Fifty Years Ago on January 8th, America Declared a War on Poverty — Without Mentioning the Denial of Justice to the Poverty Population

By Earl Johnson, Jr.

This is the first in a series of short articles I will be writing for this NEJL blog tying the creation and development of the War on Poverty during 1964 and 1965 to the emergence of that War’s legal services arm.  The narrative often will draw on my recently published history of civil legal aid, but sometimes will venture beyond that to include details I didn’t have room to include in the book.  We also expect to recruit living participants to add their reminiscences and to include excerpts from the NEJL’s collection of oral history interviews.


   But I begin today with the birth of the nation’s “War on Poverty” itself.  For, almost certainly, there would be no Legal Services Corporation today and indeed no federal financial support for civil legal services for the poor had there not been a “War on Poverty.”  Furthermore, after researching the genesis of that program for my book, I concluded that, in all probability, there would not have been a “War on Poverty” had Lyndon Johnson not succeeded to the presidency in the wake of a terrible national tragedy, the assassination of John Kennedy. 

It is true President Kennedy had asked his economic team to explore what might be done about the problem of abject poverty in the midst of affluence.  But it is not at all clear he would have mounted a significant program to do something about that problem. Kennedy’s political advisors were warning him that any program helping poor people wouldn’t gain him a single vote.  “To the extent they vote, they already vote for you.”  Instead, they advised Kennedy his administration should concentrate on initiatives that aimed to help the “middle class” because that’s where the undecided voters lived.  This is a political priority that most presidents, including the current Obama administration, have recognized and emphasized. And recall, Kennedy and his advisors believed he was facing a difficult election in 1964, so political calculations were a paramount concern.

Lyndon Johnson, however, had no such reservations. The very night he assumed the presidency he had a late night meeting with Walter Heller, the Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors.  When Heller mentioned the possibility of doing something about poverty, Johnson said, “that’s my kind of program” and moved it to the top of his agenda.  Johnson ordered his staff to begin developing a detailed proposal and his speech writers to draft a public announcement of a major campaign to eliminate poverty in the United States.  He saw his other major accomplishment, the passage of the Civil Rights legislation, as just completing another man–that is, President Kennedy’s–vision. The War on Poverty, on the other hand, was his and his alone. He hoped and expected it would be his major accomplishment and his claim on history. Beyond that, Johnson had an emotional attachment to the program. He had been born and raised in a poverty-stricken area of Texas and saw helping those people, for many years his constituents, as his cause.  Earlier in his career he had been a loyal and vigorous New Dealer, committed to improving the lives of those decimated by the Great Depression.  

Whether President Kennedy would have ignored the political calculations and eventually launched some sort of program to address the poverty problem is not clear.  But that any program he started would not have approached the scale of Johnson’s War on Poverty is apparent and thus unlikely to ever include a significant, if any, legal services component.  President Johnson’s proposal called for a nearly one billion dollar appropriation for the first year—almost seven billion dollars in 2013 dollars.  A brand new program with a budget larger than most existing domestic programs—and aimed to help people that “to the extent they vote, already vote for you.”    

So on January 8, 1964, just six weeks after inheriting the presidency, Lyndon Johnson was ready to announce his signature policy initiative as part of his “State of the Union” address to the nation.  To choose this particular priority spoke to Johnson’s political confidence and maybe his political courage. As he told the nation that evening–

                “Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom.  The cause may lie deeper—in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.

                “But whatever the cause, our joint federal-local effort must pursue poverty, pursue it wherever it exists, in city slums and small towns, in sharecropper shack or in migrant worker camps,, on Indian reservations, among whites as well as Negroes, among the young as well as the aged, in the boom towns and in the depressed areas.

                “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.

“This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.”

Notably absent from President Johnson’s litany of deprivations that could cause poverty was any mention of their lack of access to the legal system. This oversight may have suggested why it was to prove difficult to introduce a legal services component as part of the “War on Poverty” Johnson had declared. But there already were those who were trying—chiefly a small group headed by Harvard Professor Abram Chayes then inside the Johnson administration as Legal Counsel in the State Department. In later articles for the National Equal Justice Library’s blog, we will trace the progress of this group and other phases of the slow movement toward a viable legal services program over the course of 1964.  But we all know the effort was ultimately successful and it is well to contrast the omission of legal services or access to justice in Johnson’s War on Poverty speech with what he was saying about the program’s contribution to that war by 1968.

“To a great many poor Americans, the law has long been an alien force—the ally of unscrupulous men who prey on their weaknesses and brutalize their rights as citizens….The Legal Services Program was created to give the poor the same access to the protection of the law that more fortunate citizens have.  It is more than a legal aid program.  It is a weapon in our comprehensive attack on the root causes of poverty….It is this enormous task that the American Bar and the Office of Economic Opportunity have undertaken these past three years.  I commend you for all you have done, and for what you have resolved to do.”

Lyndon Johnson’s ascendancy to the presidency was important to the creation of a full scale “War on Poverty.” This provided the essential foundation without which a federal legal services program could never have happened.  But that program probably would still not have come into existence but for Johnson’s choice of a certain individual, Sargent Shriver, to lead that war. The president announced that choice on February 1, 1964 and why Shriver’s selection was so critical will be among the subjects of my next article for this blog.   

Earl Johnson, Jr., Visiting Scholar, University of Southern California Law School and the Western Center on Law and Poverty. He is the author of: To Establish Justice for All: The Past and Future of Civil Legal Aid in the United States (Praeger, 2014).

Johnson, who had served as the Deputy Director of the Neighborhood Legal Services Project in Washington, DC since 1964, was chosen to be the first deputy director of the Office of Economic Opportunities Legal Services Program in October 1965.  Eight months later, Johnson succeeded Clinton Bamberger in that position, and served as director of the OEO Legal Services program until July 1968.

Related resources:  A full-length video of President Johnson’s State of the Union address on January 8, 1964 is available on YouTube (contributed by the LBJ Library & Museum):

A video and transcript of the address is also available on the LBJ Library & Museum’s website:


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