On June 4, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson gave a historic commencement address at Howard University in Washington, D.C., but the remarks that the president delivered 50 years ago still feel 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, graduate of Howard University Class of 1966. “It’s a speech that in many sad ways has the same resonance today that it had 50 years ago.”
But on that day, some of those in attendance were skeptical about why Johnson had come to the historically black college. “The way I looked at it was, he just needed a backdrop to make a policy speech,” remarked Paul Smith, Howard Class of 1966. Patrick Swygert, former president of Howard and a graduate of the Class of 1965, said, “There was a tremendous sense of anticipation as to what President Johnson might say.”
The ‘To Fulfill These Rights’ speech is widely known as the intellectual framework for affirmative action. Johnson spoke of racial injustice and economic disparities between blacks and whites. “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,” Johnson said.
For many of those in the audience that day, it was the first time they felt the president acknowledge the treatment of black citizens from slavery to Jim Crow. “I believe that afternoon in 1965 changed a lot of minds, because we felt that he spoke directly to us,” said Lillian Beard, a graduate of the Class of 1965.
“It was as if folk were saying, ‘At last, we have a president.’ And I mean that quite literally,” Swygert said.
But half a century after Johnson delivered that speech, it still resonates for many today. “It’s disheartening, disappointing that it seems like some of the gains that we made as we came along and as we were thinking of our children … and we find that we are fighting for some of the same things,” said Pricilla Harris Wallace, graduate of Howard’s School of Social Work. “True, 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.”
“The more things change, the more they don’t change,” said Smith. And quoting Winston Churchill, as Johnson did in his 1965 address: “I think that may be where we are. Maybe ‘the end of the beginning.’ “