The Great Society and Civil Rights

Jun 27, 2013

The Great Society is considered by many to be the most idealistic endeavor in American history. Simply speaking, it is defined by the set of programs established in 1964 – 1965 spearheaded by President Lyndon B. Johnson—programs and domestic initiatives that focused on eradicating poverty and racial discrimination above all.  The term “Great Society” was first referenced by Johnson during his address to students in Ohio University, which he later mentioned once again in his speech in the University of Michigan, wherein he publicly specified his goals for the Great Society—saying that it “demands an end to poverty and racial injustice”.

Upon taking office as the 36th President of the United States in 1964 following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Johnson initiated a legislation of programs that followed his vision of the new, greater society. He had established many notable programs in several fields, a lot of which were intent on seeing through his bold declaration of war on poverty. In healthcare, health insurances were guaranteed to both the elderly and the poor in the forms of Medicaid and Medicare; in education, federal funding was given to school districts that had most of its students come from low-income households; in urban renewal, cities were funded to develop and provide housings in the wake of World War II. However, many believed that Johnson’s war on poverty was nothing more than an ambitious dream in the long run, especially since Johnson failed to take poverty as an economic dilemma and treated it more as a social problem. In stark contrast to Johnson’s war on poverty, the steps he took to end racial transgression brought actual legislative change through the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. 

Before anything else, however, it is important to understand the movement behind civil rights in the 1960s. Although the Civil Rights Movement was already active since the 1950s, with continuous protests against racial segregation and the founding of the Montgomery Improvement Association led by black ministers including Martin Luther King Jr., many of its most prominent moments happened in the 1960s. The first key moment in the 1960s could be traced back to when black students from Greensboro, North Carolina challenged segregation by waiting to be served in Woolworth’s lunch counter. This protest gathered hundreds of supporters to their cause, and after 5 months of eventual arrests for trespassing and with continuous assertion from the movement and its allies, the students finally got Woolworth to serve black customers permanently. The students’ achievement also inspired other students to be actively involved in conducting peaceful demonstrations for the cause. Following the university students’ protest in North Carolina, another key event in the civil rights movement was the Great March on Washington which was attended by more than 200,00 people—blacks and whites alike. It was organized to call for both civil and economic rights for African American citizens. This is also where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech which went down in history as a masterpiece in rhetoric. King’s words for equality resonated throughout the whole country, and it could be acknowledged as a major contributor in setting the stage for the Civil Rights reforms that would soon be established. In fact, the continuous demonstrations compelled then-president John F. Kennedy to call on the Congress, in public television broadcast, to pass a law that would guarantee equal treatment for African Americans in all public accommodations. Although Kennedy supported the possibility of civil rights since the beginning of his term, much of his attention was centered into the wake of the Cold War’s many issues, and his public call for the need of minorities’ rights solidified his stance. Shortly thereafter, the country was left in shock when he was assassinated on November 22, 1963. 

This, then takes us back to Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency and his promise for a greater society. Despite the fear that was instilled in civil rights supporters and the beginning of the citizens’ growing distrust in the government, Johnson vowed to continue the fight for civil rights and make Kennedy’s vision for social reform into reality. Even with strong resistance from mostly the southern members of the Congress, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was eventually passed into law. In essence, the law basically made racial discrimination and prejudice illegal. It prohibited bigotry in schools, public spaces, workplaces, and government assisted programs. It allowed for greater economic and social mobility, opportunities, and resources for minorities across the country. The act ultimately paved the way for many other laws that constituted equal treatment for all minority groups that were not strictly covered by the initial civil rights act. One of the essential laws that followed was the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which removed literacy tests for non-white voters. Before the decree, African-Americans were forced to take tests as many were deemed to have been intellectually challenged, which the community’s population suffered in the first place due to thousands of years of oppression. In 1968, the Fair Housing Act was passed, which gave minorities protection from racial prejudice in the process of buying, selling, and the financial managing of housing properties. The influences of the progress on civil rights also undoubtedly went well beyond Johnson’s term and the African-American community. The Civil Rights Movement and the realization of it all in the 1960s inspired campaigns from Latinos, Native Americans, the LGBTQ community, and other minorities. It inspired the oppressed to fight for rights that they should never even have to fight for. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 has been and continue to be a catalyst for many other laws that strive to provide rights and freedom for all individuals. To this day, it is considered to be one of the most significant accomplishments in American history.

As a whole, the Great Society’s success is debatable, but its impact, influences and contributions to America’s current identity as a nation cannot be denied. Even if in the end, neither John F. Kennedy nor Lyndon Johnson’s visions made the United States the greatest society to ever exist, the steps taken to make those visions into reality did make the country become better than it had been before—and honestly, maybe that’s the only thing that everyone can slowly but surely hope to achieve—to be better than we were yesterday by continually extending empathy and support to the exploited and by learning from history—as communities, as societies, and as a nation.

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