Many of America’s First Ladies occupied the background while their husbands basked in the glow of the national spotlight. This was not the case with Lady Bird Johnson.
Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson was a shy woman who had no desire to become America’s First Lady. However, she would be forced into this role on November 22, 1963. During her husband, Lyndon Baines Johnson’s, difficult years in office (1963-69), Lady Bird’s intelligence and moral convictions would lead her to become a crusader for civil rights– one of the major issues in 1960s America.
November 22, 1963: The Day That Shook A Nation
On Friday, November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. His vice president, former Texas senator Lyndon B. Johnson, was sworn in as president within 24 hours of Kennedy’s death. Johnson’s wife, Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson, was horrified at the idea of being thrust into the public eye. She believed she would only have to be First Lady for one year. Little did Lady Bird know that her ambitious husband, as well history, had other plans. Lyndon Johnson became the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee in 1964 and won the general election that year in a landslide.
1964: A Year of Major Changes
During the 1964 presidential campaign, one issue dominated the American scene: civil rights. Lyndon supported the passage of a civil rights bill for constitutional reasons. Mrs. Johnson, meanwhile, urged her husband to support such legislation on moral grounds. A born-and-bred Southerner, Lady Bird began speaking out publicly about the social and moral necessity of public support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. She faced tough, often hostile audiences, but Lady Bird was undaunted. She embarked upon a whistle-stop tour of eight Southern states aboard a red, white, and blue train that was called “The Lady Bird Special.” She spoke with the governors of these states– except for Alabama’s outspokenly racist George Wallace– and called members of Southern congressional delegations. Impressed by Lady Bird’s tenacity and graciousness, many of these individuals were receptive to her and became supporters of both Lyndon and civil rights legislation.
Even though Lady Bird had convinced members of Congress to get behind her husband and his campaign ideals, she now faced the challenge of convincing the American public that he was the right man for the job and that supporting civil rights was the thing to do. Lady Bird’s efforts would eventually be rewarded. The public listened, the act was passed, and Lyndon became America’s thirty-sixth president in November of 1964, handily defeating Arizona’s ultra-conservative Republican senator, Barry Goldwater, who opposed the Civil Rights Act.
The passage of this bill not only changed the country, but it also changed the platforms of its two major political parties. Johnson’s election ended the traditional “Solid South” dominance of conservative Democrats and led to the Democratic Party becoming the party of progressive ideals. None of this would have been possible if Lady Bird had not been courageous and outspoken about one of the most important issues in the nation’s history.
- The First Ladies Fact Book, p. 580-83. New York: Black & Leventhal Publishers, Inc., 2005.