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The Great Society and Civil Rights
Discrimination and inequality were significant issues in the United States during the 20th century and some may even argue that they are still modern issues. During the 20th century, African Americans and other minorities experienced discrimination in various forms . They were unable to vote, had limited opportunities, experienced poverty, and the general population looked down on them. This was until Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency that led to reform programs to establish the “Great Society”. Johnson legislated laws that criminalized discrimination and allowed every U.S. citizen to have equal opportunities. The “Great Society” was a step forward in addressing the issue of poverty and discrimination through the concession of civil rights.
Defining the “Great Society”
The “Great Society” was Lyndon Johnson’s vision for the United States. It was a political slogan that embodied the reform programs during his presidency. It included Johnson’s “war on poverty” and the enforcement of various legislation to help the poor and other minorities (Great Society, 2020). It promoted liberty, equality, education, opportunities, and a sense of community. When discussing the term, it mainly refers to the goal of turning the United States into a country that provides equal opportunity for all.
Poverty and Civil Rights
Johnson’s “war on poverty” is one of the highlights of the “Great Society”. He perceived that poverty is one of the main barriers to equality and civil rights. Even today, various organizations acknowledge the impact of poverty on civil and political rights. According to the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, poverty leads to discrimination that can limit an individual’s access to economic and social rights, health, housing, safety, and education. Poor individuals and communities receive discrimination for their conditions since the government tends to disregard their needs.
For instance, it is common to read news about poor individuals experiencing rights violations. There is a significant relationship between poverty and the recurrence of these rights violations (International Standards, n.d.). There are many reports of private corporations purchasing poor communities, forcing the inhabitants to move without their consent. Another example would be the bail system where an individual can pay bail money to get out of prison. In this case, the wealthy can buy their freedom while the poor remain in jail. This example can also apply in medical cases, job opportunities, and other situations where the poor are at a disadvantage because of their condition.
Economic Opportunity Act
Lyndon Johnson acknowledged this relationship between poverty and civil rights which became a basis for the programs under the “Great Society." By addressing the issues of poverty, the “Great Society” can also improve citizens’ civil rights. Johnson reinforced the programs by signing laws that made discrimination in all forms illegal. One of these laws was the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. The act included major programs to provide opportunities to low-income individuals and communities. This was one of Johnson’s first legislations and a fundamental aspect of the “Great Society”.
The act established youth programs to help young men and women prepare for their future. The government provided training centers for young individuals ages 16 to 21. The training centers helped the youth to develop essential skills to improve their employability (Economic Opportunity Act, 1964). Youth from low-income families were likely to have benefited from the training centers since they compensated for their limitations in education access. They could learn hard and soft skills that public schools cannot help them develop, as well as access to tools that would otherwise be unavailable. The program also included financial assistance, allowing students and their families to live more comfortably.
Some programs helped adults, especially those with disabilities, to receive education and other opportunities. The Economic Opportunity Acts (1964) established the Adult Basic Education Programs, Special Programs to Combat Poverty in Rural Areas, Work Experience Programs, and Employment and Investment Incentives. Through these programs, adults were able to gain access to work opportunities and financial aid. Adults who were unable to read and write gain the opportunity to learn and improve their quality of life. Individuals from rural and agricultural areas received aid from the government to address certain problems. Small business owners also received help through government assistance with managerial skill improvement.
By addressing these poverty issues, the “Great Society” established the foundation for civil rights. Equal opportunities for citizens meant that there would be less discrimination. Employers could not deny individuals from poor backgrounds if they possess the necessary skills and requirements for the applied positions; students can gain access to education and tools whether they are from a public or private institution; small businesses could compete against other well-established enterprises. The Economic Opportunity Act prevented work discrimination and ensured that citizens have equal opportunities–the main component of civil rights.
Civil Rights Act
Aside from the Economic Opportunity Act, Johnson also legislated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to aid in the establishment of the “Great Society.” The Civil Rights Act (1964) was more direct in addressing the issues of civil rights compared to the Economic Opportunity Act since it criminalized the various forms of discrimination. Individuals, organizations, and the government cannot discriminate based on race, ethnicity, skin color, gender, and religion. The act applied when providing services, hiring employees, voting, and other cases where discrimination may limit an individual’s access to an opportunity.
Bloody Sunday and the Voting Rights Act
The Civil Rights Act was a major step for the “Great Society” and in granting civil rights to every U.S. citizen. However, some individuals and organizations opposed the legislation and did not want African Americans to receive the right to vote. On March 7, 1965, the event “Bloody Sunday” occurred when African American protesters marched from Selma to Montgomery. The march led to a violent scene when state troopers began attacking the protesters (Corbett et al., 2014). Television cameras recorded the event which then aired on the news. This alerted the public, as well as Johnson since it was a result of his recent legislation.
Johnson legislated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to address the resistance against the granting of voting rights to African Americans. The law prohibited states and local governments from creating laws that could prevent African Americans from voting . This nulled the literacy tests and other barriers which some states utilized to prevent African Americans and other minorities from becoming registered voters (Corbett et al., 2014). The Voting Rights Act granted African Americans the right to become registered voters and exercise their freedom as U.S. citizens. This granted African Americans and other minorities their full civil rights and showcased a glimpse of the “Great Society.”
Johnson’s “Great Society” granted civil rights to every U.S. citizen. It aimed to give equal opportunities by helping the poor and giving rights to minorities. Legislations; such as the Economic Opportunity Act, Civil Rights Act, and Voting Rights Act, allowed individuals and communities with limited opportunities to exercise their rights as U.S. citizens. These laws also attempted to mitigate the widespread discrimination in 20th-century America. However, events like “Bloody Sunday” showed that the opponent of civil rights is society itself. Some individuals and organizations continue to discriminate against minorities and act as barriers to the “Great Society.” The success or failure of Johnson’s vision depends heavily on one’s perspective on the “Great Society’s” influence on modern society.
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Britannica.com. (2020). Great Society. Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at https://www.britannica.com/event/Great-Society. Accessed July 26, 2022.
Corbett, S., Janssen, V., Lund, J., Pfannestiel, T., Vickery, P., & Waskiewicz, S. (2014). US History. Hostos Community College Library. Available at https://guides.hostos.cuny.edu/his211/15-3. Accessed July 26, 2022.
Civil Rights Act of 1964, Pub. L. No. 88-352, 78 Stat. 241 (1964). https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/STATUTE-78/pdf/STATUTE-78-Pg241.pdf. Accessed July 28, 2022.
Economic Opportunities Act of 1964. Pub. L. No. 88-452, 78 Stat. 508 (1964). https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/STATUTE-78/pdf/STATUTE-78-Pg508.pdf. Accessed July 26, 2022.
Dol.gov. (n.d.). Legal Highlight: The Civil Rights Act of 1964. U.S. Department of Labor. Available at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/oasam/civil-rights-center/statutes/civil-rights-act-of-1964#:~:text=In%201964%2C%20Congress%20passed%20Public,hiring%2C%20promoting%2C%20and%20firing .. Accessed July 26, 2022.
OHCHR.org. (n.d.). International Standards. United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. Available at https://www.ohchr.org/en/special-procedures/sr-poverty/international-standards . Accessed July 26, 2022.
OHCHR.org. (n.d.). OHCHR and the Human Rights Dimension of Poverty. United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. Available at https://www.ohchr.org/en/poverty. Accessed July 26, 2022.