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Presidential Words Matter: LBJ 1965 Howard University Commencement Address

Season 3, Ep. 25

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.

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Our guest today served as the 37thDeputy Attorney Generalof the United States from April 2017 until May 2019. Prior to his appointment, he served as aUnited States Attorneyfor theDistrict of Maryland. At the time of his confirmation as Deputy Attorney General on April 25, 2017, he was the nation's longest-serving U.S. Attorney. The Senate approved his nomination by a vote of 94-6.We are so excited to announce that Words Matter Media is partnering with CAFE Studios to bring you a new season of the Words Matter podcast. CAFE strives to inform its listeners about the most critical issues of the day.Each week, Katie and Joe will do their best to bring facts and context to the often fraught political conversations that dominate our national discourse.They’ll be speaking with an array of guests, including people who have made a great impact on American politics or who make it their business to understand what’s really happening in Washington.For now, you can continue to listen to episodes of Words Matter for free.In the coming weeks the show will be available exclusively to members of CAFÉ Insider.We hope you’ll consider joining the Insider community, whose members enjoy a collection of podcasts created for engaged citizens around the world.You can head to https://cafe.com/offer/words-matter/ to get 2 free weeks of membership.You’ll get access to all future episodes of Words Matter and other exclusive content including the Insider podcast co-hosted by Preet Bharara, former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York and Anne Milgram, former Attorney General of New Jersey, along with much more excusive content. https://cafe.com/offer/words-matter/