The Kennedy’s, Johnson and the 1964 Civil Rigts Act

On November 22, 1963, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson became president upon the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The entire situation of Johnson assuming the presidency from Kennedy, according to historian Robert A. Caro, was ironic. The Kennedy’s (JFK and his brother Bobby, the Attorney General) had completely lost confidence in Johnson as Vice President and excluded him from important issues, conferences and discussions. Bobby despised Johnson, calling him a liar. At time of Kennedy’s assassination, Bobby had been urging his brother to drop Johnson from the forthcoming 1964 presidential ticket.

Of extreme importance to Kennedy was the passage of the pending civil rights bill, however, Southern Senators had “hopelessly log-jammed” the bill. Johnson, the former Senate Majority Leader from Texas, had one of the worst voting records on major civil rights bills.

A few days after the burial of Kennedy, the world was anxious to hear Johnson’s first address to Congress. Southern Senators urged Johnson not to even mention the civil rights bill. Johnson spoke slowly and carefully before Congress, not accepting the advice of his Southern Senators. He began, “No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long. We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. It is now time to write the next chapter and to write it in the books of law.” The massive applause came from everyone in the Chamber, except from the Southern Senators who opposed the civil rights bill. Johnson, known as the Master of the Senate, was a vote counter and played on the strengths and weaknesses of each Senator. Johnson said, “As Senate leader, I had to be careful…but, I always vowed that if I had the power I’d make sure every Negro had the same chance as every white man. Now I have it. And now I’m going to use it.” While honoring Kennedy, “Johnson grasped the reins of the presidency with supreme mastery,” refused to compromise and pushed through the greatest civil rights bill in American history.

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