Lyndon B. Johnson & Civil Rights

Instructor: Christopher Staysniak

Chris has taught college history and has a doctorate in American history.

In this lesson, you will learn about Lyndon Johnson and the ways he helped the Civil Rights Moment achieve some of its most significant goals in the 1960s.

Early Ambivalence

Lyndon Johnson was at times viewed with skepticism by more liberal politicians in the Democratic party. As first a congressman and then a senator, the Texas politician was largely ambivalent when it came to civil rights. He did not endorse or support any major legislation on the subject. Further, he himself regularly expressed racist beliefs in private conversations.

Lyndon Johnson signs Civil Rights Act into law, with Maritn Luther King, Jr. direclty behind him.
Lyndon Johnson signs Civil Rights Act into law

Political Beliefs

But Johnson's congressional track record was not fully representative of his beliefs. Ultimately, he displayed genuine concern about poverty and racial injustice. Johnson had grown up in a household with little money to spare, had put himself through college, and had taught in a largely poor, Mexican American community in Texas early in his career. The plight of his students as they faced struggles due to racism and dire poverty had an especially enduring impact on him.

Further, Johnson greatly admired Franklin Roosevelt and the many New Deal Programs he had enacted to help struggling families during the Great Depression. Johnson helped run one such program for the state of Texas. Throughout his political career, Johnson believed the federal government had an obligation to provide a social safety net and to ameliorate social problems, such as poverty and racism. As Vice President under John F. Kennedy, he was further moved by the Civil Rights Movement and its efforts to win greater equality for African Americans.

Seizing the Opportunity

At the time of his assassination in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963, most of Kennedy's civil rights bill was stalled in Congress. It was blocked by a coalition of conservative Republicans, as well as conservative Democrats. But now-President Lyndon Johnson had an ambitious domestic agenda, and he would not be easily deterred. He made this clear in an impromptu meeting with his closest advisers, which he called on the first full day of his presidency following Kennedy's death. As one adviser recalled, Johnson told them, ''I'm going to pass Kennedy's civil rights bill, which has been hung up too long in the Congress. And I'm going to pass it without changing a single comma or a word. After that we'll pass legislation that allows everyone anywhere in this country to vote, with all the barriers down.''

Johnson was fully committed to getting the bill passed, despite the potential political costs. Later in the first week of his presidency, when somebody tried to persuade Johnson not to waste time on getting the bill moving again, Johnson again demonstrated his resolve as he replied, ''Well, what the hell's the presidency for?'' In an address to Congress later that day, he unequivocally stated, ''We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for 100 years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law.''

The Civil Rights Act

As a senator, Johnson had built a well-deserved reputation as a skilled legislator. He had developed a masterful ability to build alliances, as well as persuade, pressure, or outflank opponents as needed to get bills through. He put these skills to work in getting Kennedy's civil rights bill moving again. While the legislative victory was a combined effort, Johnson was an important player as he worked tirelessly behind the scenes tracking votes, pressuring senators, and using pork barrel politics to move federal funds and projects to certain districts and states to help win support. His efforts, in addition to the tireless effort of legislators like Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey and the popular support drummed up by the Civil Rights movement, resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This landmark legislation outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, and sex.

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