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The Great Society is a term coined and conceptualized by one man, the 36th President of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson. It was an idea that would focus on many major social changes. President Johnson started a war on poverty, and wanted more support for civil rights. Free education for the youth of America was another focal point. President Johnson also took some of the first steps toward making America more environmentally conscious. After taking over for assassinated President John F. Kennedy and then being elected as President, he brought an onslaught of legislation in a short amount of time, setting some legislative records.
Johnson first talked about his dream for the Great Society during an address at the University of Michigan, on May 22, 1964. Johnson told the students that America had become so prosperous that it was getting fat and greedy. It was time that America took its vast wealth and spread it out among those impoverished in our country. He noted the decay of cities, and the decay of public education that was dragging America down. He cited that nearly 54 million Americans (almost ? of the total population) hadn?t finished high school. These were only a small part of Johnson?s grand scheme. President Johnson created a task force of the most skilled urban planners to revamp the run down cities of America and create modern, efficient, and beautiful places for all citizens to prosper. But they were not successful in all cities. The black population began to call this urban renewal ?negro removal?. Some cities got new malls, movie theaters, courthouses and new buildings for businesses. Some were simply only half renovated, leaving an uncompleted mess. This was a good plan that just didn?t work out for Johnson, especially as the war in Vietnam began to escalate and he had to commit more men and funds to that effort.
Johnson talked a lot about improving the cities, constantly declaring all of our cities to be in a decaying decline of values, pride, and education. He created ?Demonstration Cities?, in which the Federal Government would confront the physical, social, medical and administrative aspects of a selected city. Congress at first had a little trouble supporting these immensely costly projects, but the race riots that had broken out all over the country silenced any qualms about improving the ?ghettos? or ?slums?. Federal money poured into the nation?s inner cities as housing projects became a main focus; giant high-rise buildings were created to house the poor and/or homeless.
As a part of city improvement, President Johnson wanted to improve race relations. Only months after being elected in 1964, he passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on July 2nd. This amazing bill had finally brought race relations to the political table. The government finally made it illegal to discriminate; bringing down the tyranny of the Jim Crow laws of the old South. No longer would whites be able to legally keep blacks out of their restaurants, hotels, movie theaters, stores, etc. Blacks could now, by law, move freely and do whatever white people could do. Of course in reality this wasn?t always the case, with the notorious KKK and their lynch mobs keeping the blacks in constant fear and vigilance. On the education front, no longer did black children have to go to a decrepit and often far away segregated school, even if they lived near a white school. They could attend any public school, just like white children. Of course this was good on paper, but in reality these students for the first few years faced numerous difficulties even entering the schools. The famous Brown vs. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas; tested this new law. The government also now explicitly prohibited itself from contributing to any agency or organization that discriminated on the grounds of race, color, or nationality. It was a huge step for minorities, they finally achieved the same rights as white American citizens. Soon after came the Voting Rights Act of 1965 allowing minorities to finally get the chance to vote for government that controlled their lives. A bill rushed through Congress from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?s march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama brought national attention to the plight of the oppressed black people. This new law allowed federal examiners to be sent to register voters. It also outlawed the use of literacy tests in states in which less than 50% of the voting-age population had been registered or had voted in the 1964 election. This had an instantaneous effect on black voters. By the end of 1965, over a quarter of a million black citizens had become registered voters. Chief Justice Earl Warren said, ?the right to vote freely for the candidate of one’s choice is of the essence of a democratic society, and any restrictions on that right strike at the heart of representative government?. The law was now on the side of the minorities for the first time in their lives. This eventually led to minorities gaining more and more rights, with affirmative action being one of the most famous spin-offs. This bill ended discrimination in the workplace in corporate America. Companies were forced to higher more minorities to create a more diverse and equal working environment.
Another important part of the Great Society was the new idea of providing money for citizens that couldn?t afford the costs of hospital bills and other medical expenses. This was Medicare, the program that would provide aid to anyone that needed it, and probably most important ? save people from becoming personally bankrupt from unexpected health costs. Originally conceptualized as a national hospital insurance plan for the aged through social security, it became a way for the poor elderly to have free stays in a hospital for up to a meager thirty days. The counterpart to Medicare was Medicaid, which paid the medical costs of welfare recipients and the indigent, regardless of age. The costs for this program would funded by the states, but subsidized by Federal grants. It seemed like the greatest thing for America, no one would be denied healthcare, and individuals would no longer have a reason to avoid hospitals. Today opponents to Medicare claim that it?s costs have spiraled out of control. This cannot be disputed. In 1965, the total federal spending for Medicare was around $101 billion. It is estimated by the year 2000 we will have spent over four times that amount.
The Great Society was without a doubt, a marvelous plan to boost America?s standard of living for all citizens equally. With new civil rights and voter rights bills, minorities gained a huge victory over the long oppressive rich white man. Urban renewal projects promised to turn the slums into beautiful cities with a rich social and economic boost, sure to keep America the world?s most powerful nation. Education was finally being addressed, with bills to end school segregation, improve the quality of education, and also provide funds for those who could not afford college. Unfortunately the country?s increasing involvement in the war in Vietnam, meant that funds began to run short, and programs were abandoned to focus on the conflict. It was all a beautiful scheme that would have benefited the entire country, it may have just been the wrong time or possibly too idealistic. Johnson knew he couldn?t win both wars and he said it best himself in this quote:
?I knew from the start that I was bound to be crucified either way I moved. If I left the woman I really loved ? the Great Society ? in order to get involved with that bitch of a war on the other side of the world, then I would lose everything at home. All my programs. All my hopes to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. All my dreams to provide education and medical care to the browns and the blacks and the lame and the poor. But if I left that war and let the Communists take over South Vietnam, then I would be seen as a coward and my nation would be seen as an appeaser, and we would both find it impossible to accomplish anything for anybody anywhere on this entire globe.?
It just wasn?t possible to achieve all the dreams of the brilliant Great Society in a time of such extreme political, social, cultural, and economic change. But because of President Johnson?s great vision and effective leadership our country was forced to face the reality of racial discrimination. What started out in 1964 as a catchy election year phrase, has made our country a much better place to live for all citizens. While we still have a lot to accomplish in creating a truly equal society, without the insight and motivation of President Johnson our society wouldn?t be anywhere close to a truly ?Great Society?. We would still be decades behind in our quest for true equality among all citizens of America.
The Best Of Intentions: The Triumph and Failure Of The Great Society Under Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon ? by Irwin Unger 1996 Doubleday
Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream ? by Doris Kerns 1976 Harper & Row
Vietnam: A History ? by Stanley Karnow 1983 WGBH Educational Foundation
White House Years ? by Henry Kissinger 1979 Little, Brown and Company
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