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Joining the liberal revolution in Washington

Nelson sworn into Congress by VP Johnson

Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) being sworn in as a U.S. Congressman by Vice-President Lyndon Johnson in 1963.  With a strong track record of liberal reforms behind him, upon arriving in the senate in 1963 he immediately signed on as a cosponsor of President Kennedy's civil rights bill and participated in the March on Washington intended to speed its passage.

During his decade in the state senate and his two terms as governor, Gaylord Nelson remained an ardent and outspoken liberal. He believed in using government to address problems that the nation's growing affluence appeared unable to solve. Nelson envisioned "the creation of a social structure founded on quality instead of quantity and moral might instead of military might."

Calling for unprecedented levels of public spending, Nelson asked in his first speech as governor, "Are you willing to give up a few personal luxuries in exchange for a creative investment in our future?" Such a request, Nelson believed, could be made only by a trustworthy government. To that end, he championed restrictions on lobbyists as a state senator and consolidated a sprawling bureaucracy as governor

Racial discrimination represented for Nelson the worst blight on America's promise. In the state senate, he led the effort to integrate Wisconsin's National Guard, and as governor he made it illegal for companies contracted by the state to discriminate on the basis of race or religion.

Upon arriving in the Senate in 1963, he immediately signed on as a cosponsor of President Kennedy's civil rights bill and participated in the March on Washington intended to speed its passage. In 1965, he chided Lyndon Johnson for not doing enough to stop the "lawlessness," "terrorism," and "economic coercion" in the Jim Crow South perpetrated against civil rights activists, for whom Nelson went on to secure federal protections in his amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Nelson spearheaded ethics reform in the Senate and was an early and impassioned critic of the Vietnam War as a misappropriation of public funds needed for crises at home. Brining his environmental experience from Wisconsin, he convinced President Kennedy that a national conservation tour was required to open up an agenda on environmental protection.

He kept his resolve amid the urban unrest of the late 1960s. He attributed the deadly Milwaukee riot of July 1967 to "thousands of citizens with inadequate educations, low incomes, poor housing, and poor job opportunities." As a soldier in Johnson's "War on Poverty," his fervor often exceeded the President's. He proposed a $10 billion program of public works projects and job training, to be administered at the local level. While Johnson committed merely a tenth of that sum, several of Senator Nelson's projects took off, notably his National Teachers Corps, which trained new educators—the majority of whom were people of color—to join the faculties of impoverished schools.

View more Nelson Collection documents about this topic:

A congressional speech by Nelson attacking LBJ for not doing more to prevent domestic terrorism against peaceful civil rights activists.

Speech notes by Nelson on the importance of economic equality for all races and the recent civil unrest, speaking to the National Association of IRS Employees in 1963

Speech notes of Nelson to the national convention of the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) in 1969

A 1964 meeting covering the outline of a prospective book on poverty by Nelson.