Much of the legislation proposed by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson continued in the social-welfare tradition of the New Deal. During the Kennedy administration, 1961-63, passage of some measures was blocked by a coalition of conservative Republicans and Southern Democrats. Legislation enacted included laws that established the Alliance for Progress (an aid program for Latin America), created the Peace Corps (a foreign assistance program using volunteers), granted federal aid to depressed areas, provided retraining of unemployed workers, liberalized social security benefits, raised the minimum wage, and supplied federal funds for education. Kennedy also obtained broad authority to cut tariffs. At the time of his death, Congress was debating a tax-cut bill and a comprehensive civil rights bill, both passed in 1964.
Lyndon Johnson's impressive election victory in 1964 made it possible to pass previously blocked bills and new "Great Society" proposals. Among laws enacted during 1965-69 were those inaugurating Medicare; creating two new executive departments (Housing and Urban Development, and Transportation); guaranteeing voting rights; reforming immigration procedures; controlling gun sales; and granting federal aid to education, to impoverished areas in the Appalachians, to cities for renovation, and to low-income families for housing.
The civil rights movement began gaining momentum early in the 1960's. In the South, blacks, or mixed groups of blacks and whites, challenged segregation laws by "sitins" at restaurants and "freedom rides" on buses. In 1962 James Meredith, a black, entered the traditionally all-white University of Mississippi, although rioting by campus segregationists had to be quelled by federal troops. Civil rights demonstrations grew in number, reaching a high point in 1963 with a march on Washington, D.C., by some 200,000 persons in support of the legislation that became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1965 protests against discrimination in voter registration in the South led to enactment of a voting rights law.
Although progress was being made in gaining equal rights for blacks, rioting erupted periodically in the black ghettos of many cities beginning in the summer of 1965. Widespread rioting followed the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. Soon after, Congress passed an open-occupancy law in the hope of easing the racial crisis. The civil rights movement, however, already had begun to change; militant blacks were calling not for integration but for black power (control over their own communities).
The race with the Soviet Union to conquer space accelerated. Shortly after the United States achieved its first manned space flight, in 1961, President Kennedy committed the nation to putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. In 1962 John H. Glenn, Jr., in the Friendship 7 became the first American to orbit the earth. United States space vehicles relayed detailed pictures of the moon for the first time in 1964. The death of three astronauts in a training accident in 1967 delayed the moon program, but in 1968 the manned Apollo 8 spacecraft orbited the moon.
During the period 1961-69 there was unprecedented economic growth. Unemployment dropped to about 4 per cent, but it remained a chronic problem. In 1964 a federal antipoverty program was enacted to attack the basic causes of poverty. By 1968, however, spiraling inflation had become a threat to prosperity and led Congress to pass an income tax increase.
Far-reaching repercussions in state politics resulted from a 1964 Supreme Court reapportionment ruling—the so-called "one man, one vote" decision. The court held that all districts from which members of state legislatures are elected must be approximately equal in population. In 1968 the ruling was extended to local governmental bodies.
In 1961 the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution gave District of Columbia residents the right to vote in Presidential elections. The 24th Amendment (1964) abolished poll taxes in federal elections. The 25th Amendment (1967) provided for continuity of power in the event of Presidential disability.