Address to the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department Conference, (24 March 1964) Washington, D.C.


Lyndon Baines Johnson was born on August 27, 1908, in the middle of the Hill Country in Stonewall, Texas. Johnson’s father, Sam Ealy Johnson Jr., was an elected representative in the Texas legislature, fashioning himself as a populist and “man of the people.” LBJ’s mother, Rebekah Baines Johnson, was the highly-educated daughter of an attorney.1

Johnson’s parents moved to a small farm in Texas when he was only a few years old. Life on the farm was not as easy as the standard of living his parents were accustomed to. Indeed, Johnson would frequently tell of the difficulties his family faced growing up and his own work in the cotton fields. While these hardships were likely exaggerated by Johnson, he nevertheless developed “a natural sympathy for the poor and oppressed.” During his late teens, Johnson also worked with Latinx and African American laborers while building and repairing roads. These experiences led him to recognize that many marginalized community members never enjoyed the southern lifestyle and the menial jobs they were forced to accept.2

After graduating college and working as a teacher, Johnson became a congressional secretary for Representative Richard Kleberg (D-TX).3 From there, Johnson became the director of the National Youth Administration (NYA) in Texas. A financial aid program established by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the NYA helped many African Americans economically.4

Following his time in the NYA, Johnson became a political force in Texas, running as a Democrat and winning a 1937 special election for the U.S. House of Representatives. In Congress, Johnson courted the favor of President Roosevelt by becoming a vocal New Deal and Supreme Court-packing advocate.5 With this backing, Johnson mounted a failed Senate campaign before asking to be assigned to active duty in World War II, where he served in the Pacific Theater. After the war, Johnson won his second bid for the U.S. Senate in 1948. Johnson worked up the Senate ranks from Democratic whip, to minority leader, and then majority leader when Democrats took control of the Senate in 1954. One of Johnson’s Senate highlights was the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which created a Civil Rights Division within the Justice Department and provided stronger measures against voting interference.6

From these leadership positions in the Senate, Johnson set his eyes on the presidency. While he never officially entered the Democratic primaries for the 1960 presidential nomination, Johnson still earned 409 delegate votes at the Democratic National Convention. As the nominee, Senator John F. Kennedy named Johnson as his vice-presidential running mate to attract southern votes.7 The Kennedy-Johnson ticket defeated the Republican Nixon-Lodge campaign in the general election by a margin of 303 electoral votes to 219. Much of that victory was thanks to Democratic wins across many southern states.8

As vice president, Johnson became frustrated as he was relegated to Kennedy’s “outer circles.” Nevertheless, Johnson played key roles in military and space policy and chaired the Committee for Equal Employment.9 Indeed, the committee’s aim to improve African American employment opportunities “appealed to [Johnson’s] sense of fairness and compassion.” However, Johnson’s avoidance of politically-damaging moves undercut any significant gains.10

Johnson’s role as vice president would be relatively short lived, as he was sworn in as president after President Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963.11 As president, Johnson aimed for legislation on civil rights, education, health care, and economic aid as a part of his “Great Society.” A key part of this Great Society initiative was Johnson’s War on Poverty, which attempted to disrupt the cycle of poverty by helping “those who were unable to help themselves.”12 As Johnson decreed in his 1964 State of the Union address: “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.” Johnson argued that his War on Poverty “must be open to Americans of every color.”13

Just over two months after Johnson’s War on Poverty announcement, he delivered a speech at the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department Conference. The AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) was and is one of the largest and most politically-active federations of labor unions in the United States.14 Johnson and the then president of the AFL-CIO, George Meany, worked together on a handful of legislative fronts.15 As part of his speech to the AFL-CIO, Johnson again outlined his “war against poverty” as one that “is going to be fought on many fields.” Johnson highlighted the need to fight this war with policies promoting food stamps, expansion of the minimum wage law, better unemployment insurance, enhanced education and training, and “complete integration.”16

Johnson’s recognition of the interconnectivity of discrimination and poverty was apparent. In his speech to the AFL-CIO, he praised the organization’s “call last year for an end to discrimination.” Such connections were also apparent in the similar ways Johnson talked about his War on Poverty and advocated for civil rights. In his AFL-CIO address, Johnson argued that the improvement of the American economy “is still not good enough. It is not good enough because the prosperity of which I speak is not being shared by every American. I will not be satisfied until it is.”17 Just over three months after Johnson’s speech at the AFL-CIO convention, he signed the monumental Civil Rights Act of 1964. This Bill—among other civil rights gains and protections—banned workplace discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”18 Johnson used language similar to his AFL-CIO speech in his remarks after signing the Civil Rights Act. He argued: “We believe that all men are created equal. Yet many are denied equal treatment. . . . We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty. Yet millions are being deprived of those blessings . . . because of the color of their skin.”19 Johnson went on to win his first and only election for the presidency later that year in a landslide, defeating challenger Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) by a margin of 486 to 52 electoral votes.20

While Johnson made other gains during his presidency, his administration became engulfed in controversy surrounding his handling of the Vietnam War.21 There were already hints of this rising issue in Johnson’s speech to the AFL-CIO, as he concluded a mostly economic speech with discussions of foreign policy, including Vietnam.22 Furthermore, Johnson’s War on Poverty rhetoric faced resistance.23 Johnson’s anxiety already seemed palpable in this AFL-CIO speech and indeed, by 1967, protests over the Vietnam War and opposition to his Great Society programs “made Johnson wonder why he had ever wanted to be President.”24 Johnson did not run for re-election in 1968 in the face of this dissent. On January 22, 1973, Johnson died suddenly from a heart attack while at his ranch in Texas.25


  1. Hal Rothman, LBJ’s Texas White House: “Our Heart’s Home” (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2011), 13-14.
  2. Sylvia Ellis, Freedom’s Pragmatist: Lyndon Johnson and Civil Rights (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2013), 13-14.
  3. Rothman, LBJ’s Texas White House, 23-27.
  4. Ellis, Freedom’s Pragmatist, 19-21.
  5. Rothman, LBJ’s Texas White House, 31-32.
  6. Civil Rights Act of 1957, Pub. L. No. 85-315, 71 Stat. 634 (1957); “Biography: Lyndon B. Johnson,” LBJ Presidential Library,
  7. “Biography.”
  8. “1960 Presidential Election,” 270toWin,
  9. Kent Germany, “Lyndon B. Johnson: Life before the Presidency,” University of Virginia Miller Center,
  10. Robert Dallek, Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 23-30.
  11. Ellis, Freedom’s Pragmatist, 139.
  12. Michael L. Gillette, Launching the War on Poverty: An Oral History, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), xi-xii. A large part of Johnson’s War on Poverty was the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which attempted to combat poverty on a number of fronts. Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, Pub. L. No, 88-453, 78 Stat. 508 (1964).
  13. Lyndon B. Johnson, “Annual Message to the Congress on the State of the Union,” American Presidency Project, January 8, 1964,
  14. Justin Cohen, “AFL-CIO,”, June 17, 2014,
  15. Dallek, Flawed Giant, 64-65.
  16. Lyndon B. Johnson, “Address to the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department Conference,” March 24, 1964, AFL and AFL-CIO Information Department, Audio Recordings division of the Special Collections and University Archives, Constitutional Conventions of the National AFL, CIO, and AFL-CIO, 1952-1983, Reel 0091, Identifier 0091-2b, Hornbake Library, University of Maryland, College Park.
  17. Johnson, “Address to the AFL-CIO.”
  18. Civil Rights Act of 1964, Pub. L. No. 88-352, 78 Stat. 241 (1964), 15.
  19. Lyndon B. Johnson, “Remarks upon Signing the Civil Rights Bill,” University of Virginia Miller Center, July 2, 1964,
  20. “1964 Presidential Election,” 270toWin,
  21. “Biography.”
  22. Johnson, “Address to the AFL-CIO.”
  23. David Zarefsky, President Johnson’s War on Poverty (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1986), 63.
  24. Dallek, Flawed Giant, 391.
  25. “Biography.”