Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Kennedy-Johnson Years: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." In this passage, I discuss the mixed legacy and the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.


By 1967, to the radical wing of the African American civil rights movement the promise of a “New Frontier” made by John F. Kennedy and of a “Great Society” by Lyndon Johnson proved hollow. The curses of poverty, unemployment, crime, poorly funded and understaffed schools, and malnutrition, still haunted African American communities. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to assume that the voting rights laws, legislation requiring access to public accommodations regardless of race, anti-poverty programs and anti-discrimination mandates passed by Kennedy and Johnson had no impact.

For instance, during the 1960s, black unemployment dropped 34 percent. From 1959 to 1967, the poverty rate among African Americans dropped from a staggering 55.1 percent to a still much too high but significantly better 39.3 percent. (By 1970, the poverty rate among African Americans dropped further, to 33.5 percent.) The poverty rate for all Americans in that time period dropped from 22.4 to 14.2 percent. Before the 1960s, a large percentage of African Americans held low-paying custodial or domestic jobs, or worked as under-compensated farm labor. During the 1960s, the number of blacks holding jobs in higher-paid technical, professional and clerical fields doubled, and the length of time African Americans stayed in school increased by an average of four years.

Largely because of civil rights laws and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, African Americans gained unprecedented clout in local, state and national politics during the Kennedy-Johnson era. Just one year after Johnson signed the voting rights law, an additional 450,000 Southern blacks registered to vote. More black voters meant more black office holders. Between 1960 and 2000, the number of African American officeholders sharply climbed from just 300 to nearly 9,040. African Americans have been elected mayor of many of the nation's largest cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Dallas, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Detroit. Without the 1965 Voting Rights Act, it is highly unlikely that Barack Obama, whose mother was white and whose father was a black native of Kenya, could have been elected president in 2008.

Before the civil rights laws of 1964 and 1965, African American employees often had to walk blocks to find a designated “colored” restroom. The NAACP published travel guides indicating which lunch counters, restrooms, pools, parks and hotels were open to African Americans. In a matter of weeks after passage of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, “whites only” restrooms, water fountains, and seating in theaters, sports stadiums and restaurants disappeared across the South. Between 1964 and 1974, the United States Justice Department filed suits against 500 school districts and more than 400 gas stations, hotels and motels, restaurants and lunch counters, bars and truck stops that still segregated black patrons.

In spite of the angry claims of whites like George Wallace, it wasn’t just African Americans who benefited from Kennedy’s New Frontier and Johnson’s Great Society. Increased government spending on both defense and domestic projects helped create 8.4 million new jobs from 1960 to 1966. Spending on health and education increased 59 percent, and on urban development by 76 percent. The average family saw a 30 percent gain in real income from 1960 to 1968. Counting all racial categories, at the beginning of the 1960s, 40 million Americans lived in poverty. A decade later, the poverty rate dropped to 24 million, a decline from 20 percent of the population to 12 percent. Measures to improve access to medical care and adequate nutrition for the poor resulted in a 50 percent drop in infant mortality from 1950 to 1965. In 1964, 20 percent of Americans had never received medical care. That number sharply declined to 8 percent by the start of the 1970s. Homes lacking indoor plumbing dropped from 20 percent in 1960 to 11 percent ten years later.

The Kennedy-Johnson years saw the development of a more equitable criminal justice system. Johnson established public television and public radio, which gave Americans access to information, music and news not subject to the pressure of commercial popularity or pressure from sponsors. Laws passed in this era provided greater protection for privacy, increased rights for women, a sharper division between church and state, and an explosion of scientific and technological innovations. Literacy rates rose dramatically. In addition to space travel, the era saw the rapid improvement in the power and efficiency of computers, and better prospects for patients with cancer and other lethal diseases. No previous administration had directed more money toward improving public schools and universities, and never had scientific education training received so much attention from the federal government. Life spans lengthened and the population generally enjoyed better health from the 1940s until the late 1960s, an age of political liberalism.

1960 TO 1967:

In spite of all these achievements, the problems faced in the 1960s proved maddeningly hard to solve. President Eisenhower received well-deserved criticism during the Little Rock crisis of the 1950s when he said of attempts to end school segregation, “You cannot change people’s hearts merely by laws.” Eisenhower can be faulted because he used that observation as an excuse for inaction in the face of racial injustice. As a sociological observation, however, the president was right on target.

Johnson’s programs to fight poverty and racial discrimination proved the least popular initiatives of his presidency among white voters who began to feel they were too highly taxed for the benefit of racial minorities. Before the disastrous 1966 midterm elections, a poll in July of that year revealed that a majority of Americans favored cuts in anti-poverty and urban renewal programs, rent subsidies and welfare expenditures, and showed that they wanted the savings to be used to increase spending on the Vietnam War.

Most Americans, according to polls, approved spending on the space program and programs to curb pollution, but an astonishing 90 percent were against further civil rights legislation. A Gallup survey indicated that 88 percent of Americans thought that more hard work and effort would solve black poverty, rather than more government assistance. By 1967, after another round of urban riots, 52 percent of Americans believed that Johnson had moved “too fast” on the issue of integration. By 1966, President Johnson despaired that Americans were more excited about the prospects of humans landing on the moon than they were about any successes of the war on poverty.

According to George Lipsitz, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California at San Diego, much of the celebrated civil rights and anti-poverty legislation of the Kennedy and Johnson years was either designed to fail or foundered because of white bureaucrats’ unwillingness to enforce anti-discrimination laws. For instance, under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the newly established Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lacked enforcement powers such as the ability to issue “cease and desist orders against employers discriminating against African Americans, Mexican Americans, women and other historically disadvantaged groups.” The EEOC could do no more than offer its services as a non-binding arbitrator between discriminated against individuals and discriminating employers. As the law was interpreted, workplace seniority rules would still be respected, a policy that guaranteed that blacks would disproportionately suffer from layoffs during times of economic slowdown.

Underfunding, understaffing and a lack of administrative will to tackle entrenched job discrimination made the EEOC a paper tiger. By 1967, the agency received an average of 23 discrimination complaints a day. By 1972, only about half of the 80,000 cases referred to the EEOC had ever been investigated. Many persons facing discrimination decided that expensive private litigation was a more likely remedy. Between the years 1965 and 1971, private lawsuits outnumbered Department of Justice actions against discrimination by a factor of 25 to 1.

As Lipsitz observed, the 1964 Civil Rights Act exempted federal mortgage insurance programs from anti-discrimination enforcement, a “stipulation that virtually guaranteed the continuation of discrimination in home lending.” Title VIII of the Fair Housing Act that would be passed in 1968 featured similar flaws and required individuals suffering from housing discrimination to initiate a lawsuit within 180 days of the alleged discrimination or within 30 days of arbitration. “This meant that people suffering from violations of their rights had to bring action on their own behalf, hire their own attorneys, pay their own legal fees and court costs, and bear the burden of proof to establish that ‘serious’ acts of discrimination had indeed taken place,” Lipsitz wrote. “After all that, the act restricted punitive damages in clear cut discrimination to a maximum of $1,000.”

Given the loopholes, and bad faith on the part of many government administrators charged with enforcement of civil rights legislation, it is no wonder that many of the most promising of the Kennedy-Johnson civil rights and anti-poverty measures fell short of their promise. Even after the Kennedy-Johnson reforms, African Americans still suffered significantly higher poverty rates than whites. This is attributable in part to a sharp increase in the number of single-parent homes in black America. This, as political scientist Andrew Hacker points out, is a recent phenomenon. In 1950, he notes, single women headed only 17 percent of black homes, a lower rate than exists in 2010 for whites. By 1970, the percentage of black homes headed by single women stood at 34.5 percent.

Hacker proposes several reasons for this. According to Hacker, looser attitudes toward sex outside of marriage have contributed to the increase, as well as a change in men’s attitudes toward marriage. “More married men than ever in the past apparently feel free to leave their wives and children, often to start again with a younger companion,” Hacker said. “Nowadays they can do this with comparatively little social censure and often at small economic cost. Government studies show that most departing fathers end up paying either no child support at all or remit less than the agreed-upon amount.”

Black women were particularly hard hit by the absence of the father’s income, since both black men and women earned significantly less than their white peers. Even with an increase in black wages from 1960 to 1970, African American men climbed from $669 earned for every $1,000 earned by whites in 1960 to only $704 per each $1,0000 earned by whites in 1970. Black women experienced a much more dramatic growth in wages but still lagged considerably behind whites. In 1960, black women earned $696 per $1,000 paid to whites and only $851 per $1,000 for whites in 1970.

After the Kennedy-Johnson initiatives, white flight aggravated the poverty of black neighborhoods. The United States Census Bureau reported that about 900,000 whites moved from cities to the suburbs each year between 1965 and 1970. This mass movement started in part in reaction to the riots in the larger cities. Whites concluded it was no longer safe to live inside the nation’s metropolises. White parents also feared sending their children to the same schools as black and Latino children. The sad irony was that once schools were legally mandated to desegregate, the schools re-segregated because of the white migration. With the fleeing whites went white-owned businesses and white money, and urban school districts, now with a minority majority population, would struggle to make up the decrease in tax revenues.

In the end, Lyndon Johnson’s dream of winning the war on poverty and ending racial strife was sacrificed on the altar of the Vietnam War. The war consumed an ever larger percentage of the budget. Total American military expenditures grew from more than $295 billion in 1964 to over $354 billion in 1967. With major increases in both domestic and military spending, inflation began to rise each year, from 1.28 percent in 1964 to 4.27 percent in 1968, Johnson’s last full year in office. Johnson steadily lost interest in battling poverty and discrimination as he became obsessed with avoiding the onerous fate of being the “first” American president to supposedly lose a war. By 1967-1968, Johnson began cutting domestic programs in order to support a deepening war effort in Southeast Asia. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would come out against the war, seeing in it the defeat of his campaign for social justice.

“A few years ago there was a shining moment in [the civil rights] struggle,” King said in a New York speech April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination. “It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube.”

The African American poet Langston Hughes once famously asked, “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore -- and then run? . . . Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?” Unbelievably, after the heartaches of the Kennedy, Medgar Evers and Malcolm X assassinations, the Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman murders, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, and the holocausts that consumed Watts, Detroit and scores of other cities, the frustrated dreams of Americans would explode in 1968, creating terrifying chaos and violence that would dwarf the previous three murderous years. In a matter of months, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy would die violently, and American cities once again went up in flames. Meanwhile, the “demonic suction tube” of Vietnam would enter its bloodiest period, consuming at unprecedented levels the lives of American soldiers and demolishing Lyndon Johnson’s hopes for a Great Society. By the end of 1968, the dreams of too many Americans had transformed into a nightmare.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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