Pictured above: President Johnson signs, as Martin Luther King Jr. watches him, the Civil Rights Act of 1964
Today is MLK Jr. Day, and as we all know, Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. This movement culminated in the passage of two of America’s most important pieces of legislation: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Today’s also the day that Obama gave his second and final inaugural address. Most of those who watched the speech agree that it was one of, if not the most, progressive speech Obama ever gave. In it he espoused equality for pay among men and women, the freedom to marry whomever we love despite our lover’s gender, how voting should be the easiest thing to do in the world, and that we need – we absolutely must – tackle climate change. That’s not everything he mentioned, but what was clear in Obama’s speech was that an activist government is better than a government that doesn’t do anything. How government action doesn’t make us less free, it makes us more free, because the more risk we bear together and as a nation, the more risk we can take as individuals and succeed.
So let’s go back about fifty years, to a clear demonstration of the kind of activist and good government Obama was talking about, and realize how America is now better off.
When the average person thinks of President Johnson, what’s the first thing that usually comes to mind? Vietnam. Not unfairly mind you, so let me get this out of the way first. Johnson’s handling of Vietnam was extraordinarily stupid. That war should never have escalated as far as it did, and most of the American public looks back on it as another pointless war.
But there’s another side of Johnson that’s often ignored in common conversation about him: his absolutely incredible domestic accomplishments. A record that should in no way be overshadowed by Vietnam. Some days I feel like I’m on a mini-campaign to make people think of Johnson’s presidency as a whole rather than just the war, though Vietnam should never be overlooked.
I’ve been reading Robert A. Caro’s The Passage of Power, a look at how Johnson ascended to the presidency – something he wanted all his life. “Someday, I’m going to be President of the United States,” he prophetically said to a group of classmates when he was thirteen. His classmates laughed at him, saying they would never vote for him. “I won’t need your votes,” Lyndon retorted.
Non-fiction books about political history can be funny. Well, ironic, but because of that they’re funny. I’ve just finished reading the part of the book that talks about the Democratic convention of 1960, and how Jack and Bobby Kennedy had to put down liberal and labor angst over Jack’s decision to select Johnson as his running mate. Liberal and labor leaders didn’t trust Johnson. Throughout his time as Senate Majority Leader, his record on civil rights was abysmal, and, just as importantly back then, he was a Southerner, hailing from Texas.
Here’s where the ironic part comes in: They were completely wrong about him. In the end, Johnson would exceed their expectations and fulfill their hopes and wishes far better than Kennedy ever did. Though there was no way they could know that at the time.
Beyond ideology, Jack Kennedy needed to Johnson to win. Without states like Texas, the Carolinas, and Louisiana, the electoral math Jack was seeing made it clear that there was no way he could beat Nixon.
John F. Kennedy (D) won the 1960 election against Nixon (R) by just over 100,000 votes. The electoral outcome was JFK 303, Nixon 219
For all that he was, Jack Kennedy was terrible at maneuvering legislation through Congress. His lack of legislative expertise wasn’t all his fault, though. Before becoming president, JFK was in Congress, first in the House then in the Senate, but most of the time he was away sick with Addison’s disease. He hardly got to know anyone or get a handle on the politics of either chamber, or how either chamber operated. Beyond that, it was Southern – not Northern – Democrats that had power on the necessary committees in Congress through which civil rights legislation had to get by.
Southern Democrats weren’t going to support Civil Rights legislation.
After Kennedy was assassinated, Johnson succeeded him to the presidency, and within the first year, he and his Congressional allies maneuvered around the Southern Democratic control of Congress and a Senate filibuster that stalled the chamber for fifty-seven days. Because of their efforts, Congress passed one of the country’s most important pieces of legislation – the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The bill banned discrimination in public places, and private businesses that service public needs, such as hotels and theaters. It also made equal employment opportunity the law.
The South didn’t like that, and turned on Johnson in the next presidential election. The Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater, a very conservative candidate: too conservative for the average American voter. Johnson pounded him in the election, winning in a landslide victory of 486 electoral votes to Goldwater’s 52.
And with the 1964 election, Americans also elected the Eighty-Ninth Congress. Democrats swelled their ranks in both chambers, reaching sixty-eight seats in the Senate, and 295 seats in the House. In each case, a two-thirds majority.
Left: Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-MT). Right: Speaker of the House John McCormack (D-MA)
Johnson would later call the Congress the “fabulous 89th,” but what they did was certainly worthy of fame.
After they were sworn in, they got work. Below is a list of major legislation passed by LBJ and the 89th Congress, with a brief summary of what each bill did.
- The Voting Rights Act of 1965 – We all know what this does. Banned literacy tests as a requirement to vote, and gave the federal government the power to pre-clear any new voting laws enacted in certain parts of the country to make sure they did not have a discriminatory effect. The act has since been strengthened.
- Medicare and Medicaid – Enacted as amendments to the Social Security Act, they provided basic hospital insurance to those 65 and older, along with an insurance program to help the elderly pay for doctor visits and other health expenses. Medicaid was a similar program designed for the poor.
- Freedom of Information Act – Designed to enshrine that the public has a right to access government documents, and established that the government has to provide a reason for withholding information.
- Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 – This modernized (back then) the US immigration system. The focus was on family-oriented immigration and the skills of immigrants themselves.
- Elementary and Secondary Education Act – Provided funding for primary and secondary education, emphasized equal access to education, and established higher standards and accountability.
- Higher Education Act – Increased federal money given to universities, created scholarships, and other assortment of aid for students who wanted post-secondary education.
- Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act – An amendment to the Clean Air Act of 1963, it set the first federal vehicle emission standards.
- Public Works and Economic Development Act of 1965 – Created the Economic Development Administration, which provided grants to help parts of the country that were economically underdeveloped.
- Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act – Required cigarette packages to have warning labels saying smoking may be hazardous to your health (a major step given the times), and required DHEW to make an annual report to Congress on the hazards of smoking.
- Highway Beautification Act – Designed to prohibit construction of new billboards on highways that received federal aid, to preserve their scenery. It established the requirement that certain junkyards be removed or screened from highways.
- National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act – Empowered the federal government to set national safety standards.
- Department of Transportation Act – Established the Department of Transportation, under now which houses the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Highway Administration, and so on.
- Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965 – Created the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It provided more funding for existing federal housing programs, more funding for rent subsidies for the elderly and disabled, and funding for other housing related issues.
That’s not everything, but that’s a good chunk of it. There’s no combination of a Republican president doing that much with a single Congress. Indeed, you could make the argument that no modern Republican president did as much in one or two terms as Johnson did in two years.
In fact, the only president and Congress that comes close to LBJ and the 89th is Barack Obama and the 111th. Both sessions had a Democratic president with overwhelming Democratic majorities in Congress. These types of sessions are awe-inspiring.
So for his domestic record, here’s to Lyndon Baines Johnson.
And here’s to the Famous 89th. One of the best Congresses ever, and one of the finest examples of good government you’ll find in all of human history.