Howard University address.
When John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Lyndon Johnson (1908-1973) became president. The most pressing domestic issue was civil rights, and Johnson became an effective advocate of social legislation, which he called his "Great Society" program. In response to his leadership, Congress passed a major civil rights act, federal aid to education, an antipoverty program, and federal protection for voting rights.
Johnson devoted his commencement address at Howard University on June 4, 1965, to explaining why legal equality was not enough to satisfy the aspirations of black Americans for full participation in American society. Johnson wanted to be remembered for his contributions to the health, education, and welfare of the American people, but his administration became ensnared by the Vietnam War, which consumed his energies and a large portion of the national budget. After completing one full term in office, Johnson did not run again for the presidency.
In far too many ways American Negroes have been another nation; deprived of freedom, crippled by hatred, the doors of opportunity closed to hope.
In our time change has come to this nation. The American Negro, acting with impressive restraint, has peacefully protested and marched, entered the courtrooms and the seats of government, demanding a justice that has long been denied. The voice of the Negro was the call to action. But it is a tribute to America that, once aroused, the courts and the Congress, the President and most of the people, have been the allies of progress.
The voting rights bill will be the latest, and among the most important, in a long series of victories. But this victory--as Winston Churchill said of another triumph for freedom--"is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."
That beginning is freedom; and the barriers to that freedom are tumbling down. Freedom is the right to share, share fully and equally, in American society--to vote, to hold a job, to enter a public place, to go to school. It is the right to be treated in every part of our national life as a person equal in dignity and promise to all others.
But freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.
You do not take a person who for years has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, "you are free to compete with all the others," and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.
Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.
This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.
Of course Negro Americans as well as white Americans have shared in our rising national abundance. But the harsh fact of the matter is that in the battle for true equality too many--far too many--are losing ground every day.
We are not completely sure why this is. We know the causes are complex and subtle. But we do know the two broad basic reasons. And we do know that we have to act.
First, Negroes are trapped--as many whites are trapped--in inherited, gateless poverty. They lack training and skills. They are shut in, in slums, without decent medical care. Private and public poverty combine to cripple their capacities.
We are trying to attack these evils through our poverty program, through our education program, through our medical care and our other health programs, and a dozen more of the Great Society programs that are aimed at the root causes of this poverty.
We will increase, and we will accelerate, and we will broaden this attack in years to come until this most enduring of foes finally yields to our unyielding will.
But there is a second cause--much more difficult to explain, more deeply grounded, more desperate in its force. It is the devastating heritage of long years of slavery; and a century of oppression, hatred, and injustice.
For Negro poverty is not white poverty. Many of its causes and many of its cures are the same. But there are differences--deep, corrosive, obstinate differences--radiating painful roots into the community, and into the family, and the nature of the individual.
These differences are not racial differences. They are solely and simply the consequence of ancient brutality, past injustice, and present prejudice. They are anguishing to observe. For the Negro they are a constant reminder of oppression. For the white they are a constant reminder of guilt. But they must be faced and they must be dealt with and they must be overcome, if we are ever to reach the time when the only difference between Negroes and whites is the color of their skin.
Nor can we find a complete answer in the experience of other American minorities. They made a valiant and a largely successful effort to emerge from poverty and prejudice.
The Negro, like these others, will have to rely mostly upon his own efforts. But he just cannot do it alone. For they did not have the heritage of centuries to overcome, and they did not have a cultural tradition which had been twisted and battered by endless years of hatred and hopelessness, nor were they excluded--these others--because of race or color--a feeling whose dark intensity is matched by no other prejudice in our society.
Nor can these differences be understood as isolated infirmities. They are a seamless web. They cause each other. They result from each other. They reinforce each other.
Much of the Negro community is buried under a blanket of history and circumstance. It is not a lasting solution to lift just one corner of that blanket. We must stand on all sides and we must raise the entire cover if we are to liberate our fellow citizens.
Perhaps most important--its influence radiating to every part of life--is the breakdown of the Negro family structure. For this, most of all, white America must accept responsibility. It flows from centuries of oppression and persecution of the Negro man. It flows from the long years of degradation and discrimination, which have attacked his dignity and assaulted his ability to produce for his family.
The family is the cornerstone of our society. More than any other force it shapes the attitude, the hopes, the ambitions, and the values of the child. And when the family collapses it is the children that are usually damaged. When it happens on a massive scale the community itself is crippled.
So, unless we work to strengthen the family, to create conditions under which most parents will stay together, all the rest--schools, and playgrounds, and public assistance, and private concern--will never be enough to cut completely the circle of despair and deprivation.
There is no single easy answer to all of these problems.
Jobs are part of the answer. They bring the income which permits a man to provide for his family.
Decent homes in decent surroundings and a chance to learn--an equal chance to learn--are part of the answer.
Welfare and social programs better designed to hold families together are part of the answer.
Care for the sick is part of the answer.
An understanding heart by all Americans is another big part of the answer.
And to all of these fronts--and a dozen more--I will dedicate the expanding efforts of the Johnson Administration.
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|Title Annotation:||Lyndon B. Johnson's 1965 speech|
|Publication:||The American Reader|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1991|
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