When he took office after the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon B. Johnson was able to mobilize national support for initiatives begun under the Kennedy administration, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Johnson then proposed a broader vision for the country, a “Great Society” that would eradicate poverty, expand access to health care, and improve education, among other goals. While Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration launched the New Deal during the financial crisis of the Great Depression, the Johnson administration’s Great Society sought to capitalize on the prosperity of the postwar era to ensure that no Americans were left in poverty.
Key pieces of Great Society legislation include the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 (which created Job Corps and Head Start), the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (which expanded federal programs for public education), legislation establishing Medicare and Medicaid (which expanded healthcare access for senior citizens, disabled citizens, and the poor), and legislation establishing the Department of Housing and Urban Development. After the protests in Selma, Alabama, led by Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Johnson advocated for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Ultimately, Johnson was not able to achieve all of his goals for the nation, instead becoming mired in the tragedies of the Vietnam War. The Johnson administration faced criticism not only from those opposed to American involvement in the Vietnam War, but also from conservative leaders who opposed civil rights legislation, and from activists and civil rights leaders who argued the nation was not doing enough to advance civil rights and social justice. This primary source set uses photographs, videos, reports, speeches, and memorandums to explore the motivations and effectiveness of the Great Society.