Past Voices – President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973). Commencement Address at Howard University: “To Fulfill These Rights.” June 4, 1965


Introductory Comment

“In far too many ways American Negroes have been another nation: deprived of freedom, crippled by hatred, the doors of opportunity closed to hope.”

Legal Protection for Human Rights

“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 so 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.”

“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.”

A Widening Gulf

“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

“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.”

“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 prejudice.”

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. For the Negro they are a constant reminder of oppression. For the white they are a constant reminder of guilt.”

The Roots of Injustice

“There is also the burden that a dark skin can add to the search for a productive place in our 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.”

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.”

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.”

What is Justice?

“It is to fulfill fair expectations of man.”

“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.”

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