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BUSINESS EXCHANGE: Celebrating 'The Great Society'

William Reed | 4/16/2014, 3 p.m.
Having the nation's first African-American president at the Civil Rights Summit speaks to the immeasurable success of Lyndon Baines Johnson's ...
William Reed

Having the nation's first African-American president at the Civil Rights Summit speaks to the immeasurable success of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s presidency. The Civil Rights legislation LBJ pushed through Congress is the most transformational political legislation since Reconstruction. Legislation Johnson offered and leadership he proffered has contributed to the betterment of African Americans’ lives in ways no president has since Abraham Lincoln. Contemporary Black Americans would be advised to take note of how a president stepped into the breach and helped our race in the realization of America’s promise.

When Black Americans measure Obama with LBJ, they will see “a man with a plan” versus an empty suit. Many Blacks can’t see beyond the symbolism of the Obama presidency. While Obama shies away from Blacks and their issues, LBJ had a vision for America, that problem of housing, income, employment, and health were ultimately a federal responsibility; and from that premise Johnson used the weight of the presidency and his formidable political skills to enact the most impressive array of reform legislation since the days of Franklin Roosevelt. He envisioned a society without poverty or discrimination, in which all Americans enjoyed equal educational and job opportunities. He called his vision the "Great Society."

When Black Obama loyalists say “He’s doing the best he can” and “they won’t let him,” tell them about LBJ and what a real and committed president can do toward our cause. A major feature of Johnson's Great Society was the "War on Poverty." The federal government raised the minimum wage and enacted programs to train poorer Americans for new and better jobs, including the 1964 Manpower Development and Training Act and the Economic Opportunity Act, which established such programs as the Job Corps and the Neighborhood Youth Corps. To assure adequate housing, in 1966 Congress adopted the Model Cities Act to attack urban blight, set up a cabinet-level Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and began a program of rent supplements.

In 1966, new legislation led to the more than 150, five-year long, Model Cities experiments to develop new anti-poverty programs and alternative forms of municipal government. The ambitious federal urban aid program succeeded in fostering a new generation of Black urban leaders. Local Blacks elected as local and state officials in the 1970, 80s and 90s came from Model Cities’ initiatives.

The Model Cities programs created a new program at HUD intended to improve coordination of existing urban programs and provide additional funds for local plans. The program's goals emphasized comprehensive planning, involving not just rebuilding but also rehabilitation, social service delivery, and citizen participation.

On the downside, Model Cities’ funds strengthened local Democratic machines and clubs more than they did for the communities at large. Too often, city hall parceled out contracts and jobs, but brushed aside neighborhood activists. Because of the political undertow, the Model Cities’ programs garnered wide political controversy. Detroit was one of the largest Model Cities projects. Mayor Jerome P. Cavanaugh (1962-69) served on Johnson's task force. Detroit received widespread acclaim for its leadership in the program, which used $490 million to try to turn a nine-square-mile section of the city (with 134,000 inhabitants) into a model city. Elected officials that came into office in the past 30 years graduated from Large Model Cities’ programs in Atlanta and Chicago.

Fifty years after the Civil Rights Act, and decades after Model Cities experiments have expired, America remains economically, politically and racially divided. The divide is both ideological and the result of the vastly different perspectives of each party’s core constituencies. Back in the day, Republicans and Democrats from outside the South worked together to pass the Civil Rights Act. Today, the majority of Whites vote Republican and see racial discrimination against Blacks as mostly a thing of the past; Blacks vote overwhelmingly Democratic and view Republicans as “racist.”

Blacks loyal to the party and president, will do all they can to help shoulder Obama through his presidency’s remaining years. All Blacks would do well to recognize LBJ’s prodigious legislative legacy. The seminal laws he championed continue to resonate.

William Reed is publisher of “Who’s Who in Black Corporate America” and available for projects via the BaileyGroup.org.