“Where flowers bloom, so does hope.”
-Lady Bird Johnson
The American 1960’s were a time of great change and, now more than ever, this period of American history is important to reflect upon. At the dawn of the 1960’s, Americans believed that the 60’s would be a decade of American excellence. In a way it was, though not for the reason that most people would expect.
During this decade, America would be the stage for second wave feminism, protests against the Vietnam War, peaceful protests and rallies against the separate but equal racial laws of the time, the dawn of both the gay rights movement and the environmentalist movement. The country would also bear witness to the assassinations of both Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy. It would also host the ‘summer of love’ at the very end of the decade which featured Woodstock, the Manson Family Murders and the Apollo 11 moon landing.
By the end of the decade, the American community and consensus was shattered. The 1960’s era remains a mixed bag— it brought both empowerment and horrible polarization, liberation and terrible tragedy.
After roughly a thousand days in office, President Kennedy was murdered and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as the 36th President of the United States. Johnson’s presidency was not one that he had anticipated or even necessarily wanted. What many historians will agree on, is that the brightest part of Johnson’s life was his wife Lady Bird, who was full of southern charm, intelligence and tenacity.
Lady Bird Johnson was born Claudia Alta Taylor on December 22, 1912 on an old plantation in Austin, Texas. Despite Claudia being her given name, she was called Lady Bird her whole life and this nickname virtually replaced her given name— Lady Bird is even how she signed her marriage certificate. Lady Bird was the daughter of one of the largest landowners in the United States at the time and spent most of her younger years roaming her family’s land in the bayous of East Texas, wandering through the tall pine trees and watching the wildflowers bloom.
“Almost every person, from childhood, has been touched by the untamed beauty of wildflowers.”
Lady Bird was meticulous in her studies, she graduated top of her high school class and went on to attend the University of Texas at Austin to pursue a degree in journalism. Despite having no intentions of finding a husband so early on, she met Lyndon Johnson during her first year at university and he proposed on their very first date and, three months later, they were married.
Lady Bird was the one to fund her husband’s first congressional run. In addition to supporting her husband’s political dreams, she also managed his congressional office when Johnson enlisted in the Navy at the outset of WWII. Later, when Johnson was campaigning with John F. Kennedy in 1960, Lady Bird was with them for every stop of the campaign trail as Jacqueline Kennedy was pregnant and unable to join them on the campaign trail.
In November of 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated and Johnson was sworn in as the 36th President of the United States and Lady Bird Johnson stepped into the role of First Lady of the United States as if it was made for her.
Lady Bird is considered to be the most effective First Lady since Eleanor Roosevelt. Lady Bird broke new ground as a First Lady. She was the first in her position to directly interact with Congress, to have her own press secretary and the first to have made a solo electioneering tour. Historians cite Lady Bird Johnson for the invention of the job of the modern First Lady.
“My heart found its home long ago in the beauty, mystery, order and disorder of the flowering earth. I wanted future generations to be able to savor what I had all my life.”
As First Lady, Lady Bird started the capital beautification project, the Society for a More Beautiful Capital. It was intended to improve the physical condition of Washington, D.C. for both the residents and visitors to the capital by planting millions of flowers around the capital, along the roadways and on National Park Service land.
Lady Bird believed that beauty, and generally clean streets, would make the United States a better place to live. The First Lady organized the White House Conference on National Beauty to draw activists and possible donors to her cause, this convention was chaired by businessman and conservationist Laurance Rockefeller. Knowing the power of the press, Lady Bird would also lead busloads of newsmen and women on tours of inner city neighborhoods and natural sites to emphasize the need for improving the environment. During this time, Lady Bird also worked extensively with the American Association of Nurserymen (AAN) Executive Vice President Robert F. Lederer to protect wildflowers and natural beauty. Because of these efforts, similar projects were started across the country.
“…the environment is where we all meet, where we all have a mutual interest; it is the one thing all of us share. It is not only a mirror of ourselves, but a focusing lens on what we can become.”
To make the National Mall more attractive, the First Lady called for volunteers to begin replacing, in her words, “a dispirited sprig of grass” with beautiful “shrubs and flowers.” Her call to action was met and thousands of trees and plants were added to the capital’s landscape— including two million daffodil bulbs. All of this happened in just four years.
Lady Bird also championed Project Pride, which enlisted college students and school children in cleaning up trash in low-income areas. Programs also invited families to take part in bettering their communities. Each year, the blooming flowers and trees in Washington, D.C. are a testament to the work and the legacy of Lady Bird Johnson.
“In a nutshell, the program is: masses of flowers where masses pass. Water, lights and color— mass of flowers— those things spell beautification.”
Her passion for wildflowers is what led her to lobby Congress to pass the Highway Beautification Act (HBA), which was kindly nicknamed ‘Lady Bird’s Bill.’ Besides promoting the planting of wildflowers along highways, this bill also limited billboards that were allowed along the interstate highways and roadways as well as planting in roadside areas and rest stops. In addition to this, the act also required junkyards along the interstate to either be removed or screened. The Highway Beautification Act was passed and signed on October 22, 1965 and created section 131, title 23 of the United States Code.
The Highway Beautification Act was a push in the direction of environmentalism. Though the name ‘beautification’ can make the bill sound frivolous, given the time, the actual focus was on protecting the natural beauty of the United States and to bring more greenery into urban areas. Lady Bird firmly believed that adding plants and parks to cities and along the highway not only would make the sights more enjoyable but would also lift the morale of the general public.
“My criteria for the project are that it receives the fullest use, that it can be maintained easily, and the desire emanate from the neighborhood and its people.”
To promote the beautification act across the country, Lady Bird worked with the postmaster general Larry O’Brien to come up with a set of four stamps that would represent a different area that had been improved by the program. Because of Lady Bird’s close relationship with O’Brien, she was able to review, comment and approve the preliminary stamp designs— a job that is usually up to a board of thirteen civilian trustees.
Lady Bird was particularly drawn towards the concept art that famous illustrator Gyo Fujikawa came up with. Fujikawa was born and raised in Berkeley, CA and would become a prolific creator of more than 50 books for children. Early on, she worked for the Walt Disney Company before moving out to New York. She is one of the earliest illustrators to demand royalties for her work instead of a flat rate. The ‘Plant More’ stamps to promote Lady Bird’s beautification project are not the only stamps that she created for the United States Postal Service, she also created the famous United States-Japan Treaty centenary stamp.
Lady Bird’s ‘Plant More’ stamps, with illustration by Gyo Fujikawa, quickly became very popular with the general public, especially with gardening and floral interest groups. The initial printing of 120 million stamps was not enough as they quickly sold out and subsequent printings were ordered. These stamps 6¢ were considered some of the most attractive stamps of the time.
“Art is the window to man’s soul, without it, he would never be able to see beyond his immediate world; nor could the world see the man within.”
This bill, Lady Bird’s movement, was so impactful that she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1988, which are the highest honors that can be bestowed upon a United States civilian. During the Johnson administration, over 200 laws related to the environment were passed including the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Program. These were in large part due to Lady Bird’s insistence that the land needs to be taken care of because it is the only home we’ve ever had.
President Lyndon B. Johnson died, only four years after his presidency ended, in 1973. After his death, Lady Bird focused her attention on the Austin riverfront area through her involvement in the Town Lake Beautification Project. Lady Bird would also serve on the National Park Service Advisory Board and was the first woman to serve on the National Geographic Society’s Board of Trustees.
In 1982, Lady Bird and actress Helen Hayes founded the National Wildflower Research Center just west of Austin, Texas as a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and reintroducing native plants in planned landscapes. The center is located in part of the distinctive Texas hill country and straddles both Edwards Plateau and the Texas Blackland Prairies ecosystems. Later, in 1994, the center opened a new facility southwest of Austin and they changed the name to ‘The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’ just one year later. Lady Bird was able to raise millions of dollars for this nonprofit organization over the years and in 2006, her alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin officially incorporated the center into its campus.
“I think there is no legacy she [Lady Bird] would more treasure than to have helped people recognize the value in preserving and promoting our native land.”
-Luci Baines Johnson
Creating a visually stimulating environment was only one part of Lady Bird’s long-term plan. Conservation was not just about protecting natural spaces but also recognizing how those natural spaces are more sustainable than anything humanity can create. Wildflowers conserve water, reduce the need for mowing and provide a home for butterflies, birds and other wildlife. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center has become a home to over 970 plant species, as well as a resource for growing and maintaining wildflowers everywhere.
The legacy of Lady Bird’s project can still be seen today. It can be seen driving through the interstates and not seeing a billboard every three feet. It can be seen all across Washington, D.C. and even in Austin, Texas where Lady Bird grew up and would later plant her wildflower center. When someone goes to visit the capital they are filled with the sights of flowers and trees in the middle of a city and can have lunch on a bench next to a beautiful water fountain. All of this is Lady Bird’s legacy. She invested her life into something that would outlive her, she invested her life into something that could bring simple happiness for generations to come and instilled in the American people a will to put effort into their community and into the nature that surrounds them. This is the legacy of Lady Bird.
“Though the word ‘beautification’ makes the concept sound merely cosmetic, it involves much more: clean water, clean air, clean roadsides, safe waste disposal and preservation of valued landmarks as well as great parks and wilderness areas. To me, beautification means our total concern for the physical and human quality we pass on to our children and the future.”