Commencement Speech at Howard University, 6/4/65. MP2265-66.

Commencement Speech at Howard University, 6/4/65. MP2265-66.


Commencement Address at Howard University:
“To Fulfill These Rights.” June 4, 1965. Dr. Nabrit, my fellow Americans: I am delighted at the chance to speak at this
important and this historic institution. Howard has long been an outstanding center for the
education of Negro Americans. Its students are of every race and color and they come
from many countries of the world. It is truly a working example of democratic excellence. Our earth is the home of revolution. In every
corner of every continent men charged with hope contend with ancient ways in the pursuit
of justice. They reach for the newest of weapons to realize the oldest of dreams, that each
may walk in freedom and pride, stretching his talents, enjoying the fruits of the earth. Our enemies may occasionally seize the day
of change, but it is the banner of our revolution they take. And our own future is linked to
this process of swift and turbulent change in many lands in the world. But nothing in
any country touches us more profoundly, and nothing is more freighted with meaning for
our own destiny than the revolution of the Negro American. 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,
too. 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. LEGAL PROTECTION FOR HUMAN RIGHTS Thus we
have seen the high court of the country declare that discrimination based on race was repugnant
to the Constitution, and therefore void. We have seen in 1957, and 1960, and again in
1964, the first civil rights legislation in this Nation in almost an entire century. As majority leader of the United States Senate,
I helped to guide two of these bills through the Senate. And, as your President, I was
proud to sign the third. And now very soon we will have the fourth–a new law guaranteeing
every American the right to vote. No act of my entire administration will give
me greater satisfaction than the day when my signature makes this bill, too, the law
of this land. 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. FREEDOM IS NOT ENOUGH 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. For the task is to give 20 million Negroes
the same chance as every other American to learn and grow, to work and share in society,
to develop their abilities–physical, mental and spiritual, and to pursue their individual
happiness. To this end equal opportunity is essential,
but not enough, not enough. Men and women of all races are born with the same range
of abilities. But ability is not just the product of birth. Ability is stretched or
stunted by the family that you live with, and the neighborhood you live in–by the school
you go to and the poverty or the richness of your surroundings. It is the product of
a hundred unseen forces playing upon the little infant, the child, and finally the man. PROGRESS FOR SOME This graduating class at
Howard University is witness to the indomitable determination of the Negro American to win
his way in American life. The number of Negroes in schools of higher
learning has almost doubled in 15 years. The number of nonwhite professional workers has
more than doubled in 10 years. The median income of Negro college women tonight exceeds
that of white college women. And there are also the enormous accomplishments of distinguished
individual Negroes–many of them graduates of this institution, and one of them the first
lady ambassador in the history of the United States. These are proud and impressive achievements.
But they tell only the story of a growing middle class minority, steadily narrowing
the gap between them and their white counterparts. A WIDENING GULF But for the great majority
of Negro Americans-the poor, the unemployed, the uprooted, and the dispossessed–there
is a much grimmer story. They still, as we meet here tonight, are another nation. Despite
the court orders and the laws, despite the legislative victories and the speeches, for
them the walls are rising and the gulf is widening. Here are some of the facts of this American
failure. Thirty-five years ago the rate of unemployment
for Negroes and whites was about the same. Tonight the Negro rate is twice as high. In 1948 the 8 percent unemployment rate for
Negro teenage boys was actually less than that of whites. By last year that rate had
grown to 23 percent, as against 13 percent for whites unemployed. Between 1949 and 1959, the income of Negro
men relative to white men declined in every section of this country. From 1952 to 1963
the median income of Negro families compared to white actually dropped from 57 percent
to 53 percent. In the years 1955 through 1957, 22 percent
of experienced Negro workers were out of work at some time during the year. In 1961 through
1963 that proportion had soared to 29 percent. Since 1947 the number of white families living
in poverty has decreased 27 percent while the number of poorer nonwhite families decreased
only 3 percent. The infant mortality of nonwhites in 1940
was 70 percent greater than whites. Twenty-two years later it was 90 percent greater. Moreover, the isolation of Negro from white
communities is increasing, rather than decreasing as Negroes crowd into the central cities and
become a city within a city. 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. THE CAUSES OF INEQUALITY 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–‘m inherited, gate-less 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. SPECIAL NATURE OF NEGRO POVERTY 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 can not 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. THE ROOTS OF INJUSTICE One of the differences
is the increased concentration of Negroes in our cities. More than 73 percent of all
Negroes live in urban areas compared with less than 70 percent of the whites. Most of
these Negroes live in slums. Most of these Negroes live together–a separated people. Men are shaped by their world. When it is
a world of decay, ringed by an invisible wall, when escape is arduous and uncertain, and
the saving pressures of a more hopeful society are unknown, it can cripple the youth and
it can desolate the men. There is also the burden that a dark skin
can add to the search for a productive place in our society. Unemployment strikes most
swiftly and broadly at the Negro, and this burden erodes hope. Blighted hope breeds despair.
Despair brings indifferences to the learning which offers a way out. And despair, coupled
with indifferences, is often the source of destructive rebellion against the fabric of
society. There is also the lacerating hurt of early
collision with white hatred or prejudice, distaste or condescension. Other groups have
felt similar intolerance. But success and achievement could wipe it away. They do not
change the color of a man’s skin. I have seen this uncomprehending pain in the eyes of the
little, young Mexican-American schoolchildren that I taught many years ago. But it can be
overcome. But, for many, the wounds are always open. FAMILY BREAKDOWN 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. This, too, is not pleasant to look upon. But
it must be faced by those whose serious intent is to improve the life of all Americans. Only a minority–less than half–of all Negro
children reach the age of 18 having lived all their lives with both of their parents.
At this moment, tonight, little less than two-thirds are at home with both of their
parents. Probably a majority of all Negro children receive federally-aided public assistance
sometime during their childhood. 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. TO FULFILL THESE RIGHTS 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. But there are other answers that are still
to be found. Nor do we fully understand even all of the problems. Therefore, I want to
announce tonight that this fall I intend to call a White House conference of scholars,
and experts, and outstanding Negro leaders–men of both races–and officials of Government
at every level. This White House conference’s theme and title
will be “To Fulfill These Rights.” Its object will be to help the American Negro
fulfill the rights which, after the long time of injustice, he is finally about to secure. To move beyond opportunity to achievement. To shatter forever not only the barriers of
law and public practice, but the walls which bound the condition of many by the color of
his skin. To dissolve, as best we can, the antique enmities
of the heart which diminish the holder, divide the great democracy, and do wrong–great wrong–to
the children of God. And I pledge you tonight that this will be
a chief goal of my administration, and of my program next year, and in the years to
come. And I hope, and I pray, and I believe, it will be a part of the program of all America. WHAT IS JUSTICE For what is justice? It is to fulfill the fair expectations of
man. Thus, American justice is a very special thing.
For, from the first, this has been a land of towering expectations. It was to be a nation
where each man could be ruled by the common consent of all–enshrined in law, given life
by institutions, guided by men themselves subject to its rule. And all–all of every
station and origin–would be touched equally in obligation and in liberty. Beyond the law lay the land. It was a rich
land, glowing with more abundant promise than man had ever seen. Here, unlike any place
yet known, all were to share the harvest. And beyond this was the dignity of man. Each
could become whatever his qualities of mind and spirit would permit–to strive, to seek,
and, if he could, to find his happiness. This is American justice. We have pursued
it faithfully to the edge of our imperfections, and we have failed to find it for the American
Negro. So, it is the glorious opportunity of this
generation to end the one huge wrong of the American Nation and, in so doing, to find
America for ourselves, with the same immense thrill of discovery which gripped those who
first began to realize that here, at last, was a home for freedom. All it will take is for all of us to understand
what this country is and what this country must become. The Scripture promises: “I shall light a candle
of understanding in thine heart, which shall not be put out.” Together, and with millions more, we can light
that candle of understanding in the heart of all America. And, once lit, it will never again go out.

13 thoughts on “Commencement Speech at Howard University, 6/4/65. MP2265-66.

  1. Thank you. I was assigned this speech for one of my classes, and listening to it is so much better than reading it.

  2. Why is this in black and white? What's that? It's 50 years old???

    … This speech could have been delivered last week.

  3. President Johnson could have went down as America's greatest president since President Franklin D. Roosevelt if he hadn't furthered America in the the Vietnam war

  4. This was a conscious speech. President LBJ did something Obama could not do. With tears in my eyes that I can say, we are one country and we have to live together. "Our destiny is tied together and we have one cord". We should love one another. And let no one brings us division.

  5. Try reading: The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap. By:Mehrsa Baradaran. A great book, that enlightened this Generation Xer, and brought me here.

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