Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

JFK, LBJ, and the Fight for Equal Opportunity in the 1960s

Created March 2, 2010


The Lesson


JFK, LBJ : President Kennedy

President Kennedy addresses nation on Civil Rights, 11 June 1963 White House, Oval Office. June 11, 1963.

Credit: Public Domain. Photograph by Abbie Rowe, National Park Service, in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and it is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. ... [O]ne hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet free from the bonds of injustice. And this nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all of its citizens are free.”

Radio and Television Report to the American People on Civil Rights, available from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library linked to the EDSITEment-reviewed American President

This lesson provides students with an opportunity to study and analyze the innovative legislative efforts of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson in the social and economic context of the 1960s. By reading and listening to Kennedy's and Johnson's statements, students will examine their intentions for mounting the fight for equal opportunities for all Americans. Students will use online primary source documents to examine and analyze the Americans' struggles over social and economic rights in these tumultuous years.

Guiding Questions

What factors shaped the domestic policies of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson?

Learning Objectives

Upon completion of this lesson, students should be able to

  • Explain the reasons why the Kennedy administration developed the "New Frontier"
  • Identify the ways in which the Johnson administration expanded upon the Kennedy administration's proposals
  • Assess the strengths and weaknesses of United States domestic policies adopted in the 1960s
  • Analyze the political techniques President Johnson used to persuade Americans to support this legislation


The 1960s was a decade full of great internal turmoil and external conflict for the United States. After taking office in 1961, President John F. Kennedy faced many domestic challenges trying to create what has become known as his "New Frontier" legislative program. President Kennedy's domestic policies were hampered by a weak economy, a thin Democratic majority in the Congress, Southern opposition within the Democratic Party, and Cold War tensions that were quickly heating up. To combat the country's social and economic problems, President Kennedy proposed new programs, such as federal aid for education, medical care for the elderly, and a Department of Urban Affairs. The Kennedy Administration's proposals faced strong opposition on different fronts, but many of these ideas would be adopted by the next administration.

After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson was able to move many social improvement bills through Congress; these expanded upon the goals set out by the Kennedy administration. The Johnson administration was able to get approval for Kennedy's tax cuts and an expanded Civil Rights Act that outlawed racial discrimination in public accommodations. In addition, Johnson promised to wage a war on poverty in the United States. His vision of ending poverty was mapped out and described in what became known as "The Great Society." One part of this initiative was the Economic Opportunity Act, which created the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to organize this campaign against poverty. The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 created many new programs, including the Job Corps, which gave vocational education to school dropouts and was a domestic version of the Peace Corps.

This lesson will enable students to analyze the domestic social problems the United States faced during the 1960s. The following links provide key information for understanding the political and social climate Presidents Kennedy and Johnson faced as they developed their domestic policies.

Preparation Instructions

For Activity 1, teachers should acquaint themselves with President Kennedy's Radio and Television Report to the American People on Civil Rights, June 11, 1963, available in audio file and transcript through the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. It is very user friendly, and it allows users to choose their audio player, bandwidth, and video player (with the option of downloading Windows Media Player or Real Player, if necessary). Once a user finishes this step, the audio file will be ready to play and additional information such as the transcript will be found in the same window as the audio file. This audio file may be downloaded to ensure that users can avoid problems streaming this file.

Teachers should visit the American President site containing Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" speech delivered as "Remarks at the University of Michigan" May 22, 1964 used in Activity 2, step 1 below, to make enough copies of the speech for their class.

In addition, Activity 2 includes enhanced telephone recordings from WhiteHouseTapes.org that include audio and advanced onscreen transcription. Using these links is very easy. Go to the links provided in Step 2 of Activity 2 before the lesson and follow the prompts that start the recording for each conversation. This site makes the Johnson telephone recordings a usable tool for this lesson.

As an alternative teachers and students can access student activities and accompanying websites through the, and EDSITEment LaunchPad for activities related to President Kennedy and Civil Rights and President Johnson's War on Poverty and Race Relations.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. President Kennedy and Civil Rights

Step One: Students will read and listen to the speech President Kennedy made regarding the need for National Guardsmen to provide protection to two African Americans attending the University of Alabama in June of 1963—Kennedy's Radio and Television Report to the American People on Civil Rights (June 11, 1963—The White House, Washington, D.C.) from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Download the audio file, which will be accompanied by its transcript, and provide each student with a copy of the transcript so that they can read along as Kennedy makes his speech.

Play the audio and have the students listen for Kennedy's discussion and description of the problems African Americans faced in housing, the workplace, education, and equal access to American society. The running time of the speech is 13:22 minutes.

Step Two: As your students listen to President Kennedy's speech, they should make a T-chart on which they will take notes on Kennedy's descriptions of the problems which faced African Americans. (T Chart in separate PDF) The T-chart should be organized into "Problems Described" and "Solutions Proposed." After listening to the entire speech, provide your students with time to complete their T-chart and ready themselves for a class debate on the findings.

Step Three: Facilitate a classroom debate evaluating the problems JFK identified and whether his proposed solutions would be successful or unsuccessful. Students should use their T-Chart for the debate points. In order to create a class debate on President Kennedy's speech, divide the class into small groups, and provide each group with the following questions. These questions should be worked on collaboratively within each group and will provide the background needed to contribute to the class debate question. To facilitate this activity, students can use the accompanying Launchpad.

Group Questions:
  • How would you describe the way Kennedy presents his call for equality in public places to the American people? Was it a good strategy? Why or why not?
  • Why did Kennedy state "every American ought to have the right to be treated as he would wish to be treated, as one would wish his children to be treated"? Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?
  • Why does Kennedy state that changes must be made though the legal system and on the streets?
  • How does Kennedy plan to enable the federal government to correct the racial injustices in public places?

Students can join opposite sides of the debate based on their personal feelings, or you can divide the class into two groups.

Debate question:
  • Considering the speech, was President Kennedy's proposal a realistic and useful one?
Activity 2. President Johnson's War on Poverty and Race Relations

Step One: Provide your students with the text of Johnson's Great Society Speech and ask them to outline Johnson's goals and the ways in which he planned on achieving those goals. Students may work in groups of three or four and the reading can be broken up into parts for a quicker reading time with a final classroom discussion to share ideas, analyze, and review the goals of the Great Society.

Step Two: After going over Johnson's Great Society speech, students should read along with the text and listen to the following telephone recordings. Unlike the speeches used here, the texts of the conversations are revealed in slideshow style, following along with the audio recording:

After listening to and reading along with these recordings, ask students to answer the following questions:

  • Do these recordings support Johnson's goals for the Great Society?
  • Why did Johnson compare the War on Poverty to the abolition of slavery?
  • Describe evidence of racial tension discussed in these recordings.
  • Why did Johnson talk about a need for Republican support?
  • Explain the goals of his measures.

To facilitate this activity, students can use the accompanying Launchpad.


1. Students should role-play that they are news reporters in the 1960s. As such, the students should choose one piece of legislation from this lesson; they are to create an in-depth, meaningful report to the nation, containing "sound bites" or quotes from the primary documents used in this lesson. Students should choose quotations which will inform or persuade the listener. They will create their own news commentary to capture the reasons the nation needs or does not need a particular Kennedy or Johnson domestic policy from this lesson (for example the Civil Rights Act or the War on Poverty). After the students create their report, ask them to create a detailed explanation of why their message would influence an American audience's opinion.

2. Each student will create a campaign message and platform with the purpose of supporting the reelection of President Johnson. Using the primary documents from this lesson, each student must develop a campaign slogan, as well as reasons why people should support the Civil Rights Act, the Economic Opportunity Act, and Johnson's "Great Society" in general. Each student should create campaign posters and messages, and students should evaluate one another's work as if they are advisors deciding how to launch President Johnson's reelection campaign.

Extending The Lesson

1. Have the students listen to the transcript of LBJ and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy discussing the integration of Alabama schools, available from WhiteHouseTapes.org at the Miller Center. After listening to this discussion, in small groups of two to four, the students are to develop a policy for dealing with Governor Wallace and Alabama school integration that they would propose to Johnson. The students would be role playing that they are President Johnson's top advisors and Johnson is relying on their written report to make a decision in this matter. As they develop their policy, the students should reference how actions taken regarding this problem would either reinforce or negate Johnson's Great Society goals. A presentation (debriefing) to the class should serve as mock reporting to Johnson and his cabinet.

2. The website WhiteHouseTapes.org part of the Miller Center has a virtual exhibit on The Johnson Presidential Recordings and the Debate Over Parochial Schools in the War on Poverty. Guian McKee's short essay "Prelude to Faith-Based Initiatives?" is excellent, and it establishes the main issues at stake. Students can read the transcripts or listen to President Johnson's conversations with various political leaders and advisors. Teachers should be aware that the language used in this audio is quite strong and could be viewed as offensive to some students. However, the material highlights the political discussion over the Economic Opportunity Act and the issue of funding for parochial schools.

3. Direct students to the Library of Congress exhibition "'With an Even Hand': Brown v. Board at Fifty," and have them select one image depicting an effort to integrate a school from the many available on that site. Using the evidence in the photograph, respond to President Kennedy's speech from Activity One. Either as a person seeing that photo in the newspaper or as one of the subjects of the photograph (if they have enough other information to play role) have them tell President Kennedy what they think of his call for equality in public places to come through the legal system.

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2 classroom periods class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • Discussion
  • Using primary sources
  • Writing skills


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources