Lyndon B. Johnson, Commencement Address at Howard University (1965)
Our earth is the home of revolution.
In every corner of every continent men charged with hope contend with ancient ways in 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. But nothing, in any country, touches us more profoundly, 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. Heroically, the American Negro-acting with impressive restraint-has peacefully protested and marched, entered the courtrooms and the seats of government, demanding a justice long 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.
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, 1960, and again in 1964-the first civil rights legislation in almost a century. . . .
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. Freedom is the right to 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 man 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, do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.
You do not take a man who, for years, has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race, saying "you are free to compete with all the others," and still justly believe you have been completely fair.
Thus it is not enough 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-not just legal equity but human ability-not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and a result.
For the task is to give twenty 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. Men and women of all races are born with the same range of abilities. But ability is not just the product of birth. It is stretched or stunted by the family you live with, and the neighborhood you live in-by the school you go to, and the poverty or richness of your surroundings. It is the product of a hundred unseen forces playing upon the infant, the child, and the man.
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 high learning has almost doubled in fifteen years. The number of nonwhite professional workers has more than doubled in ten years. The median income of Negro college women now exceeds that of white college women. And these are the enormous accomplishments of distinguished individual Negroes-many of them graduates of this institution.
These are proud and impressive achievements. But they only tell the story of a growing middle class minority, steadily narrowing the gap between them and their white counterparts.
But for the great majority of Negro Americans-the poor, the unemployed, the uprooted and dispossessed-there is a grimmer story. They still are another nation. Despite the court orders and the laws, the victories and speeches, for them the walls are rising and the gulf is widening. . . .
We are not completely sure why this is. The causes are complex and subtle. But we do know the two broad basic reasons. And we know 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 slums, without decent medical care. Private and public poverty combine to cripple their capacities.
We are attacking these evils through our poverty program, our education program, our health program and a dozen more-aimed at the root causes of poverty.
We will increase, and accelerate, and broaden this attack in years to come, until this most enduring of foes yields to our unyielding will.
But there is a second cause-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, 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 reminder of oppression. For the white they are a reminder of guilt. But they must be faced, and dealt with, and overcome; if we are 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 largely successful effort to emerge from poverty and prejudice. The Negro, like these others, will have to rely mostly on his own efforts. But he cannot do it alone. For they did not have the heritage of centuries to overcome. They did not have a cultural tradition which had been twisted and battered by endless years of hatred and hopelessness. Nor were they excluded 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. We must stand on all sides and raise the entire cover if we are to liberate our fellow citizens.
One of the differences is the increased concentration of Negroes in our cities. More than 73 per cent of all Negroes live in urban areas compared with less than 70 per cent of whites. Most of them live in slums. And most of them 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 desolate the man.
There is also the burden a dark skin can add to the search for a productive place in society. Unemployment strikes most swiftly and broadly at the Negro. This burden erodes hope. Blighted hope breeds despair. Despair brings indifference to the learning which offers a way out. And despair coupled with indifference is often the source of destructive rebellion against the fabric of society. . . .
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 provide for his family. . . .
Unless we work to strengthen the family-to create conditions under which most parents will stay together-all the rest: schools and playgrounds, public assistance and private concern-will not be enough to cut completely the circle of despair and deprivation.
There is no single easy answer to all 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 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 also part of the answer.
To all these fronts-and a dozen more-I will dedicate the expanding efforts of my administration. . . .
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 it 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 America.
And, once lit, it will never go out.