Lyndon B. Johnson. Whitehouse.gov

Lyndon B. Johnson. Whitehouse.gov

Playing presidential catch up here. I’ll have 37 up tomorrow, and 38 on Tuesday, the regular day.

Two months after Lyndon Baines Johnson took office as the 36th president of the United States, he pledged to put Indians at the “forefront” of his war on poverty.

The statistics were grim for the 400,000 Indians living on reservations, Johnson told members of the National Congress of American Indians during a January 1964 speech. The average family income was less than one-third the national average; unemployment rates ranged between 50 and 85 percent; the average young adult had an eighth-grade education; the high school dropout rate was 60 percent; and the average lifespan of an Indian on a reservation was 42, compared with the national average of 62.

“Both in terms of statistics and in terms of human welfare, it is a fact that America’s first citizens, our Indian people, suffer more from poverty than any other group in America,” Johnson said. “That is a shameful fact.”

The speech came 12 days after Johnson, in his first State of the Union address, urged Congress to declare “all-out war on human poverty and unemployment” and to prioritize civil rights.

“Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope—some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both,” he said. “Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.”

This War on Poverty was part of Johnson’s plan to “build a great society, a place where the meaning of man’s life matches the marvels of man’s labor.”

This utopia or “Great Society” became Johnson’s central goal, and he pushed for sweeping socio-economic reform that improved education, health care, conservation and economic development.


Johnson inherited a country embroiled in the Vietnam War, racing to put a man on the moon and buzzing with activism from the Civil Rights Movement. He also inherited ideals from Kennedy that he sought to continue. When Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964, he fulfilled Kennedy’s pleas for legislation “giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public.”

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the first of several landmark pieces of legislation passed during Johnson’s presidency, outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Designed with African Americans in mind, the act ended racial segregation in schools, workplaces and public accommodations. It also ended unequal application of voter registration requirements, paving the way for all citizens to have equal access to polls.

“Johnson became president upon a tragedy when Kennedy was assassinated, and that impacted just about everything he did,” said Anne Wheeler, communications director at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library. “The first thing he wanted to do was honor Kennedy’s legacy by passing the Civil Rights Act. That became his first priority.”

Six weeks after signing the Civil Rights Act, on August 20, 1964, Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act, which stood as the centerpiece of his War on Poverty. Designed to “eliminate the paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty,” the act established job and youth corps, work-study and adult education programs, community action agencies and assistance programs for needy families and children.

Johnson called the act “an opportunity, not an opiate” that would “reach into all the pockets of poverty and help our people find their footing for a long climb toward a better way of life.”


Most of Johnson’s Great Society reforms did not directly identify Indians as recipients but, as economically disadvantaged people, Indians benefited. Amid increasing pressure from the National Congress of American Indians, however, an Indian desk was established in the Office of Economic Opportunity and it began to earmark funds for federally recognized tribes.

In 1966, Johnson broke with tradition when he appointed Robert Bennett as commissioner of Indian Affairs. Bennett, an Oneida Indian, was only the second Native to hold that office. (Ely S. Parker served as commissioner under President Ulysses S. Grant).

Ely S. Parker, a Seneca attorney, engineer, and tribal diplomat, wrote the final draft of the Confederate surrender terms. He later served as Commissioner of Indian Affairs, the first Native American to hold the post, under President Ulysses S. Grant. (Wikipedia/National Archives).

Ely S. Parker, a Seneca attorney, engineer, and tribal diplomat, wrote the final draft of the Confederate surrender terms. He later served as Commissioner of Indian Affairs, the first Native American to hold the post, under President Ulysses S. Grant. (Wikipedia/National Archives).


In March 1968, Johnson again made history when he became the first president to deliver a special message to Congress on the problems of Native Americans. In the message, titled “The Forgotten American,” Johnson proposed “a new goal that ends the old debate about ‘termination’ of Indian programs and stresses self-determination; a goal that erases old attitudes of paternalism and promotes partnership.”

Johnson pointed to “the words of the Indian” that had become “the names of our states and streams and landmarks.” For more than 200 years, “the American Indian has been a symbol of the drama and excitement of the earliest America,” he said. “But for two centuries, he has been an alien in his own land.”

In his message, Johnson outlined his goals for Indians, including living standards equal to those of other Americans. He declared that Indians should be allowed to choose whether they wanted to live on reservations or in cities, and he called for “full participation in the life of modern America,” along with equal access to economic opportunity.

In short, Johnson proposed an Indian policy of “maximum choice” for Indians, “expressed in programs of self-help, self-development, self-determination.” He also issued an executive order establishing the National Council on Indian Opportunity.

“In our efforts to meet that responsibility, we must pledge to respect fully the dignity and the uniqueness of the Indian citizen,” he said. “That means partnership—not paternalism. We must affirm the right of the first Americans to remain Indians while exercising their rights as Americans.”

Finally, in April 1968, Johnson signed the Indian Civil Rights Act, which granted individual Indians “equal protection of the law” by extending to them the provisions laid out in the Bill of Rights.

In November of 1968, I was 10 years old. I remember President Johnson, and I remember much of his work with and toward Indians. It meant a great deal to me, as I was still having the importance of being white, and nothing but white smacked into me at every moment. What I wouldn’t give to see someone like this running now.

Alysa Landry’s full article is here.


  1. says

    The war on poverty doesn’t seem to have ended in victory. Unless he meant that the pentagon never lacks for money.

    Johnson was a mixed bag, wasn’t he? Well, that makes him better than the solid-all-the-way-through bags we’re up against now.

    So is he the first president that wasn’t unremittingly awful?

  2. says


    The war on poverty doesn’t seem to have ended in victory.

    That wasn’t Johnson’s fault in the least. The programs he set up were working, and functioning as a secure safety net for people. The crime rate went down, poverty levels decreased, and education increased. For a while, anyway, until all those programs were gutted, de-funded, and closed down, sometime in the late ’70s to early ’80s, I think. Johnson had set up a good social safety net system. Unfortunately, after his term ended, we didn’t have anyone decent in office, so it was all dismantled, and in truth, we’ve never recovered from that dismantling.

  3. says

    Aaaaand, way back then, a lot of people called Johnson a communist, or even worse, a socialist. He wasn’t liked by the conservative bigots at all. My Bircher grandfather had quite a lot of nasty things to say about him.

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