The importance of Lyndon Johnson in bringing about Civil Rights.

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Lyndon Baines Johnson- how important was he in bringing about civil rights?   Rory Sheridan

Lyndon Baines Johnson (27th August 1908- 22nd January 1973), was the 36th president of the United States of America. Historians have mixed opinions on Johnson. Although he is generally blamed for getting America into Vietnam, Johnson also passed some landmark legislation- more than any other president in the history of the United States. In order to judge the importance of Johnson in bringing about civil rights, I will compare him to President Kennedy, President Nixon, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, the grassroots movement, and Black Power, and then use my own judgement to make a balanced conclusion about his effectiveness in bringing about civil rights.

Many people argue that Lyndon Baines Johnson was very effective in bringing about Civil Rights during his time as president. He passed a huge amount of landmark legislation, most notably the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Medicare and Medicaid, all of which advanced the civil rights of all Americans, not just African-Americans. The 1964 Civil Rights Act was introduced by President Kennedy before his assassination, but was never pushed through Congress until Johnson was sworn in. In his infamous first speech as president, Johnson said, “no memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honour President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.” This is useful because Johnson used Kennedy’s death to his advantage by describing the passage of the civil rights act as being an honour to his memory. He moved quickly, while the nation was still in shock, to push the bill through Congress, by making Kennedy a martyr for the cause. It also showed that the issue of civil rights was one of the most important issues on his presidential schedule, showing he was devoted to advancing civil rights. The bill outlawed racial discrimination in employment, voting, education, accommodation, and called for integration in cinemas, shops, and restaurants. It is described by the United State Senate’s website as being ‘the nation’s benchmark civil rights legislation.’ The interpretation is likely to be biased to some degree as it is the official Senate’s website, which is not likely to criticise a former president. However, the interpretation is reliable because it came from the official website of the Senate, which, despite probably being biased, is not likely to give wrong or misleading information. The 1965 Voting Rights Act was also a very important piece of legislation passed by Johnson. It outlawed literacy tests and poll taxes as being requirements to vote- Johnson felt the only requirement for voting should be American citizenship. Robert Caro, the esteemed biographer of Johnson, said that President Obama, the first black president of America, could ‘probably not’ have been president without the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This lends a lot of credence to Johnson’s effectiveness in bringing about civil rights, as Caro is also a critic of Johnson’s presidency, and any praise he gave Johnson would have been hard-won. Also, Robert Caro is a well-respected and esteemed biographer and historian, meaning he is likely to know a lot about Johnson. The fact that Robert Caro thinks there could have been no black president of America shows that Johnson was effective in bringing about civil rights. Medicare and Medicaid were schemes introduced by Johnson to give low-cost healthcare to old and poor Americans. All of the afore-mentioned information would indicate Johnson was very effective in bringing about civil rights.

However, many people also argue that Johnson was not important in bringing about civil rights.  He was very highly influenced by the political repercussions of his actions, and in some cases even changed his own political ideas to match the political ideas that were the most likely to gain him support. For example, Johnson publicly opposed the civil rights bill of 1957, proposed by President Eisenhower, because it was to his advantage politically to do so. Republican political commentator Bruce Bartlett says in his book, ‘Wrong on race; the Democratic party’s buried past’, that ‘after dragging his feet on the civil rights bill throughout much of 1957, Johnson came to the conclusion that the tide had turned in favour of civil rights and he needed to be on the right side of the issue if he hoped to become president.’ This interpretation came from Bruce Bartlett, who is a conservative Republican who would be opposed to the Democrats, making him probably biased against Johnson. The title of the book included ‘the Democratic party’s buried past’. The book was written for republicans who expect opposition to Democrats, so Bartlett criticises the Democrats and Johnson to sell more books. However, as a political commentator, Bartlett would have a lot of knowledge about political issues, and although he might write in a negative way, what he says is probably true. The main reason Johnson opposed the Civil Rights Bill of 1957 was to further himself politically, and he eventually changed course and supported the act (although a more diluted version) because civil rights advancement was becoming more popular. This could show that Johnson was not motivated by a pursuit of justice but rather a pursuit of popularity. Also, when Johnson had racist political guests at his home, he humiliated his African-American servants and referred to them as “niggers” for the benefit of his guests, which does not seem to be the actions of a man devoted to civil rights. Again, he did this to gain popularity with his guests, perhaps showing he was motivated by political factors more than anything else.

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To gain further perspective on Lyndon Baines Johnson’s importance in bringing about civil rights, I will compare him to other leading figures and organisations.

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King is perhaps the most well-known figure in the struggle for civil rights. He won a Nobel peace prize for his non-violent approach towards gaining civil rights. Most famous for his ‘I have a dream’ speech at the Washington memorial in 1963, King’s name is nearly synonymous with civil rights. King’s most notable achievements include: The Montgomery bus boycott; On December 1st, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give ...

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