This is the 36th in a series of 44 stories exploring past presidents’ attitudes toward Native Americans, challenges and triumphs regarding tribes, and the federal laws and Indian policies enacted during their terms in office.
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.”
“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 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.
Born into an impoverished Texas family in 1908, Johnson attended Southwest Texas State Teachers College. He held several teaching jobs, including a short stint at a segregated school in south Texas where he taught Mexican-American children.
Johnson gave up teaching in 1937 for a career in politics, serving 12 years as a U.S. representative from Texas, then moving to the Senate for another 12 years. He spent six years as Senate majority leader, two as Senate minority leader and two as Senate majority whip before being elected as vice president of the United States in 1960.
Two years and 10 months later, Johnson was thrust into the role of president when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. A Democrat, Johnson completed Kennedy’s term and won re-election in 1964. He served just over five years in office, from 1963 to 1969.
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.
Three months into his second term, in April 1965, Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which sought to bridge achievement gaps by granting every child equal and fair access to an exceptional education. In May, he officially launched the Head Start program, administered through the Office of Economic Opportunity and serving half a million children in 2,000 centers during its first eight-week summer program. In July 1965, he signed the Social Security Amendments, establishing Medicare and Medicaid and promising to “improve a wide range of health and medical services for Americans of all ages.”
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).
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.”
Johnson left office in 1969 and was succeeded by Richard M. Nixon. He died in 1973 at age 64.