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Lady Bird Johnson 1912-2007: The Former First Lady Was an Environmental Activist Who Made America More Beautiful


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I'm Shirley Griffith. And I'm Steve Ember with PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English. Today we tell about Lady Bird Johnson. She is best known for being the wife of President Lyndon Baines Johnson who led the nation during the nineteen sixties. But Mrs. Johnson was also an influential environmental activist, tireless campaigner and successful businesswoman.

She showed great strength and heroism during a tense period in American history. Her work to make America beautiful can still be seen today in flowering fields, roads, and parks across the country.

Lady Bird Johnson was born Claudia Alta Taylor in nineteen twelve. The Taylor family lived in the small town of Karnack, Texas. Claudia's father, Thomas Jefferson Taylor, owned two stores as well as thousands of hectares for cotton production. Her mother, Minnie Taylor, died when Claudia was only five years old. A woman who worked for the Taylor family gave Claudia her nickname. Alice Tittle said the small child was "as purty as a lady bird."

Claudia had two older brothers who went away to school. She spent many hours by herself exploring the natural beauty of the fields and forests near her home. She said she grew up listening to the wind in the pine trees of the East Texas woods. She said her heart found its home in the beauty, mystery, order and disorder of the flowering earth.

Claudia attended public schools and worked hard at her studies. But she was very shy and did not like attention. When she graduated from high school, she had the third highest grades in the class. She reportedly made sure she finished third to avoid giving the graduation speech required by the top two students in the class.

In nineteen thirty-four Lady Bird graduated from the University of Texas in Austin with degrees in history and journalism. She planned to teach or work as a theater critic. But then she met an energetic congressional assistant named Lyndon Baines Johnson. The young politician from Texas asked her to marry him on their first date. After weeks of pressure from Mr. Johnson, Lady Bird accepted his marriage proposal. Here is Mrs. Johnson talking about her first meeting with her future husband:

LADY BIRD JOHNSON:

"We had a breakfast date, but we wound up by spending the whole day together, riding and talking. Well, he really let me know before the day was over that he wanted to marry me. And I thought this impossible. But on the other hand, there was one thing I knew I just couldn't bear to have happen and that was to say goodbye, goodbye period."

Lyndon Johnson was busy planning his political career. Within three years, he ran for a seat in the United States Congress and won. Lady Bird Johnson had given him ten thousand dollars to get his campaign started.

When Japanese planes attacked American ships at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in nineteen forty-one, Mr. Johnson joined the navy to fight in World War Two. Mrs. Johnson stayed in Washington, D.C. and supervised his congressional office during the eight months he was away.  Her excellent organizational skills and smart political sense made her perfect for the job.

After Mr. Johnson returned, Lady Bird Johnson soon found a new project. She used about seventeen thousand dollars of family money to buy a small radio station in Austin, Texas. The radio station was in debt and had a small broadcast range. Mrs. Johnson used her husband's connections with the Federal Communications Commission to increase the radio station's power and range.

Soon, the station started making money and the company expanded into television as well. Mrs. Johnson was president of the family company, LBJ Company. She traveled from Washington to Austin every week to take care of business.

During this time the Johnson family started to grow. Lady Bird had a daughter, Lynda Bird, in nineteen forty-four. A second daughter, Luci Baines, was born three years later. Lyndon Johnson's power in politics also continued to grow. In nineteen forty-eight he was elected to the United States Senate.

In nineteen sixty, John F. Kennedy ran for president of the United States with Lyndon Johnson as vice president. Mrs. Kennedy was unable to travel and campaign for the candidates because of her pregnancy.  Mrs. Johnson bravely accepted the job. She visited eleven states to help express the goals of the candidates. They won the election.

Mrs. Johnson was also at her husband's side when he visited Texas with President and Mrs. Kennedy on November twenty-second, nineteen sixty-three.

After the tragic shooting of President Kennedy in Dallas, security officials led the Johnsons to the presidential plane to fly back to Washington. During the flight, Mrs. Johnson and Mrs. Kennedy watched as Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as President of the United States.

In the weeks after this national tragedy Lyndon Johnson worked hard to show Americans that he could be a strong president. With his strong support, he got Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of nineteen sixty-four. This law banned discrimination based on "race, color, religion, or national origin" in public places and federal programs. But the law was not popular with many white voters in the southern part of the country.

Once again, Lady Bird Johnson came to the rescue. As part of Lyndon Johnson's nineteen sixty-four campaign for president she became a spokesman for the law. Lady Bird Johnson visited important southern states although Democratic governors feared for her safety.  She traveled through poor areas talking to angry crowds who were against her husband's civil rights policies. Lady Bird Johnson knew how to give a powerful and expressive speech.

She won over the loud crowds with her gentle manner and calming southern accent. She told them that it was time to end the South's racist past and move into the modern world. The media later wrote that she stood as a fearless moral representative of her husband. And, her work paid off. Lyndon Johnson won the election.

The historian Lewis Gould has said Mrs. Johnson and her press secretary Liz Carpenter were the first to establish the job of the modern first lady.  Mrs. Johnson realized that the wife of the president needed to have her own team of workers. She made sure she had a director of employees as well as a social director. Lady Bird Johnson's business experience and sense of organization helped create a very effective system for future first ladies and their causes.

As first lady, Mrs. Johnson became an energetic activist for educational and environmental issues. She helped support Head Start, a public program aimed at giving educational and health services to young children from poor families.

She started the Society for a More Beautiful National Capitol. Its aim was to improve the beauty of Washington by planting trees and flowers in public areas and parks. Mrs. Johnson understood that these improvements were also linked to important issues such as pollution, public transportation, mental health, and crime rates.

But she is most well known for helping to create The Beautification Act of nineteen sixty-five. It aimed to protect America's natural beauty by limiting advertising signs and cleaning up waste areas on the country's roads and highways. The law also supported the planting of local flowers and trees. Here is Mrs. Johnson talking about her environmental efforts:

LADY BIRD JOHNSON:

"Clean water, clean up the rivers, wilderness areas, more national parks, all of that was a part of our aim and thrust and what we tried to do. I've had a life long love affair with nature, a particular accent on wildflowers, native plants for the whole broad face of America. I hope everybody could enjoy their little piece of America as much as I have enjoyed mine."

Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson had a difficult four-year term. The president faced strong opposition about the United States involvement in the war in Vietnam.  In nineteen sixty-eight, President Johnson surprised the nation by announcing that he would not seek reelection as president. The Johnsons left politics and returned home to Texas. Mr. Johnson died of a heart attack in nineteen seventy-three.

Lady Bird Johnson continued her tireless work to improve the country's natural environment. She created the National Wildflower Research Center in nineteen eighty-two. The center helps to educate people about the environmental importance and value of native plants. Mrs. Johnson died in two thousand seven at the age of ninety-four. Her memory lives in the many fields of wildflowers that color the roads of America.

This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I'm Shirley Griffith. And I'm Steve Ember. You can download scripts and audio of our programs at voaspecialenglish.com.  Join us again next week for PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English.


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