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Looking Back On Johnson And The Great Society


Fifty years ago, in November 1964, President Lyndon Johnson won reelection in a landslide victory, and Congress, too, was overwhelmingly Democratic. During the Johnson presidency, a number of landmark social programs were passed into law:  Medicare, Head Start, the federal food stamp program, the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, too.

In 1966, during the midterm election, President Johnson came to Dayton to rally votes for the Democratic ticket--and WYSO was there. Rediscovered Radio producer Jocelyn Robinson has this story about Johnson’s Labor Day visit and one person it inspired.

When President Lyndon Baines Johnson toured through the heartland to open the ‘66 election cycle, he addressed the young people of America in a stop at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds.

"What meaning success is the question this generation of American youth must deal with," Johnson said. "For a democracy cannot last without a philosophy. And democracy cannot continue without a purpose. And when more than half of its people are young, a democracy must ask its youth, what is your philosophy? Democracy must ask its young, what is your purpose in life?" 

Archival audio from WYSO's coverage of President Johnson's 1966 speech in Dayton.

America was riding high on LBJ and his Great Society agenda. That first week in September of 1966, here in Dayton, a young woman was thinking about her purpose in life. While she wasn’t present for his speech, Johnson’s words had an impact on Joyce Beatty nonetheless.

"The things that he talked about were household discussions at the dinner table in our house and in our church, that we heard a lot about his dialog and during that era of time, his focus on the elimination of poverty and racial injustices," says Beatty. "All of those things were at a time when I was very impressionable, when I was thinking about my future, thinking about first generation going to college, and what would my adult life be like. I had no idea in the late Sixties that here we would be in 2014, fifty years later from the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights, Lyndon Baines Johnson’s speech and War on Poverty, that I would be a member of the 113th Congress."

As a Democrat representing the Columbus area, Joyce Beatty is a new member of a Congress that hasn’t seemed to get much done, let alone pass the prolific amount of legislation of the Johnson years.

Dr. Matt Filipic, professor of political science at Wright State University.

"The parties were not polarized the way they are today. You had people as liberal as Nelson Rockefeller in the Republican Party, people as conservative as Strom Thurmond in the Democratic Party, and so the only way to pass legislation was to cobble together a majority across party lines. That is…seems to be impossible today," says Dr. Matt Filipic, a professor of political science at Wright State University.

The Congresswoman certainly feels the effect of that polarization. Sometimes, though, the past can inspire the future. As we enter the 2014 midterms, Congresswoman Beatty thinks sharing LBJ’s 1966 speech could do just that.

"I think that President Johnson gave us great wisdom in that Labor Day speech. He spoke to America. He addressed every life issue that has made a difference in millions and millions of individuals’ lives. And I think we ought to take that tape and play it for every member of Congress, and I would challenge them in the spirit of the words of LBJ and the Great Society, that we continue to build on that."

Major funding for Rediscovered Radio is provided by the Ohio Humanities Council, and the Greene County Public Library.