Presidential Words Matter: LBJ 1965 Howard University Commencement Address
On June 4, 1965, President Johnson delivered the commencement address at Howard University, the nation’s most prominent historically black university.
In his address, Johnson explained why “opportunity” was not enough to ensure the civil rights of disadvantaged Americans.
The ‘To Fulfill These Rights’ speech as it is widely known was the intellectual framework for affirmative action.
President Johnson spoke of racial injustice and economic disparities between black and white Americans.
For many in the audience that day, it was one of the first times they felt a president - any president - really acknowledge the treatment of black citizens from slavery to Jim Crow.
As one graduate - Lillian Beard -recalled on the 50th Anniversary - “I believe that afternoon in 1965 changed a lot of minds, because we felt that he spoke directly to us.”
LBJ’s Howard University address came only a few months after he had gone before a Joint session of Congress to speak in support of the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March.
It was in that message to Congress that Johnson famously identified himself with the civil rights movement when he declared, “We shall overcome.”
The Howard speech, which was principally the work of presidential speech writer Richard Goodwin and then-Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan was an extension of Johnson’s March voting-rights speech.
The goal was to take the civil rights movement from one focused on legal justice to one focused on economic justice.
In the Howard speech, Johnson pointed out that the racial barriers to freedom were slowly tumbling down, but instead of resting on that progress and what his administration had done to that point - Johnson went a step further: “Freedom is not enough,” the President told the graduates.
It was important for American society to achieve “equality as a fact and equality as a result.”
The next day President received a telegram from Martin Luther King Jr., telling him, “Never before has a president articulated the depths and dimensions of the problems of racial injustice more eloquently and profoundly.”
Dr. King was not exaggerating the importance of the Howard speech.
In August Johnson would sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law, and two years later, he would appoint Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court, making him the nation’s first black justice.
But unfortunately- the racial transformation Johnson had promised and hoped to bring about when he spoke at Howard did not take place.
55 years later the same underlying conditions exist and the economic disparities LBJ described have not gotten better - far from it. They have gotten exponentially worse.
If we are to fulfill the promise of social and economic justice made By LBJ to Black Americans more than a half century ago - all of us must commit ourselves to radical and immediate change. Anything less would be a monumental failure.