly control its fate in the coming months.
Comprised of 18 Southern Democratic senators and one Southern Republican senator from Texas, the Southern Bloc was led by Johnson’s friend and mentor, Richard Russell (D-Ga.), who warned the president that his support for civil-rights legislation would “not only cost you the South, it will cost you the election.”
Russell and his allies would launch a filibuster that would last 57 working days—the longest in the history of the U.S. Senate—to block the bill's passage, fervently vying to "resist to the bitter end any measure or any movement which would have a tendency to bring about social equality and intermingling and amalgamating of the races in our [Southern] states."
"I admire [my grandfather's] willingness to do things that were unpopular that he thought needed to be done and his willingness to stand up for civil rights and for people," Robb says. "I remember someone once saying that the real test of a person is what they do when there’s nowhere else to go and they can’t achieve any more power. I look at [my grandfather] and say he spent his political capital working on the civil-rights legislation and working with so many people to ensure that the Civil Rights Act [of 1964] was passed." But with much of his party against him, Johnson, a Democrat, would need to look beyond his party to break the history-making filibuster.
"LBJ felt passionately that he could use his presidency and his great legislative skill to finally put racial discrimination, at least under the eyes of the law, to an end," Updegrove says. "One of the important things that he did was reach across the aisle to Northern Republicans to help end the filibuster in the Senate."
Johnson courted Republican Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, believing the Illinois senator wielded the influence necessary to end the standoff. Known as the Wizard of Ooze for his sinuous, protracted speaking style, Dirksen, along with Republican Representative William McCulloch and Democratic Senator Hubert Humphrey (who would later be Johnson's running mate), gathered enough votes to end the filibuster and drafted a bipartisan version of the bill that passed the Senate by a vote of 73 to 27, with 21 of the negative votes coming from the South.
On July 2, 1964, Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law.
"It's not just the understanding that there’s the right thing to do, but the willingness to say, 'Let’s go do it,'" Robb says. "In [my grandfather’s] case, it hurt his party."
Senator Russell’s bleak warnings about the Democrats losing the South proved correct when South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana switched allegiance to the Republicans in the 1964 presidential election and have largely remained a Republican stronghold ever since.
But Johnson would crush the Republicans in the presidential election, scoring the most lopsided victory in U.S. presidential election history in terms of popular vote. Now, with four more years in the Oval Office, Johnson and his quest for social justice were just getting started.
As the 1965 legislative session began, Johnson began pushing his Great Society legislation, which sought to eliminate poverty and racial discrimination in the U.S. He had already declared the War on Poverty and expanded the Food Stamps program, but had set his sights on much more. Of the 87 bills the Johnson administration submitted to Congress that year, 84 were signed into law. (In comparison, the 2011 Congress passed 90 bills out of more than 4,200.)
"It was the best legislative batting average in the latter half of the 20th century. Nobody even comes close," Updegrove says. "Fifty years ago, we had perhaps the most important legislative year in American history. In that year, LBJ passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Higher Education Act—both of which resulted in dramatic increases in graduation rates and college matriculation rates—and Immigration [and Naturalization] Act of 1965, the most sweeping immigration reform in the history of our country."
Some other programs enacted under Johnson's Great Society campaign included Medicare, Medicaid, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Head Start, the Air Quality Act of 1967 and the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
But in 1965, Johnson also passed what many consider to be one of the most important bills of the 20th century: The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which overruled state and local laws throughout the U.S. that kept African- Americans from voting.
Earlier that year, a peaceful voting-rights demonstration in Selma, Ala., ended in violence as Alabama State Troopers attacked the demonstrators with nightsticks, whips and tear gas. The country was outraged by the events.
"In Selma, 1 percent of viable African-American voters could actually register their choice at the ballot box because of voting-rights oppressions," Updegrove says. "If you can’t have your say at the ballot box, you’re certainly not going to be represented by politicians."
When Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, there were six African-American members of the U.S. House of Representatives out of 435 seats. By 1971, there were 13 African-American representatives and one African-American senator. In the current Congress, there are 46 African- American representatives and two African-American senators.
Despite Johnson’s push for civil rights, his legacy has not always been positive.
"Legacies are complicated, and LBJ’s is no exception," Updegrove says. "But when he first left office, he was principally known for Vietnam and the quagmire that it became. But ultimately, I think he’ll be remembered as the civil-rights president."
Of her father’s legacy, Lynda Johnson Robb says, "Daddy worked to open opportunities for everyone to live up to the best that God gave them."
After leaving the White House, Johnson inaugurated the LBJ Presidential Library in 1971, hoping to create a "springboard to the future."
"I really think that my grandfather wanted the library to be a place that not just talks about the past, but also talks about the future," Robb says.
In 2002, Robb founded the LBJ Future Forum to encourage people of all ages to get involved at the LBJ Presidential Library, in their community and to discuss public-policy issues of local, national and international importance, helping to fulfill her grandfather’s vision of building a better tomorrow.
Although 50 years have passed since much of Johnson’s landmark legislation, his legacy is still relevant today. From the Affordable Care Act to restrictive voting ID laws, and as racial profiling, income inequality and police brutality in cities like Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., continue to stoke racial tensions throughout the U.S., many of the issues Johnson tackled as president are still problems today.
"You can’t help but see what’s going on and see, while we’ve come a long way, there’s still a lot to be done," Robb says. "You could look at so many issues that were central to his administration that are still relevant today. We still have a long way to go to be in a society where things are truly fair for everyone."
LBJ’s Legacy: Historic Legislation
Civil Rights Act of 1964
Signed into law after the longest filibuster in the history of the U.S. Senate, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned racial segregation and "discrimination because of race, color, religion, sex or national origin."
LBJ’s Great Society
The Great Society was a series of legislation and programs passed by President Johnson to eradicate poverty and racial discrimination in the U.S. Many of the Great Society programs still exist today, including Medicare, Medicaid and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Voting Rights Act of 1965
Enacted Aug. 6, 1965, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 overruled state and local laws throughout the U.S. that inhibited African-Americans for nearly 100 years from exercising their constitutional right to vote.
Enacted in 1965, Medicaid provides financial assistance for 65 million Americans. Passed in 1966, Medicare is a national health-insurance program for the elderly and the disabled. As of 2014, nearly one in six Americans was covered by Medicare. Both programs are at risk of running out of funding within the next 15 years.
Visit the LBJ Library to learn more about President Johnson and the groundbreaking legislation and programs that are his historic legacy.
Take an in-depth look at the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other civil-rights legislation passed by LBJ in the Civil Rights exhibit at the LBJ Presidential Library. Some of the highlights of this exhibit include the desk on which LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law, an interactive table that shows the process through which legislation becomes law and letters from people who have benefited from LBJ’s civil-rights programs.
The Legacy Gallery
From the Great Society programs to PBS, Medicare and financial aid for college, LBJ's legacy has likely played some sort of role in your life. This exhibit offers a detailed look at the vast array of legislation passed under the Johnson administration and its legacy today.
Social Justice Gallery
Reflect back on LBJ’s social-justice legislation in this wide-reaching exhibit that includes graphics and descriptions of the Civil Rights Act, Consumer Protection Act, Medicare, the War on Poverty and many more.
Participate in educational and informative events held at the LBJ Library.
Friends of the LBJ Library
Help support the LBJ Presidential Library’s public programming and new exhibits by joining Friends of the LBJ Library, a membership organization whose membership dues help fund the library. Membership benefits include free admission to all 13 presidential libraries throughout the country and invitations to the Evening With speaker series, which has included President Barack Obama advisor David Axelrod, Karl Rove and many others.
LBJ Future Forum
Founded in 2002 by Catherine Robb, granddaughter of President Lyndon Johnson and Austin-based First Amendment lawyer, the LBJ Future Forum seeks to encourage younger generations to get involved in the LBJ Presidential Library, the community and discuss current local, national and international public-policy issues. Since its inception, it has grown to nearly 140 members and offers access to a wide array of speakers, debates and programming.
Fiftieth Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the LBJ Presidential Library is teaming up with the Travis County Tax Office to host a nonpartisan voter-registration drive. The drive will be held at the LBJ Presidential Library and seeks to boost civic participation in local, state and federal elections. The event takes place Aug. 6 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the LBJ Presidential Library, 2313 Red River St. Visit lbjlibrary.org for more information on the LBJ Presidential Library and the LBJ Future Forum.
Destiny of Democracy
In his latest book, Mark Updegrove, director of the LBJ Presidential Library, offers an up-close look at the historic Civil Rights Summit held last year at the LBJ Presidential Library to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, with presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter in attendance.