Today’s post comes from Alexis Percle, archives technician at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum, in honor of our upcoming National Conservation on Educational Access and Equity on March 7. Register to attend in person or watch the livestream.
“As a son of a tenant farmer, I know that education is the only valid passport from poverty.
As a former teacher–and, I hope, a future one–I have great expectations of what this law will mean for all of our young people.
As President of the United States, I believe deeply no law I have signed or will ever sign means more to the future of America.”
With these words, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act on April 11, 1965. Sitting beside him was his first teacher, Ms. Kate Deadrich Loney, who taught Johnson in a one-room schoolhouse just outside Stonewall, Texas.
As a young high school graduate, Johnson did not immediately pursue education, opting instead to travel with friends to California and work odd jobs, including as an elevator operator. After this experience, and a short career as a manual laborer for a road crew, Johnson became frustrated with the lack of opportunity available to him.
So, in 1927, Lyndon Baines Johnson enrolled at Southwest Texas State College. Prior to beginning his courses as a college student, Johnson had to complete pre-college courses. As a graduate of a rural school, Johnson and similar students had to complete these pre-college courses to ensure they met minimum qualifications and standards. Then, in the summer of 1928, Johnson once again had to put his college career on hold so he could earn enough money to continue paying for his college courses.
It was this financial need that motivated Johnson to accept a position as a teacher at Welhausen School in Cotulla, Texas, a small town on the border of Texas and Mexico. Johnson’s classes were made up of the children of Mexican-American farmers. Johnson didn’t speak Spanish and many of his students didn’t speak English. Despite this limitation, Johnson quickly and enthusiastically began teaching and encouraging the children to speak English by holding speech and debate tournaments.
In addition, Johnson organized a literary society, an athletic club, and organized field trips to neighboring towns so his students could compete in sporting events, speech, and spelling contests. With his first paycheck, Johnson bought playground equipment. In a letter home to his mother, Johnson wrote about his work with the students and asked her for help in sending toothpaste for the children and borrowing materials for his debate team.
Despite his strict nature as a teacher, Johnson’s concern for the students left a lasting impression on both his co-workers and his students. In 1929, the Superintendent wrote a colleague calling Johnson a “school man of the highest type” and a “tireless worker,” saying, “He is one of the very best men I have ever had with me…”
His experiences at Cotulla and the hardships faced by his students inspired many of the educational policies sought by Johnson during his presidency. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the nation’s efforts to improve education focused on the upper grades. But many young African-American and Mexican-American students did not remain in school long enough to benefit from these programs.
Johnson recognized the need for assistance in the early grades. He saw the need for programs which would help disadvantaged students compete with their counterparts in middle class neighborhoods. Aside from legislation like the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, President Johnson launched programs like Project Head Start, which offered health, social services, and early learning experiences to children about to enter kindergarten or first grade. President Johnson also encouraged programs to support bilingual education, child nutrition (which included access to free breakfast and lunches for impoverished children), and Federal aid to elementary schools.
Throughout his presidency and, indeed, his life, President Johnson maintained a firm conviction that the American promise of opportunity could best be pursued through education. In 1972, the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, Texas hosted a symposium highlighting Johnson’s accomplishments in the field of education. Sidney P. Marland, the U.S. Commissioner of Education under President Nixon said, “President Johnson, I believe, takes satisfaction in being called ‘the Education President.’ He richly and fully deserves it.”
Part of education is studying the past and applying those lessons to the present. Archivist of the United States David Ferriero said, “The role of the National Archives is to ensure that people have access to the records that demonstrate how those rights were achieved, so that we can learn from those records.”
In establishing the LBJ Library, President Johnson epitomized that role by donating his papers to the American people. At the opening ceremony of the library, President Johnson reiterated his intent to provide access to the records of his administration for future students and historians. In addition, Johnson further emphasized his strong belief in the power of education by establishing the Library and Museum in connection with the LBJ School of Public Affairs, where he spent part of his post-presidential life by, once again, becoming a teacher and instructing University of Texas students in public policy and affairs.
Register to attend in person or watch the livestream of our upcoming National Conservation on Educational Access and Equity on March 7.