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american history
the great society

*when president kennedy was assassinated, lyndon johnson became president.  he had been a congressman and senator from texas for over twenty years, and was chosen as vice-president partly to get southern democrats to vote for a northern catholic.


*johnson was not a traditional southern democrat, however.  he played a major role in getting congress to pass the civil rights act of 1957.


*as president johnson used his connections in congress to pass the civil rights act of 1964 to outlaw discrimination.  not only did it help african-americans and other ethnic minorities, but title vii prohibited discrimination based on sex.


*johnson did not just want to fight discrimination, he also declared a war on poverty.  not only did he get kennedy’s proposed middle-class tax cuts through congress, he created programmes to improve education and provide job training for many americans.  the volunteers in service to america (vista) trained volunteers similar to the peace corps to work in poor rural and urban areas to provide educational and medical assistance.


*johnson’s war on poverty created head start, to help prepare young children for school.


*while johnson was president, minimum wage reached its highest purchasing power:  in 1968, the minimum wage of $1.60 an hour was equivalent to earning $9.92 per hour in 2009.


*in 1964, johnson ran for election as president in his own right against barry goldwater.  goldwater opposed johnson’s big spending.  he thought the federal government should do as little as possible while people should take responsibility for themselves.  he would have lowered taxes and cut welfare and other programmes.  despite wanting a fairly inactive government, he did favour a very strong attitude against the soviet union and communism in general (which had the most intrusive government possible). 


*johnson’s campaign played up some of goldwater’s extreme views, suggesting he would end civil rights legislation and perhaps even provoke a nuclear war.  goldwater lost in a landslide, but he carried five southern states, the first republican to win deep southern states on his own.  furthermore, his campaign was seen as the birth of the modern conservative and libertarian movements (although goldwater eventually turned against religious conservatives because he felt that legislating morality was too intrusive, too).


*with johnson elected as president and democrats in control of the house and senate, they planned to expand the war on poverty in order to create a great society, in which poverty and discrimination would end, and everyone would be taken care of.


*johnson believed that better education and health care were necessary to end poverty, so he created medicare (government-sponsored health care for the elderly) and medicaid (health care for the poor and disabled).  he also increased funding for education.


*the great society would protect the environment.  modern environmentalism began after the 1962 publication of rachel carson’s silent spring, describing the effect of chemical fertilisers and pesticides on wildlife, particularly birds and insects.  this encouraged the creation of the water quality act of 1965 and the clean water restoration act of 1966, america’s first major anti-pollution laws.


*in 1965, ralph nader published unsafe at any speed, describing low quality and poor safety in american automobiles, which helped lead to the national traffic and motor vehicle safety act of 1966, which established safety standards for automobiles.


*the immigration and nationality act of 1965 allowed far more immigrants (particularly from eastern europe and latin america) to come to the us.  since the 1920s, only western europeans had been encouraged to move to the us.


*in many ways, johnson’s war on poverty and great society were successful:  between 1960 and 1970, the percentage of americans living in poverty dropped from 22.2% to 12.6%.


*johnson and the congress were not the only reformers of the 1960s.  the supreme court, under earl warren, also changed society.  cases such as baker v. carr (1962) and reynolds v. sims (1964) required states to make sure that electoral districts were equal, reducing the voting power of rural areas, which had gotten more voting than their population should have.


*accused criminals were given more rights, too.  gideon v. wainwright (1963) and later cases said that the accused had a right to a lawyer (even if the public had to provide one). 


*in 1966, miranda v. arizona decided that accused criminals had to be informed of their rights under the v and vi amendments.  this was based on a confession of kidnapping and assault by ernesto miranda.  he was convicted, but the conviction was overturned because he had not known he had the right to remain silent or the right to have an attorney present. 


*earl warren’s court also supported separation of church and state.  they decided in engel v. vitale (1962) that requiring students to pray in public schools violated the first amendment.  in 1963, abindton v. schemmp decided that reading the bible in public schools violated the first amendment as well. 


*both these decisions began to make many americans fear that the government (or at least some politicians) were opposed to religion and were trying to destroy its role in public life.  this was also part of the inspiration of the modern conservative movement, which hoped to reverse this trend and preserve the christian elements of american culture.


this page last updated 14 november, 2009.
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