Kennedy’s successor was perhaps one of the most experienced politicians in the history of the country, Lyndon B. Johnson—LBJ for short. This former Senator from Texas was ambitious and sought to make the most of his ascension to the Presidency.
Johnson’s domestic policy was called the Great Society. He sought to fix all the problems with American society. It called for an unprecedented number of social programs and laws. Johnson put the War on Poverty at the heart of all his programs, offering government assistance programs to Americans living below the poverty line. Johnson asked Congress to create Medicare and Medicade, government assistance to pay for medical care for the elderly and poor. Johnson also gave federal Aid to Education. Laws were made to improve the environmental, such as the Clean Air Act (1970) put standards on environmental pollution and created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to test and inspect to make sure federal guidelines are being followed. The Department for Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was created to advise the President on housing, financing and the development of cities.
Civil Rights was also another key focus of the Great Society. The Civil Rights Movement was at its height during Johnson’s Presidency. African-American organization fought for change as the Civil Rights Movement continued during Johnson’s Presidency. The NAACP continued to fight for change in the court system. Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized their famous protests in the years before, like the Montgomery Bus Boycott and protests in Birmingham, Alabama. Student Non-Violent Coordinationg Committee (SNCC) organized protests too. Led by Stockey Carmichael, the organization pioneered the idea of “Black Power” and even protested the Vietnam War, which saw a disproportionate number of African-American males being sent off to fight. Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was responsible for organizing the Freedom Rides, testing the federal governments order to desegregate interstate bus routes. The Nation of Islam and Malcolm X also fought for rights, urging black separatism. The Black Panthers were militant about the need to fight back against racism.
Race riots gripped many American cities from 1965-1967, in a period called the “Long, Hot Summers.” These riots helped push government to address some of the underlying issues boiling over. But they also caused “white flight”—the mass-movement of white families out of cities to the suburbs.
To address civil rights, Johnson’s asked Congress to pass not one, but two Civil Rights Acts as part of his Great Society program. The first was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was originally proposed by Kennedy before his assassination. It made discrimination illegal, particularly in schools, voting procedures, public facilities and for employment. It would prove to be hard to enforce, especially in the South. Then Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It eliminated literacy tests and gave the federal government the authority to enroll voters who were denied the right to vote by local authorities. As a result, the proportion of registered voters in Selma went from 10% of the voters to 60% of the registered voters. Civil Rights Act of 1968 followed, containing the clause known as the Fair Housing Act. The Act prohibited discrimination in regards to the sale and rental of property. Also, affirmative action, also originally begun during Kennedy’s administration, continued through the Johnson years. The idea behind it was to give special consideration to minority candidates for jobs in an attempt to correct past wrong doings.
Under Johnson, the United States became even more involved in the conflict in Vietnam. U. S. involvement there can be understood as being the product of escalation—getting increasingly involved in an issue over time, often ending up more involved than would have ever been desired. This happened due to the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, passed by Congress, after an alleged naval battle in which the North Vietnamese were said to have attacked American gun boats. Congress gave Johnson the authority to send troops to Vietnam, effectively involving Americas in an all-out war there. Fighting intensified with the Tet Offensive, when the North Vietnamese attacked the forces of South Vietnam and the United States, causing Johnson to send even more troops.
The Vietnam Conflict was very controversial. It caused there to be another military draft. The draft gave exemptions to college students. This meant that mostly minorities—who had less access to higher education—and the poor were being sent to fight the war. News reports about the war also showed the brutality in a way unlike wars before it. Ultimately, the war dominated Johnson’s Presidency. He became so unpopular due to it that he chose not to run for re-election and he has not been remembered for all of the great reforms he introduced as part of the Great Society.
Some key Supreme Court decisions from the era were handed down. In Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), the Court ruled that under the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, the state courts—like federal courts—must provide all defendants lawyers in court. In the case Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States (1964), the Court ruled that the federal government could use the commerce clause of the Constitution to force private businesses to end discriminatory practices. Before this ruling, private businesses claimed that desegregation laws only applied to public facilities. Miranda v. Arizona (1966) dealt with the rights of the accused. It is because of this case that police “read you your rights” when people are arrested. The Tinker v. DesMoines Independent Community School District (1969) was caused by student protest against the Vietnam Conflict. The Tinker test was established to decide if school’s disciplinary procedures violate students’ First Amendment rights.