Modern history

Reforming the Social Order

President Johnson carried liberal reform to its greatest heights, drawing on Kennedy’s legacy and his own considerable political skills to win passage of the most important items on the liberal agenda. While Johnson pressed ahead in the legislative arena, Chief Justice Earl Warren’s Supreme Court issued rulings that extended social justice to minorities and the economically oppressed and favored those who believed in a firm separation of church and state, in free speech, and in a right to privacy.

The Great Society

In an address at the University of Michigan on May 22, 1964, President Johnson sketched out his dream for the Great Society, one that “rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial justice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But that is just the beginning.” According to Johnson, increasing the power and wealth of America was not enough. He saw the Great Society as “a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.” Besides poverty and race, he outlined three broad areas in need of reform: education, the environment, and cities.

Johnson did not hesitate to approve plans to develop Kennedy’s unfinished fight against poverty. Kennedy had persuaded lawmakers to provide federal aid to poor regions such as Appalachia. In designing the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, Johnson wanted to offer the poor “a hand up, not a handout.” His program provided job training, remedial education (later to include the preschool program Head Start), a domestic Peace Corps called Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), and a Community Action Program that empowered the poor to shape policies affecting their own communities. The antipoverty program helped reduce the proportion of poor people from 20 percent in 1963 to 13 percent five years later, and it helped reduce the rate of black poverty from 40 percent to 20 percent during this same period.

Johnson intended to fight the War on Poverty through the engine of economic growth. In 1962 Congress had passed the Revenue Act, which gave more than $1 billion in tax breaks to businesses. Kennedy had agreed to the targeted tax reduction because he believed it would encourage businesses to plow added savings into new investments and to expand production, thereby creating new jobs. Johnson’s tax cut, which applied across the board, stimulated the economy and sent the gross national product soaring from $591 billion in 1963 to $977 billion by the end of the decade. Thus the logic of economic expansion rather than redistribution guided Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Despite considerable success, Johnson’s program failed to meet liberal expectations. It would have taken an annual appropriation of about $11 billion to lift every needy person above the poverty line. To reduce opposition from cost-minded legislators who wanted to starve his programs if they could not stop them, Johnson asked Congress for just under $1 billion a year. Because the president refused to press lawmakers harder for money, his ability to fight the War on Poverty was severely limited.

Whatever the limitations, Johnson campaigned on his antipoverty and civil rights record in his bid to recapture the White House in 1964. His Republican opponent, Senator Barry M. Goldwater of Arizona, personified the conservative right wing of the Republican Party and rejected the Modern Republicanism identified with President Eisenhower (see chapter 25). The Arizona senator condemned big government, supported states’ rights, and accused liberals of not waging the Cold War forcefully enough. His aggressive conservatism appealed to his grassroots base in small-town America, especially in southern California, the Southwest, and the South. His tough rhetoric, however, scared off moderate Republicans, resulting in a landslide for Johnson on election day, as well as considerable Democratic majorities in Congress.

Flush with victory, Johnson moved quickly and achieved impressive results. To cite only a few examples, the Eighty-ninth Congress (1965—1967) provided federal aid to public schools; subsidized health care for the elderly and the poor by creating Medicare and Medicaid; expanded voting rights for African Americans in the South; authorized funds to cities for housing, jobs, education, mass transportation, crime prevention, and recreation; raised the minimum wage; created national endowments for the fine arts and humanities; and adopted regulations to preserve clean air and water supplies. The 1965 Immigration Act repealed discriminatory national origins quotas established in 1924, resulting in a shift of immigration from Europe to Asia and Central and South America (Table 26.1).

The Warren Court

The Warren Court reflected this high tide of liberalism. The Court affirmed the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act and struck down the poll tax as a voting requirement in 1966. A year later, the justices overturned state laws prohibiting interracial marriages. And in 1968, fourteen years after the Brown school desegregation decision, they ruled that school districts in the South could no longer maintain racially exclusive schools and must desegregate immediately. In a series of cases, the Warren Court ensured fairer legislative representation for blacks and whites by removing the disproportionate power that rural districts had held over urban districts.

The Supreme Court’s most controversial rulings dealt with the criminal justice system, religion, and private sexual practices, all of which involved liberal interpretations of the individual freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. Strengthening the rights of criminal defendants, the justices ruled in Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) that states had to provide indigents accused of felonies with an attorney, and in Miranda v. Arizona (1966) they ordered the police to advise suspects of their constitutional rights.

The Court also moved into new, controversial territory concerning school prayer, contraception, and pornography. In 1962 the Court outlawed a nondenominational Christian prayer recited in New York State schools as a violation of the separation of church and state guaranteed by the First Amendment. Three years later, in Griswold v. Connecticut, the justices struck down a state law that banned the sale of contraceptives because such laws, they contended, infringed on an individual’s right to privacy. In a 1966 case reversing Massachusetts’s ban of an erotic novel, the Supreme Court ruled that states could not prohibit what they deemed pornographic material unless it was “utterly without redeeming social value,” a standard that opened the door for the dissemination of sexually explicit books, magazines, and films. These verdicts unleashed a firestorm of criticism, especially from religious groups that accused the Warren Court of undermining traditional values of faith and decency.

TABLE 26.1 Major Great Society Measures, 1964-1968


Legislation or Order



Civil Rights Act

Prohibited discrimination in public accommodations, education, and employment

Economic Opportunity Act

Established War on Poverty agencies: Head Start, VISTA, Job Corps, and Community Action Program


Elementary and Secondary Education Act

Federal funding for elementary and secondary schools

Medical Care Act

Provided Medicare health insurance for citizens 65 years and older and Medicaid health benefits for the poor

Voting Rights Act

Banned literacy tests for voting, authorized federal registrars to be sent into seven southern states, and monitored voting changes in these states

Executive Order 11246

Required employers to take affirmative action to promote equal opportunity and remedy the effects of past discrimination

Immigration and Nationality Act

Abolished quotas on immigration that reduced immigration from non-Western and southern and eastern European nations

Water Quality Act

Established and enforced federal water quality standards

Air Quality Act

Established air pollution standards for motor vehicles

National Arts and Humanities Act

Established National Endowment of the Humanities and National Endowment of the Arts to support the work of scholars, writers, artists, and musicians


Model Cities Act

Approved funding for the rehabilitation of inner cities


Executive Order 11375

Expanded affirmative action regulations to include women


Civil Rights Act

Outlawed discrimination in housing


• What problems and challenges did Johnson's Great Society legislation target?

• In what ways did the Warren Court's rulings advance the liberal agenda?

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