In his first address before Congress, less than one week after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, newly appointed President Lyndon B. Johnson stated, "No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long."11 Two months later, as America continued to reel from the murder of its leader, Johnson delivered his first State of the Union Address. In it he vowed to not only pursue a civil rights agenda, but to also wage a new, all-out war on poverty. "Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope—some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both," he said. "Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity."12 These two speeches would set the tone for his four-year administration.
Between January 1964 and April 1968, President Johnson pushed through more civil rights legislation than all presidents before and after him. "We have talked long enough about equal rights in this country," he remarked. "It is now time to write the next chapter and write it in the books of law."13 In his four years in the White House, Johnson authorized the kind of sweeping reforms only matched by the revolutionary—and nation-dividing—work of the Radical Reconstruction governments during the 1860s and 1870s. Within his first year as the nation's leader, Johnson led Congress in the passage the Twenty-Fourth Amendment eliminating polling taxes on all federal elections, effectively crushing one of the South's most fierce weapons against black suffrage. He also signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, managing to secure the passage of this controversial bill without major congressional alterations. After nearly a century of legal separation of the races, the bill outlawed segregation in all public places, required employers to provide equal opportunity for blacks, and threatened to pull federal funding from any project that excluded people based on race, ethnicity, or gender.
In his second year as president, Johnson used his power to intervene in Alabama to protect civil rights marchers. In early March he commanded Governor George C. Wallace to mobilize the state's National Guard units to safeguard demonstrators, and two weeks later he called for a full federal investigation of the Ku Klux Klan, the white terror organization responsible for bombings and murder throughout the South, including in Alabama. Finally, responding to pressure from civil rights leaders and escalating tensions between voting rights activists and white citizens in the South, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which prohibited the use of literacy tests, gave the federal government the power to register voters, and forbade changes to voting procedures without explicit federal approval. By 1966, the number of blacks who had registered to vote had nearly quadrupled in South Carolina and Alabama, and increased eight-fold in Mississippi.
In addition to making civil rights legislation a top priority, President Johnson also proposed an extensive plan to use the power of the federal government to help the nation's least-advantaged citizens. His "Great Society" program provided funding for public education, work-training programs, college loans, rent supplements for low-income families, and medical care and food for the poor and elderly. Not since Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal had a set of initiatives done so much to help improve quality of life in America and protect citizens from the fear of hunger, unemployment, and old age. Johnson's Great Society also helped narrow the enormous historical divide between whites and blacks in education, employment, and income.
But like President Roosevelt's New Deal, Johnson's civil rights and Great Society legislation raised the expectations of many Americans without quite fulfilling them. For African-Americans, fanfare surrounding the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 far outweighed the effects of these bills on their day-to-day lives, and did very little to diffuse racial conflict. The gap between white and black household incomes remained wide and many suburbs continued to bar non-white residents. Plus, for much of white, middle-class America, Johnson's Great Society had depleted government funds without producing visible results. Rioting in dozens of cities only served to reaffirm white cynicism. By the 1970s, it seemed poverty had won, and by the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, most voters chose candidates who rejected "big government" and who vowed to deplete federal social programs in order to lower taxes and strengthen the nation's military.
Johnson's ambitious plans—his vision of the Great Society, and his commitment to equal opportunity for all races—were compromised by a terrible, ceaseless war in Vietnam and by bloody upheaval at home. Toward the end of his administration, Johnson resolved that he could no longer pursue both a war against the Vietcong and a war against poverty and injustice in America. In March 1968, he stunned the nation by announcing he would not seek reelection. He would leave office with a war still unresolved and his country still in crisis, and for this reason his legacy as a man committed to "freedom from want" would be scarred.