Born out of initiatives that developed in Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and expanded in Pres. Harry S. Truman's administration and then in Pres. John F. Kennedy's New Frontier, the Great Society encompassed Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson's "War on Poverty" and his other programs to improve the quality of life for all Americans. Many of the measures passed by Congress owed gratitude to House Majority Leader Carl Albert, representing Oklahoma, and the Democratic force in the legislature. For his leadership Johnson bestowed on Albert a framed set of fountain pens inscribed "With these fifty pens, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the foundations of the Great Society which were passed by the historic and fabulous first session of the 89th Congress." Measures passed in 1965 included Medicare, the establishment of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Voting Rights Act, Medicaid, the Immigration and Nationality Act, establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities, and the Elementary and Secondary School Act. In 1964 as part of the "War on Poverty" the process began with the passage of Head Start, the Civil Rights Act, and the Twenty-fourth Amendment outlawing poll taxes. All of these programs impacted Oklahomans in greater or lesser degree over the next decade and beyond.
Great Society initiatives developed as Oklahomans elected their first Republican governor, Henry Bellmon, who served from 1963 to 1967. In addition to his promise and commitment not to raise taxes, he faced a state budget seemingly out of control. The new administration committed itself to fund state government not by taxing for additional income, but by "eliminating waste, graft, and corruption." Fittingly, during his first year Bellmon continued the state's operations by transferring several state agencies to Director Lloyd Rader's Welfare Department. This freed millions of dollars in the general fund and required Rader to use money that he had hoarded for contingencies or to carry on the operations if federal matching funds dried up or were late. This political climate did not seem conducive to a buildup of Great Society programs in Oklahoma.
However, in these years many of the national initiatives seemed to develop with the Sooner State specifically in mind; this may have been because the U.S. Congress kept Lloyd Rader involved in the creation of many of the proposals. Although the Great Society consisted of more than welfare, focusing also on Civil Rights and environmental issues, the Welfare Department was the big winner in the race for dollars. Rader gathered millions in federal funds for his operations and programs from the growing amount of matching funds. In 1965 Governor Bellmon issued an executive order to Rader's department to pursue an additional $34 million a year in medical aid from the federal Medicare program. By 1970 Oklahoma ranked fourth in the nation on per capita spending for public welfare.
An example of Great Society ramifications at the state level occurred in 1965 when the Oklahoma Legislature narrowly passed Senate Bill Number 14, known as the Oklahoma Housing Authority Act. At that time Oklahoma was one of the few states that had not passed legislation enabling it to take advantage of public housing programs administered by the federal government. Carl Albert persuaded President Johnson to write to Oklahoma legislators and endorse the proposal. The legislation allowed many lower income Oklahomans to use federally appropriated funds to purchase affordable housing.
Another facet of the Great Society's influence in Oklahoma involved the plight of the American Indian. Many programs, including housing, health, and economic development delivered money directly to tribal governments under Community Action Programs. The legislation created Indian Housing Authorities to provide affordable homes. The Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) fostered local economic empowerment and development. The OEO also funded American Indian education programs, including Head Start, the Job Corps, and Neighborhood Youth Corps. The Johnson administration's actions reflected a policy of self-determination, encouraging tribes to control and operate their own programs.
The war in Vietnam stripped Johnson of his power, and the influx of new Republican representatives in 1966 handicapped the Democrats in Congress, virtually ending the hopes of continuing the process of the Great Society. As Johnson said in a speech to the University of Michigan on May 22, 1964, "The Great Society is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor." The spirit of the era survived in the continuation and evolution of many of the initial programs. The Food Stamp program provides an example of this development. Congress enacted the Food Stamp Act of 1977, changing the original 1964 Food Stamp Act, to formalize stricter rules and policies; the 1977 version is amended regularly but continued to service the underprivileged at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Carl Albert with Danney Goble, Little Giant: The Life and Times of Speaker Carl Albert (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990).
Henry Bellmon with Pat Bellmon, The Life and Times of Henry Bellmon (Tulsa, Okla.: Council Oak Publishing Co., 1992).
Mary B. Davis, ed., Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1994).
W. Dale Mason, "The Carl Albert Collection; Resources Relating to Indian Policy, 1963–1968," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 71 (Winter 1993–94).
Irwin Unger, The Best of Intentions: The Triumph and Failure of the Great Society Under Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon (New York: Doubleday, 1996).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Larry O'Dell, “Great Society,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=GR017.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.