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LBJ and the Great Society: Lyndon B. Johnson tried to fight a "war on poverty." But a disastrous war in Vietnam haunted his presidency.


Students should understand

* during his presidency, Lyndon B. Johnson created many laws and programs to help individuals facing poverty and discrimination.


Head Start: a program intended to help preschool children disadvantaged by poverty reach the same ability levels as other kids by the time they begin elementary school.


Ask students: "What are some things that might help a person escape from poverty or bring an end to discrimination against a minority group? Who should be responsible for helping achieve such goals?"


August 6 is the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. There have been amendments to the act since 1965. In 1982, Congress renewed the special provisions of Section 4, related to coverage and enforcement of the act, for 25 years. These provisions are set to expire in 2007, unless renewed. (See the Justice Department Web site at


NOTING DETAILS: Did the Voting Rights Act give African-Americans the right to vote? (No, the 15th Amendment granted that right. The Voting Rights Act guaranteed and protected the right in places where it had been violated.)

MAKING INFERENCES: How might LBJ's high approval rating in 1964 have helped him achieve so many of his goals? (Congress would be more likely to cooperate with a popular President because they, too, have to run for office.)


DIGGING DEEPER: List some Great Society programs. Have small groups of students find out more about a specific program and share that information with the class, discussing each program's positives and negatives.



* Power, authority, and governance: How Lyndon B. Johnson used the powers of the presidency to create many new federal programs.

* Individuals, groups, and institutions: How the efforts of individuals can influence Congress to pass legislation responsive to the needs of individuals.



* Levy, Debbie, Lyndon B. Johnson (Lerner Publishing Group, 2003). Grades 5-9.

* Schuman, Michael A. Lyndon B. Johnson (Enslow Publishers, 1998). Grades 6-12.


* American Experience: The Presidents /36_l_johnson/index.html

* Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum


Lyndon Baines Johnson, 36th U.S. President

Lady Bird Johnson, First Lady

Martha Griffiths, Congresswoman from Michigan

Katherine St. George, Congresswoman from New York

* Newspaper editor

* Newspaper reporter

Martin Luther King Jr., minister and civil rights leader

* TV reporter

Bill Moyers, Special Assistant to Johnson

Juanita Roberts, Johnson's secretary

Francis Keppel, U.S. Commissioner of Education

Harry S. Truman, 33rd U.S. President

* Commuter #1

* Commuter #2

Narrators A-E

* indicates fictitious character


Lyndon Baines Johnson was born on August 27, 1908, in Stonewall, Texas. He grew up in rural Texas in a family of seven that never had much money. As a young teacher of immigrant Mexican children, Johnson learned compassion for people living in poverty. He soon became involved in politics, and rose quickly in power and influence. First a Congressman, then a Senator, Johnson understood how to get bills made into laws. By 1963, he was Vice President.


Narrator A: On November 22, 1963, President John E Kennedy is assassinated. Johnson is sworn in as President. He inherits civil rights unrest and a war in Vietnam. Soon after becoming President ...

President Lyndon Baines Johnson: In a land as wealthy as ours, families should not live in poverty. Children should not go to bed hungry.

Lady Bird Johnson: This is the right time to work on those problems, Lyndon. People are already thinking about them.

Narrator A: At the end of 1963, Johnson (often known as LBJ) has the highest approval rating of any U.S. President in history. In his State of the Union address in January 1964, he challenges Congress to act.

Johnson: Let's declare war on poverty and unemployment. Let's recognize the health needs of our older citizens. Let's help build more homes, schools, libraries, and hospitals than any single session of Congress in history.

Narrator A: In a May speech to students at the University of Michigan, he gives a name to his vision.

Johnson: In your time, we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich and powerful society, but also upward to the Great Society. The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and injustice.


Narrator B: Johnson wants to focus on Great Society programs, but the conflict in Vietnam also demands his attention. He has already increased aid to South Vietnam in a war against Communist North Vietnam. Johnson doesn't want to deal with that problem publicly, though, until after the 1964 election. Instead, he focuses on the war on poverty and civil rights legislation. In early 1964 ...

Representative Martha Griffiths: Kennedy called for a civil rights act. Johnson wants to make it law.

Representative Katherine St. George: Yes, but Congressman Howard Smith of Virginia is trying to stop it. He knows that if he adds rights for women, there won't be enough support to pass the bill.

Griffiths: Unfortunately, he's right. The "no" votes from lawmakers opposed to women's rights, plus the "no" votes from those against minority rights, would be enough to sink the bill. We've got to do something!

Narrator B: In a House debate, Griffiths defends the bill.

Griffiths: If you plan to vote no because you don't care about rights for minorities, what about your mothers, sisters, and daughters? The equal employment part of this bill would protect white women, too!

Narrator B: Her speech helps persuade House members to include women--and pass the bill. Then Senators debate measures that would protect minorities from discrimination in employment, housing, and education. Finally, the Senate passes the bill. On July 2, Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act into law. A few months later ...

Newspaper editor: Where's your article on the President's first months in office?

Newspaper reporter: You didn't give me much room, Boss.

Editor: How much do you need?

Reporter: Well, between January 3 and September 3, Johnson established a Council on Consumer Interests and created a Job Corps. He signed the largest tax reduction in U.S. history ...

Editor: Impressive.

Reporter: There's more. He passed the Civil Rights Act, the Urban Mass Transportation Act, and a Food Stamp Act to help the poor and hungry. He also--

Editor: I see your point. I'll give you another 300 words. Now get busy!


Narrator C: Johnson wins the 1964 presidential election by a landslide. But many issues complicate his Great Society vision. African-Americans were granted the right to vote in 1870, by the Constitution's 15th Amendment. In the South, however, threats, literacy tests, and special taxes are often used to keep them from the polls. In January 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. starts leading protests in Selma, Alabama, calling for true voting rights. On January 15, Johnson telephones King.

Johnson: I want Congress to pass a bill protecting voting rights.

Martin Luther King Jr.: Yes, Mr. President. But until that happens, we have to make our voices heard.

Johnson: Good. If your protest shows how bad things are, I can get a voting rights act through Congress.

King: We will continue to protest peacefully until justice is served.

Narrator C: On March 7 ...

TV reporter: Today, about 525 protesters tried to march from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery. State troopers armed with clubs and tear gas attacked the peaceful crowd. Our cameras caught the brutal beatings--

Narrator C: Americans are shocked by the images they see on television. They demand that the President take action in Alabama. When protesters demonstrate in Washington, at the Justice Department and outside the White House, Johnson is furious. He summons an aide to his office.

Special Assistant Bill Moyers: Yes, Mr. President.

Johnson: After all the support I've given civil rights, I can't believe that they're protesting me! Have you spoken with King yet?

Moyers: Mr. President, Dr. King and his people are meeting in the church in Selma. We don't know what they plan to do.

Johnson: On TV, it looks like that man is taking over the country! Let him know who's in charge.

Narrator C: Support keeps growing for what King and Johnson both want--a voting rights bill. On March 15, a special session of Congress meets at the President's request. Millions of TV viewers watch Johnson's speech.

Johnson: It is wrong--deadly wrong--to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country. We cannot, we must not, refuse to protect the right of every American to vote.

Narrator C: Congress eventually passes the Voting Rights Act, which Johnson signs on August 6, 1965.


Narrator D: All the while, Johnson has been proposing Great Society programs and pushing them through Congress. In April 1965 ...

Juanita Roberts: Mr. President, Commissioner Keppel is here.

Johnson: Good? Get on in here, Francis. Any news?

Commissioner Francis Keppel: It looks like we have enough congressional support for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It will help public schools buy books and improve education for poor and disabled children.

Johnson: Excellent! This is an important part of my war on poverty. When I sign it, I'll tell Americans that this will bridge the gap between helplessness and hope for more than 5 million educationally deprived children. Education is a passport from poverty.

Narrator D: On July 30, Johnson is in Independence, Missouri, the hometown of former President Truman.

President Harry S. Truman: I've wanted the Medicare Act you'll sign today for a long time.

Johnson: Me, too, sir. At the signing ceremony, I'll tell folks what you said decades ago: "Millions of our citizens do not now have a full measure of opportunity to achieve and to enjoy good health. Millions do not have protection or security against the economic effects of sickness."

Truman: They do now. Medicare will help pay the medical bills that millions of Americans over age 65 couldn't afford on their own.


Narrator E: Five months later ...

Commuter #1 (with newspaper): Did you see this article? LBJ and Congress had another busy year: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Head Start program, a Medicare bill ...

Commuter #2: But the U.S. is also bombing North Vietnam, and Johnson has sent tens of thousands of troops into battle. It's an awful mess--and getting worse.

Narrator E: As more U.S. troops are killed, antiwar protests spread. In early 1968, an election year, Johnson's approval rating plummets [drops sharply]. On March 31, he stuns the nation. In a televised speech, he outlines plans for peace talks with North Vietnam. Then ...

Johnson: What we won when all of our people united must not now be lost in suspicion and distrust. Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.


Johnson left office on January 20, 1969, and retired to his ranch in Texas. He died on January 22, 1973. His legacy remains mixed. Johnson's critics say that his Great Society programs led to a "welfare state" that weakened individual responsibility. Others cite the colossal failure of the Vietnam War. Yet, say Johnson's defenders, his civil rights legislation and Great Society programs have made a positive difference in the lives of countless Americans.

Words to Know

minority: a group of people who differ in some way from the greater number (as in religion, ethnicity, language, etc.) and often are treated differently.


1. Have any Great Society programs affected your life--or the lives of your family members? Are such programs still needed?

2. Critics of Johnson's programs say that the government should be less involved in people's lives, Do you agree or disagree? Explain your answer.


* Write the letter of the correct answer on the line before each question.

-- 16. Lyndon Baines Johnson was born and raised in which state?

A. Mississippi

B. Texas

C. Washington

-- 17. Before entering politics, what did LBJ do?

A. built houses

B. ran a ranch

C. taught school

-- 18. What was Johnson's position just before he was sworn in as President in 1963?

A. Congressman

B. Senator

C. Vice President

-- 19. What did President Johnson call his proposed programs to help bring "an end to poverty and injustice"?

A. the civil rights movement

B. the Great Society

C. the Medicare Bill

-- 20. By adding women's rights to the bill in 1964, Southern Congressmen hoped to keep which of these from becoming law?

A. the Civil Rights Act

B. the Food Stamp Act

C. the Voting Rights Act

-- 21. What was the result of the 1964 presidential election?

A. Johnson refused to take office.

B. Johnson won by a landslide.

C. Johnson won by a slim margin.

-- 22. In March 1965, protesters calling for true voting rights were beaten by state troopers as they tried to march where?

A. from Selma, Alabama, to the state capitol in Montgomery

B. from the White House to the Justice Department in Washington, D.C.

C. through the streets of Independence, Missouri

-- 23. Who led those voting rights protests, which began in January 1965?

A. Bill Moyers, Special Assistant to the President

B. Harry S. Truman, a former President

C. Martin Luther King Jr., a minister

-- 24. During Johnson's presidency, more and more U.S. troops were sent to fight in which conflict?

A. the Iran-Iraq War

B. the Vietnam War

C. World War II

-- 25. What was approaching in 1968, as President Johnson's approval ratings plummeted?

A. a presidential election

B. peace talks with North Vietnam

C. war in the Middle East


16. B

17. C

18. C

19. B

20. A

21. B

22. A

23. C

24. B

25. A
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Author:Hernandez, Merlin
Publication:Junior Scholastic
Article Type:Play
Date:May 9, 2005
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