Lyndon B. Johnson and the 1964 Civil Rights Act

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What did LBJ do as a president? What was the main purpose of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Civil Rights Act?

President Lyndon B. Johnson is most known for passing Kennedy’s civil rights bill. This both honored the late President’s memory and held the promise of a new America in which everybody had equal rights. The bill was designed to desegregate public spaces and enforce the integration of schools.

Here’s how Johnson managed to pass the long-awaited bill.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act

Lyndon B. Johnson entered office in a time of crisis. Not only was the nation already struggling to pass civil rights legislation, but then-Vice President Johnson also entered the White House due to a tragedy: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Johnson successfully united the country in its time of grief and passed landmark civil rights legislation.

In the wake of Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson had a clear purpose: Help the country grieve, and give it a path forward. Since these goals were so clear, Johnson was easily able to find a way to fulfill both of them: by passing Kennedy’s civil rights bill.

How Kennedy Felt About Civil Rights Legislation

Lyndon B. Johnson’s Civil Rights bill was a way to honor Kennedy’s legacy and to provide Americans with a path forward after his assassination. This is quite remarkable given that, according to historians, Kennedy was relatively ambivalent about the bill. Kennedy supported civil rights but prioritized introducing other types of legislation, and he only introduced the civil rights bill after the issue started to dominate public conversation and he felt he had no other choice. Ultimately, Kennedy announced the bill on June 11, 1963, just hours after a standoff at the University of Alabama. The state’s governor tried to block two Black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama despite a federal court order allowing them to do so—and Kennedy was forced to send in the Alabama National Guard. 

As a result, Johnson’s new purpose became passing the civil rights act—and he only succeeded because his clarity of purpose allowed him to make the compromises necessary to achieve what he really wanted. Johnson was initially unwilling to amend the bill in any way. However, when he learned that his opponents wouldn’t vote for the bill until at least some of their changes were included, he yielded and allowed them to change the bill: He chose to prioritize passing the bill at all over passing it in its original state. Thanks to Johnson’s willingness to compromise, the bill gained bipartisan support—and ultimately became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

How Compromising Ultimately Made the Civil Rights Act Stronger

When you’re clear on your purpose, you have an end goal in mind, so you’re willing to compromise on minor details as long as you can reach that goal. Sometimes this willingness to compromise doesn’t just help you reach your goal; it results in an even better outcome than you initially expected. This was the case with Johnson: His willingness to amend Kennedy’s civil rights bill didn’t just help get it passed, it also resulted in even stronger civil rights legislation than Kennedy’s original draft. In fact, Senator Hubert Humphrey, who negotiated several of the amendments the opposition party wanted, told Johnson, “We haven’t weakened this bill one damn bit; in fact in some places we’ve improved it.” 

Historians attribute much of this to the work of minority leader Senator Everett Dirksen, who Johnson correctly identified and courted as the person who could get him the votes he needed to pass this bill. Goodwin doesn’t cast Dirksen in the most flattering light, but other historians note that he had a long history of sponsoring civil rights legislation. Dirksen proposed nearly 70 amendments to the bill, which made the bill stronger by a) clarifying its language and b) including several minor compromises that appeased legislators on the fence and helped them vote for it.  
Lyndon B. Johnson and the 1964 Civil Rights Act

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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