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Lyndon B Johnson: Civil Rights Essay – Free Essay Example

Firstly, President Johnson can be viewed as making a significant contribution to the achievement of Black civil rights, perhaps more than any other American President in the years 1861-1973, due to the legislation he passed during his presidency. Historian George Goethals supports the argument that Johnson made a significant contribution to the achievement of Black civil rights in the years 1861-1973. He argues ‘That LBJ is ranked second only to Abraham Lincoln on the C-SPAN dimension called “pursued equal justice for all.” Passing the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 demanded the kind of moral and legislative leadership genius that, at best, Lyndon Baines Johnson gave to the United States. This view can be supported as on 2nd July 1964 Johnson signed into law the 1964 Civil Rights Act which made racial discrimination in public areas illegal, provided for the integration of schools and other public facilities and required employers to provide equal employment opportunities. As a result, a total of 214 southern cities had desegregated by the end of 1965. Therefore, this piece of legislation was extremely significant in the Black civil rights movement. The act had effectively ended legal racial segregation across the South and outlawed discrimination based on race, religion, or sex. Johnson had established himself as committed to the achievement of Black civil rights; his speech to Congress on 27th November 1963 illustrates this: “…I urge you again, as I did in 1957 and again in 1960, to enact a civil rights law so that we can move forward to eliminate from this Nation every trace of discrimination and oppression that is based upon race or color.” This source is useful when investigating Johnson’s contribution to the Black civil rights movement as it provides an insight into his own views and actions in government surrounding Black civil rights. This speech was significant as it led to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, therefore Johnson did gain support through his speech to Congress. The serious tone also shows that Johnson was committed to the passing of civil rights legislation. This suggests that the source is accurate as it shows a fair reflection of Johnson’s intentions, he achieved his plans of enacting civil rights law. However, this speech was made 5 days after Kennedy was shot and Johnson was sworn in as president. Therefore, it could be argued that Johnson needed to present himself as a powerful leader to Congress and demonstrate that he was honoring Kennedy’s legacy.

  • The speech was after JFK was shot, inherited his work
  • Audience = Congress needed to present himself as a powerful leader and show he was honoring JFK’s legacy
  • Needed to reassure the nation following JKF’s death and gain popular support, appealed to civil rights movements/ African Americans
  • Could be argued that without the death of JKF, Civil Rights Act may not have been passed under Johnson who addressed JKF’s death in his speech and urged legislation to be passed to honor JFK’s memory

Moreover, Goethals can be viewed as a reliable source as his recent research has focused on presidential leadership and heroes. He is also a university professor so it’s clear his research is for academic use and the purpose of ‘Presidential Leadership and African Americans: An “American Dilemma” from Slavery to the White House’ is to provide a deeper educational insight into political involvement in Black civil rights. Despite this, his work does focus more upon psychological perspectives, rather than historical. Goethals also wrote this academic book during the time that Obama was president and so this is likely to have positively influenced his views towards the civil rights movement. Obama’s presidency appeared to be a significant turning point in American history. However, historian Robert Caro argues ‘Yet victories would not, as it turned out, be the only hallmarks that would make the presidency of Lyndon Johnson vivid in history. “We Shall Overcome” were not the only words by which it will be remembered. “Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” The choruses of the great civil rights hymns were not the only memorable choruses of the Lyndon Johnson years. Caro is referring here to the protests against American involvement in the Vietnam War which overshadowed the end of Johnson’s presidency. The war diverted government money from Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ programme which had aimed at making American society more equal. Therefore, Johnson’s contribution to Black civil rights only occurred at the beginning of his presidency, until he became distracted by the Vietnam War, and so it could be argued that his contribution wasn’t significant due to Black civil rights not being his main focus throughout his presidency. Caro can be viewed as a reliable source as he is known for his extensive research; his work focusing on Johnson has been split into five volumes so he clearly covers an extensive breadth of time and has detailed Johnson’s life thoroughly. However, Caro was alive during Johnson’s presidency and therefore the Vietnam War (1955-75) and so his opinion may be influenced because of this; causing subjectivity in the book. There was large opposition to the Vietnam War and Caro would have experienced this, thus explaining his negative opinion presented in the quote above. The purpose of ‘The Years of Lyndon Johnson Volume 4: The Passage of Power’ is to provide an insight into Johnson’s life and political career. In this volume the focus is the 1960 election, Johnson’s life as vice president, the assassination of Kennedy and the beginning of Johnson’s presidency. Therefore, there is little focus upon Johnson’s contribution to Black civil rights and so this is less useful when evaluating how significant Johnson’s contribution to the achievement of Black civil rights was. Caro also writes to interest the reader and so there may be exaggeration used to engage and entertain rather than solely inform.

Furthermore, through his ‘Great Society’ domestic policy, which aimed to make America a fairer place, Johnson ensured further legislation was passed to improve Black civil rights. For example, the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. As seen in Appendix 1 , this banned all ‘tests’ which prevented American citizens from voting and also gave the federal government the power to oversee voting registration across America. African Americans in the South faced many obstacles when voting, including poll taxes and literacy tests which were there to deny them the right to vote. They also risked harassment, intimidation, and violence when they tried to register to vote and as a result, few African Americans were registered voters and so had little political power. The Voting Rights Act 1965 had an immediate impact and by the end of 1965, a quarter of a million new Black voters had been registered, one-third by Federal examiners. By the end of 1966, only 4 out of 13 southern states had fewer than 50 percent of African Americans registered to vote. Voter registration also led to an increase in the number of Black people elected to governmental positions in the North. For example, Robert C. Henry became the first African American to be elected mayor of an American city. He became the Mayor of Springfield, Ohio, in 1996. Therefore, it’s clear that the passing of this legislation by Johnson was significant in the achievement of Black civil rights as he ensured greater voting equality and more political power for African Americans. Black citizens could no longer be denied the right to vote by local governments and there was greater representation for them in politics. Johnson was clearly committed to ensuring African Americans were able to vote, this can be corroborated by his speech at Howard University on 4th June 1965:

“Experience has clearly shown that the existing process of law cannot overcome systematic and ingenious discrimination. No law that we now have on the books can ensure the right to vote when local officials are determined to deny it. Wednesday, I will send to Congress a law designed to eliminate illegal barriers to the right to vote. This bill will strike down restrictions to voting in all elections – federal, state, and local – which have been used to deny Negroes the right to vote.” (See Appendix 2 for full speech)

  • Informed, serious tone. Appears committed to passing civil rights legislation.
  • Howard University= Nations most prominent historically Black uni. students involved in civil rights movements, and protests. Produced African American lawyers, involved in landmark Brown v Board case. So, may be exaggerating his commitment to gain African American support.

Moreover, Johnson oversaw the passing of legislation that improved Black civil rights and academic equality. For example, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and Higher Education Act were passed in 1965 and increased government funding for education. Money was targeted to aid the most disadvantaged states, schools and students; the Elementary and Secondary Education Act offered new grants to districts serving low-income students, grants for textbooks and library books, funding for special education centres, and scholarships for low-income college students. Consequently, the Acts helped schools with a high proportion of Black students and individual Black students at college or university so they had more equal opportunities to succeed academically. There was a fourfold increase in the number of Black students attending college and university during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Johnson had clearly demonstrated he was committed to ensuring equal access to quality education and the Act established high standards and accountability. This has been some of the most far-reaching government legislation affecting education, the government has upheld the Elementary and Secondary Education Act since its enactment, and was therefore significant in the achievement of Black civil rights during 1861-1973.

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Finally, Johnson passed further civil rights legislation to continue to outlaw discrimination and improve Black civil rights. For example, a Civil Rights Act was passed in 1968: the Fair Housing Act, which outlawed discrimination of any form in the sale, rental, financing, or advertising of housing. Overall, it prohibited discrimination in 80 per cent of America’s housing market. This was significant as the American census of 1960 reported that 46 percent of America’s black population were living in ‘unsound’ accommodation, that 73 percent lived in urban areas where the amount of suitable housing available was decreasing, and that 25 percent lived in inner-city areas in America’s ten largest cities. The Moynihan Report of 1965 had highlighted the need for civil rights legislation which targeted housing discrimination, it drew attention to the poor living conditions of many Black families. As a result, this legislation allowed an attempt to avoid social steering, a form of housing discrimination that involves housing authorities, real estate companies, and local governments steering certain groups of people, often minorities, into certain areas of a city, and therefore segregation and discrimination. It also allowed greater housing opportunities for Black people as they wouldn’t be restricted to certain areas due to this discriminative social steering. However, the significance of the Fair Housing Act, and therefore Johnson’s contribution to the achievement of Black civil rights in the years 1861-1973, can be questioned as the Act gave the government no powers to enforce the law and the maximum fine for racial discrimination in the housing market was only $1000. Consequently, the Act was far less effective as a piece of civil rights legislation as it was not a successful deterrent to racism in the housing market.

On the other hand, it can be argued that President Johnson didn’t contribute more to the achievement of Black civil rights than any other American President in the years 1861-1973 as President Lincoln was far more significant due to his abolition of slavery. For example, Lincoln declared the freedom of all American slaves in his Emancipation Proclamation of 1st January 1863. Following the North’s victory in the civil war in 1865, slavery was finally abolished across America. This was achieved by passing the Thirteenth Amendment to the American Constitution, which made slavery illegal. This was significant as slavery had previously existed across the South, meaning Black people had no freedom or rights. Abolishing slavery was a huge step in the achievement of Black civil rights and seemed to establish it as a major political issue. However, how significant Lincoln was in the achievement of Black civil rights in the years 1861-1973 can be questioned as following the abolition of slavery, the ‘Jim Crow’ laws were introduced. Between 1890 and 1910, southern states introduced legal segregation, denying Black Americans access to the same facilities used by white Americans. Education, healthcare, transport, and public facilities were all segregated. Therefore, although slavery had ended, Black people continued to face racism and oppression so it could be argued that Lincoln’s contribution to Black civil rights during his presidency wasn’t hugely significant.

Additionally, it could be argued that President Truman contributed more to the achievement of Black civil rights than any other American President in the years 1861-1973 as he became the first American President to publicly challenge segregation and pledge his support for civil rights. For example, in 1946, Truman established The President’s Committee on Civil Rights and commissioned them to produce a report examining racism in America. The report, To Secure These Rights, highlighted the problems African Americans faced and proposed changes to address the racial inequalities in American society. The report highlighted many problems: police brutality, lynching, voting rights, discrimination in the armed forces and healthcare, and inequality in employment and education. Segregation remained an enormous problem for African Americans. As a result, Truman signed Executive Order 9980 which guaranteed fair employment practices in the civil service, and in June 1948, signed Executive Order 9981 which ensured ‘equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin’. He also committed the government to build houses in deprived urban areas to aid African Americans economically and used his power to appoint African Americans to important government roles. Ralph Bunche was appointed American Ambassador to the United Nations and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in 1950. Therefore, it’s clear that Truman was committed to desegregation and addressing the racial inequalities which had been highlighted in To Secure These Rights, a ground-breaking government report. However, how significant Truman was in the achievement of Black civil rights could be challenged as not all areas of the report were addressed and so his achievements were limited. The Committee on Government Contract Compliance couldn’t force defence companies to adopt fair employment practices and the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) was under-funded and lacked support from senior civil servants so African Americans continued to face racism and unequal opportunities in employment.

Another president who contributed to the achievement of Black civil rights in the years 1861-1973 was Teddy Roosevelt due to his involvement as a Black man in American politics. For example, in 1901, Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to the White House to dine together. Washington was a significant figure in the Black Civil Rights movement, gaining recognition through his Atlanta Address of 1895. He called for the employment and education of African Americans, encouraging them to attain economic security to ensure progress rather than focusing on fighting for civil rights. He believed that African Americans should accept segregation and discrimination but that through acquiring wealth and education, they’d eventually be accepted by the white community and would gain civil rights. Roosevelt supported Washington and both Roosevelt and his successor, President William Howard Taft, used Washington as an adviser on racial matters. As a result, President Roosevelt had openly displayed his support for the civil rights movement and treated an African American man as an equal, which was significant at this time. Washington was the first African American to be invited to the White House and this was, therefore, a significant event in the civil rights movement. Moreover, by dining together, Roosevelt was inferring that the two men were equal during a time of racial segregation. Roosevelt also showed his awareness of the racial inequalities present in America and suggested that he wanted to address these problems, especially as he looked for advice from a Black man who had experienced such prejudice. However, how significant President Roosevelt was in the achievement of Black civil rights in the years 1861-1973 can be questioned as Washington was criticized by civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois and others in the black community. Du Bois opposed the Atlanta Address, instead referring to it as the ‘Atlanta Compromise’ because it suggested African Americans should accept discrimination and racial segregation. In 1909, Du Bois set up the NAACP which fought for legal equality, instead. There was therefore a split in the Black community and Washington’s approach to the movement didn’t seem to advance it towards the achievement of Black civil rights. No legislation was passed to address the racial inequalities present in America and the Jim Crow laws remained firmly in place under Roosevelt.

Finally, it could be argued that President Eisenhower contributed more to the achievement of Black civil rights than any other American President in the years 1861-1973 due to the legislation he passed for the voting rights of African Americans. For example, he passed the Civil Rights Act 1957 which proposed the establishment of a Commission on Civil Rights- a committee designed to monitor the voting rights of African Americans. The Civil Rights Act 1960 was also passed, extending the powers of the Commission by requiring local authorities to keep records of voter registration so Black voter registration could be monitored more accurately. Therefore, Eisenhower contributed to the achievement of Black civil rights by attempting to improve voting equality. Improving voting rights was significant as it allowed African Americans greater equality and involvement in the democratic process and American politics. However, how significant Eisenhower’s contribution to the achievement of Black civil rights was can be questioned as the terms of both Civil Rights Acts were weakened due to the opposition they faced in Congress and so had little impact. Under the Civil Rights Act 1957, individuals found guilty of preventing black Americans from registering as voters would face a fine of only $1000 or a maximum sentence of six months imprisonment. This didn’t act as a deterrent due to the small penalties and so discrimination remained. Overall, Eisenhower’s Civil Rights Acts had little success. By 1960, they had only increased the proportion of Black voters by 3 percent.

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