1965 October 27

LBJ Caves on De Facto School Desegregation in the North


President Lyndon Johnson on this day pressured the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) to restore federal funds to the city of Chicago’s schools. Johnson’s action was his one great failure in an otherwise outstanding record on civil rights.

Civil rights activists in Chicago had petitioned HEW to withhold federal education funds because of de facto racial segregation in the Chicago public schools. (See the student boycott of the schools on October 22, 1965.) HEW had announced on October 2 that it would withhold funds. The Chicago petition was made possible by two important recent developments. First, Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act authorized withholding federal funds to agencies that engaged in racial discrimination. Second, the 1965 Education Act provided, for the first time in American history, millions of dollars in federal aid to public schools. President Lyndon Johnson was furious at the HEW decision to withhold the funds, in part because he had been given no advance warning, but mainly because he did not want to alienate political leaders in Democratic Party strongholds in northern cities. An angry Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, arguably the most powerful Democrat apart from the president, confronted LBJ about the funds at the signing ceremony for the 1965 Immigration Law on October 3, 1965, and Johnson responded by ordering the funds restored.

The long-term lesson of the controversy was that no president, Democrat or Republican, ever used the power of Title VI to end de facto segregation in public schools, either in the North or the South. Presidents instead allowed the Justice Department to pursue school desegregation cases, which had the effect of making a federal judge, rather than the administration’s Office of Education, loom as the “bad guy” for ordering school integration.

Learn more about LBJ’s contradictions on civil rights and other civil liberties issues: Samuel Walker, Presidents and Civil Liberties From Wilson to Obama (2012)

Follow a timeline of the Chicago Freedom Movement:


Learn more about civil rights activism in Chicago in the 1960s: http://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/chicago-activists-challenge-segregation-chicago-freedom-movement-usa-1965-1967

And more about the history of civil rights in Chicago: http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/293.html

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