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LYNDON B. JOHNSON (LBJ)

Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) took the oath of office on a plane back to Washington while standing next to the wife of just-murdered President Kennedy. He had been only two cars behind in the motorcade when Kennedy was shot.

As soon as he could, President Johnson began to work to pass legislation. He told Congress that he knew no better way to "honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the Civil Rights Bill for which he fought so long."

Over continuing Southern opposition, Congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act prohibited discrimination in public facilities, in government, and in employment, invalidating the Jim Crow laws in the South. Forced segregation of the races in schools, housing, or hiring became illegal. Opponents argued that the government couldn't legislate morality on the race issue; supporters countered that they didn't care what people thought in their minds as long as what they did was fair.

Legislating for the Great Society

A year after Kennedy's assassination, Johnson ran for president against the conservative Republican Barry Goldwater. When Johnson pushed through the Civil Rights Act, he said (correctly) that it would cost the Democrats the votes of the South for a generation. Five states from the old South did vote for Goldwater, but except for his home state of Arizona, that was all Goldwater won; the rest of the country was for LBJ. Johnson's landslide helped sweep the Democrats to a two-to-one majority over the Republicans in both houses of Congress.

Johnson lacked Kennedy's charm, but he knew how to get things done; he may have been the most productive legislative president in U.S. history. When he was really rolling after his reelection, he got almost all the bills he wanted passed by Congress. These laws included the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed unfair qualifications tests that kept minorities from the polls, and the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which created programs to help poor people.

The road seemed open to creating what Johnson called the Great Society (1965). Great Society programs still in effect today include the Job Corps (1965), Head Start (1965), Food Stamps (1964), and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) (1965). These and other War on Poverty (1965) programs were designed to help lower the poverty rate in the United States. During the Great Depression, the poverty rate was 40 percent. When Johnson became president, it was 15 percent and dipped to 12 percent. Now with the Recession, it has risen again.

 
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