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Civil Rights Movement: 1954–1974

U.S. Presidential Election of 1964

Johnson and Goldwater Compete for the Presidency

Lyndon B. Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater in the presidential election of 1964 on a platform of equal rights and expanded social assistance for the poor. The election marked a shift in the political platforms of the two major parties as well as a shift in the voter base to which each appealed.

Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (November 22, 1963), Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson lawfully assumed the presidency of the United States. Johnson, a liberal Democrat from Texas, urged Congress to pass Kennedy's standing legislation proposals, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Johnson also pushed for a "War on Poverty," which became his Great Society plan and concentrated on bettering the lives of the 20 percent of Americans who lived at or below the poverty level. This would most notably benefit African Americans, 40 percent of whom lived in poverty, and coal miners in the Appalachian Mountains.

Johnson's opponent in the 1964 presidential election was Barry Goldwater, a Republican senator from Arizona. Goldwater, a staunch conservative, advocated for less government interference in all aspects of American life. Though he had championed civil rights and fought discrimination throughout his political career, Goldwater reluctantly voted against the Civil Rights Act during the presidential campaign, questioning the constitutionality of Title II and Title VII of the bill. He also disagreed with his opponent's stance on the federal income tax, involuntary Social Security, and introduction of the welfare state through the Great Society plan.

Goldwater's opposition to the Civil Rights Act drove African Americans from the Republican Party, despite its historical link to emancipation and the end of slavery in America. Conversely, Southern white Democrats rebelling against integration now aligned themselves with the man and the party they mistakenly believed held their segregationist views. This shift in the character of each party's voter base was coupled with a realignment of each party's political goals. In political science terms, this swing is called "political realignment." As the presidential campaign wore on, Johnson focused on the causes of civil rights, equality, and opportunity, while Goldwater focused on the defense of liberty and pursuit of justice and orderly freedom. These ideas shaped the agendas each campaign put before the American people.

Johnson easily won the election with 61 percent of the popular vote, 486 electoral votes to Goldwater's 52, and 94 percent of the black vote. Goldwater came out ahead in only six states: his native Arizona, as well as Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina, where the Civil Rights Act was deeply unpopular with white voters. Johnson's overwhelming win demonstrated widespread acceptance of the Civil Rights Act among Americans as well as the nation's maturing desire for advancement of civil rights to all citizens, regardless of race, color, or ethnicity.
With the slogan "Let us continue …," the Democratic Convention of 1964 positioned Lyndon B. Johnson as the continuance of the legacy begun by Franklin D. Roosevelt and carried on by John F. Kennedy.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ds-05242

Great Society

Beginning in 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson expanded the War on Poverty to include new social reforms in education, health care, and immigration.

Following the election, President Lyndon B. Johnson wasted no time enacting his legislative plans. At his State of the Union address to Congress on January 4, 1965, he announced his vision of a "Great Society." An extension of Johnson's War on Poverty, the phrase "Great Society" was used thereafter to describe the economic and social reforms he advocated during his time in office. The Great Society is often likened to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, and nearly every piece of legislation related to it was passed by the Democrat-controlled Congress.

In addition to providing funding for poverty-stricken Appalachia, Great Society reforms also established the Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Additional social reform bills focused on education, health care, and immigration. For example, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act responded to the great disparity in the reading and math abilities of students from suburban schools (most of whom were from middle- to high-income families) and urban or rural schools (most of whom were from low-income families). The act allocated education dollars to schools based on the number of students from low-income families. The type of school—public or private, secular or religious—was not a factor in the school's receipt of money, thereby eliminating separation of church and state as an issue. Monies were to be used for professional development, textbooks, educational resources, and promoting parental involvement. Social Security Act amendments responded to health care issues. Half of Americans over the age of 65 had no medical insurance. Nor did most of the 20 percent of the population living at or below the poverty level. The act created Medicare and Medicaid, two government-managed health insurance plans. Medicare is for people older than 65. Medicaid originally was just for low-income families, but has since been expanded. For 40 years there had been an immigration quota system that favored immigrants from northern Europe and the British Isles. Many nonwhites, including Asians, weren't allowed to immigrate to the United States. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 changed the quota system to one of preference for "those who can contribute most to this country—to its growth, to its strength, to its spirit." A person's skills and family relations within the United States became more important than country of origin. The act doubled the number of immigrants allowed to 290,000 and limited the number of immigrants from the Western Hemisphere.