Lady Bird Johnson
Claudia Alta Taylor (also known as “Lady Bird”) Johnson (1912-2007) significantly contributed to society as America’s First Lady to Lyndon B. Johnson. She is most noted for her desire to beautify the American landscape through the implementation of wildflowers, the reduction of billboards on state highways, the preservation of national parks, the restoration of inner city playgrounds, and her efforts to mask landfills. Her marriage served as a springboard as she involved herself with the “natural” affairs of politics. When asked by reporters at the start of her husband’s presidency what she felt her role was as First Lady, she responded that her role would “emerge in deeds, not words” (Smith 1990).
Furthermore, the presence of Lady Bird in the White House encouraged female activists as she spoke at many conferences for women across the states and luncheons at the White House. As she found a cause (the beautification of America) that “her heart could sing to”, she inspired many women to do the same (Carlin 2004). She also managed to rally support from African-Americans and the southern states. Having grown up in Texas and frequently visiting relatives in Alabama, Lady Bird was drawn to the interests and well being of southerners and created a campaign to assure them of her continued loyalty. Also through her beautification initiatives, she encouraged the business development skills of Walter Washington, one of America’s first African-American city mayors.
“Claudia Alta Taylor was born on December 22, 1912, in Karnak, Texas” and is still living at 93 years of age to this day (Carlin 2004). She was the daughter of Thomas Jefferson Taylor, a storeowner who sold cotton gins, and Minnie Lee (Patillo) Taylor (Koman 2001). She was the youngest of three, having two older brothers, Thomas, Jr., and Antonio (Gould 1996). “Comparing her to the ladybird beetles of East Texas, an African-American cook in the family said that the child was as pretty as a lady bird” (Gould 1996). She tried to break free of the nickname, but fate laid hold to her identity for she would later become known for her advocacy of wildlife preservation. “Perhaps that name was prophetic, as there has seldom been a First Lady so attuned to nature and the importance of conserving the environment” (The White House).
Her mother died at the age of forty-four after she fell down a staircase, resulting in blood poisoning and a miscarriage. Shortly afterward, Lady Bird’s unmarried aunt, Effie Patillo, left her home in Alabama to help raise the five-year-old girl (Gould 1996). As a lonely child growing up in a small town, Lady Bird often enjoyed an evening get-away to the forest by Caddo Lake. “She learned the names of the flowers and nurtured a love for the landscape and the natural world. She often envisioned traveling to a world beyond what she knew (Gould 1996).
At the age of fifteen she graduated from Marshall High School and enrolled in a two year junior college at St. Mary’s Episcopal School for Girls in Dallas. Later she entered into the University of Texas where she earned her B.A. in history and journalism (Carlin 2004). Shortly afterward she met Lyndon B. Johnson through a mutual friend. He proposed to her the next day, but Lady Bird would not give her consent until two months later (Koman 2001). A climatic point in her partnership with Lyndon Johnson was when he voluntarily went active duty in the Navy after the Pearl Harbor attack. During his eight-month deployment, Lady Bird managed his position in the Washington Congressional office, as he felt she would best represent his ideals (Carlin 2004). Upon successfully fulfilling the duties of her husband, she gained the self-confidence and sense of achievement that catapulted her to make future business decisions.
As she grew in poise and stature, Lady Bird found her identity through pursuing dreams that capsulated her knack for southern hospitality, her ability to communicate with the public (although she admits to shy beginnings), and her love of nature. In 1943 she purchased and managed KTVC, a radio station in Austin, Texas and pulled it out of debt within six months. In 1959 she participated in the Capital Speakers’ Club to enhance her public speaking abilities. To encourage the development of professional women, she gave luncheons at the White House in honor of “women-doers” and she additionally led the Senate Ladies’ Red Cross unit (Koman 2001). She has two daughters, Lynda Bird (Robb), born on March 19, 1944 and Luci Baines (Nugent), born on July 2, 1947 and they all practice the Episcopalian faith (Carlin 2004).
One of the most significant contributions Lady Bird gave to society was her advocacy of the Civil Rights Act after its implementation and her clever move to calm down and reassure the unnerved people in the South. To properly communicate the intentions of the Johnson administration, Mrs. Johnson decisively created the Whistle Stop Campaign and referred to the cause as a “journey of the heart” (Smith 1990). “Mrs. Johnson knew that many of her fellow Southerners considered Lyndon Johnson a traitor for passing the landmark bill” but Lady Bird decided to show their love toward the south through campaigning by train in eight of the states (Gutin 2005). In four days, she gave 47 speeches. Her appearances were not always well received, having even been threatened by the Klu Klux Klan, but the Democrats did obtain three of the eight states as a result of her efforts (Gutin 2005). “Whistle Stop marked Mrs. Johnson’s emergence as a very active First Lady. It also showed that she was going to do the things that she felt strongly about – regardless of whether or not they might involve controversy” (Smith 1990).
Another cause that Lady Bird felt strongly about was the beautification of America. “The timing of the choice [to concentrate on beautification] was also excellent. Lady Bird became first lady when environmental issues were gaining attention through books such as Rachel Carson’s 1962, Silent Spring, which called attention to the environmental harms of pesticides. It was also a time when the city of Washington needed a major face-lift” (Carlin 2004). The Highway Beautification Bill that Lady Bird supported and was later passed “required that junkyards be screened and billboards be located at least 50 feet from roadsides” (Gutin 2005). Moreover, her idea to have wildflowers on the side of the highway roads has “reduced mowing and maintenance costs for highway departments in many states, sometimes up to millions of dollars annually” (Gould 1996). “During the Johnson presidency from 1963 to 1968, over 150 laws were passed that benefited the environment, including the Clean Air Act, the Highway Beautification Act, and the National Park Boundaries Act” (Owens 2001).
Lady Bird also supported initiatives for the Head Start Program across America. “Because of her long-standing interest in children, she became a high-profile supporter of the Head Start program to assist preschool children in obtaining the skills they needed for success in education” (Gould 1996). “In her lobbying for the Head Start program and the environment, Mrs. Johnson went beyond what Mrs. Roosevelt had done and became a direct participant in the environmental policy-making of her husband’s administration” (Gould 1996). Lady Bird performed the duties of the Honorary Chairman for Project Head Start, and promoted President Johnson’s See-the-USA policy across the United States (Smith 1990).
Ties to the Philanthropic Sector
Mrs. Johnson managed and supervised the creation of the Society for a More Beautiful Capital. Lady Bird felt that the capitol was to reflect the beauty of the country, and that it was not doing an adequate job. Through this private society, enough funds were raised to enhance the city’s appearance. “By 1968, the society had collected more than $2.5 million for its activities. It had seen to the installation of hundreds of thousands of trees, plants, and flowers. The looks of major landmarks such as Pennsylvania Avenue, the Mall, and the Potomac shore were dramatically upgraded” (Gould 1996). As the project proved to be a success, Lady Bird expanded the initiative to encompass the entire nation (The White House).
Another way in which Lady Bird contributed to the “look” of America was by starting a nonprofit organization on her seventieth birthday. The goal of the National Wildflower Research Center is to “collect data and to encourage propagation of wildflowers” (Smith 1990). The center is dedicated to safeguarding and reinstating native plants in designated and natural landscapes (Owen 2001). In 1982, Mrs. Johnson donated $125,000 and sixty acres east of Austin to this center. She said that the contribution would resemble the space she occupied while on earth. Since then, the organization has grown to over 7,000 nation-wide members (Gould 1996).
Project Pride was another program that Lady Bird was involved in after she had sought the help of Brooke Astor, a New York philanthropist, Polly Shackleton, a democratic activist, and Walter Washington, a member of the National Capital Housing Agency. This program encouraged 250 inner city youths to clean-up playgrounds and parking lots (Gould 1996). Lady Bird desired to continue the program after its proven success and received funding from Laurance Rockefeller for Project Trail Blazers. His aid made it possible for 110 inner city youth to transform a shut-down movie theater into a community museum in the city of Washington. Recreational space for the children was also created by the former home of Fredrick Douglass, a nineteenth-century black leader (Gould 2005).
Key Related Ideas
Beautification is the enhancement of natural wildlife through proper maintenance, preservation, and restoration of botanical life forms. The idea behind beautification is to encourage citizens to participate in activities that will create a physically safe environment that is aesthetically appealing.
Environmental Activist is a person that stresses the importance of the protection of nature and its inhabitants. Advocates for the protection of the environment facilitate and organize groups having a common concern for the well-being and preservation of the environment.
Political Advocacy is personal involvement for a specific cause in the dealings, organization, or affairs of the local, state or federal government. Action by the citizen is taken to either provoke a change or to encourage support for the upheld law.
Important People Related to the Topic
- Carpenter, Liz (1922 – present) was “the first working journalist to be appointed the first lady’s press secretary” (Gutin 2005). Her partnership with Lady Bird Johnson was unique to the White House in that “the appointment of Liz Carpenter as Press Secretary brought a new level of professionalism to that office” (Gutin 2005). “She named the ebullient and lively Liz Carpenter as staff director and press secretary, two titles that had not been officially designated for any aide of the First Ladies before 1963” (Gould 1996).
- Johnson, Lyndon Baines (August 27, 1908 – January 22, 1973). “During his stint of military service, Johnson did not resign his congressional seat. Instead, Lady Bird Johnson was given the assignment of running his congressional office while he was away in uniform” (Gould 1996). “Johnson received word from his political associates that his wife was managing the office as well as he had” (Gould 1996). Additionally, because of Lady Bird’s influence “President Johnson included references to the natural beauty in his State of the Union address – the first president to do so” (Gould 1996).
- Washington, Walter (April 15, 1915 – October 27, 2003). “The First Lady reached into the local bureaucracy to find her link with the African-American community. She enlisted Walter Washington of the National Capital Housing Agency as her adviser on neighborhoods and their programs” (Gould 1996). He later became the city mayor of Washington, resulting in the notion that “the beautification work of Lady Bird Johnson had a significant effect on the future of one of the African-American leaders of the city” (Gould 1996).
Related Nonprofit Organizations
- The Committee for a More Beautiful Capitol was organized by Mrs. Johnson “to beautify the parts of the city seen by the most number of people, and to attack the ugliness of the inner city by beautifying public housing projects and schools in poorer neighborhoods” (Smith 1990).
- The National Geographic Society relates to Mrs. Johnson as she currently holds the position of trustee emeritus (The White House). This web site www.nationalgeographic.com/ is helpful for researching geographical information concerning wildlife and its inhabitants. There are multiple resources available to gather information from magazines to movie films.
- The Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas is a nonprofit organization founded by Mrs. Johnson and is dedicated to cultivating a love and appreciation for nature among American citizens. The organization also desires to educate the public on the importance of maintaining a healthy ecosystem. The website is found at www.wildflower.org or you may call their phone line at (512) 292-4200..
Bibliography and Internet Sources
- Carlin, Diana. “Lady Bird Johnson: The Making of a Public First Lady with Private Influence.” In Inventing a Voice: the Rhetoric of American First Ladies of the Twentieth Century, edited by Molly Meijer Wertheimer, 273-295. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2004. ISBN: 0-7425-2970-3.
- Gould, Lewis. “Lady Bird Johnson.” In American First Ladies: Their Lives and Their Legacies, edited by Lewis Gould 1996 335-350. New York: Garland Pub., 1996. ISBN: 0415930219.
- Smith, Nancy. Private Reflections on a Public Life: The Papers on Lady Bird Johnson at the LBJ Library. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 1990. 20: 737-744.
- The White House. Claudia Taylor (Lady Bird) Johnson. www.whitehouse.gov/history/firstladies/cj36.html.