Lyndon Johnson's blunt talk about racism 50 years ago at Howard University remains relevant today

Speech provided framework for affirmative action

It isn’t often that the president of the United States opens up about America’s history of racism or about how African Americans have suffered because of it - or about how white America must accept responsibility for these wrongs.  But that is exactly what happened 50 years ago this month when President Lyndon Johnson delivered the commencement address at Howard University in Washington, D.C. And those who were in the crowd June 4, 1965, say what they heard on still feels relevant today.

“I think anyone could give that speech today, and with few exceptions, not recognize that it was something that was related to a 50-year-old occasion,” said Judith Winston, a Howard student at the time who was there. “It’s a speech that in many sad ways has the same resonance today that it had 50 years ago.”

Despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and a voting rights bill that was on its way to getting passed, Johnson told the crowd of mostly African-Americans gathered in the quadrangle that those laws were 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 your leaders please,” he said. It was time for the next and the “more profound stage of the battle for civil rights…”

The speech is known as the intellectual framework for affirmative action. Johnson spoke of a widening gulf between blacks and whites in unemployment, infant mortality and economic opportunity. “It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates,” he said.

“It was good to hear him speak of those things and to realize that he really understood, and not only understood but really wanted to do something about it,” said Pricilla Harris Wallace, graduate of Howard’s School of Social Work. 

Half a century later, Wallace says she is still waiting for things to change, “We’ve made progress along the way, but when you look at things and where we should be as far as race is concerned, economics and other things of that nature, I feel that we’ve gone backwards.”

Pamela Kirkland is a video journalist for The Washington Post. Watch her video on this story here.

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