Lyndon Johnson delivered the commencement address at Howard University in June 1965.
  • AP
  • Lyndon Johnson delivered the commencement address at Howard University in June 1965.

A half century ago this month, the U.S. economy was booming, Democrats controlled Congress, and a Democrat bent on helping the disadvantaged was in the White House. The nation seemed poised to confront its most stubborn social problems—even, perhaps, the chasm between black America and the rest of America.

The hopeful period peaked on the evening of June 4, 1965—50 years ago tomorrow—when President Lyndon Johnson delivered a remarkable commencement address at Howard University in Washington. Howard is a predominantly black college, and most of the 5,000 seated in the campus’s main quadrangle were African-American.

“It is the glorious opportunity of this generation to end the one huge wrong of the American nation,” Johnson said.

That wrong was the country’s treatment of its black citizens. And that wrong, Johnson believed, was not going to be corrected with the passage of laws that made blacks equal to whites legally, but left them greatly subordinate economically. “We’ve got to find a way to let Negroes get what most white folks already have,” Johnson told his speechwriter, Richard Goodwin, a few days before the address. “We can’t do everything at once, but we can make people feel a little guilty about not doing it. We’ve got the biggest pulpit in the world up here, and we ought to use it to do a little preaching.”

He asked Goodwin, then 33, to bear that in mind as he wrote the speech for the Howard commencement.

In the address, Johnson briefly listed the nation’s recent civil rights victories, including a voting rights bill that was on its way to passage in Washington. The speech, however, was anything but celebratory. Johnson was brutally candid about America’s enduring racism, and how African-Americans had suffered because of it.

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

The civil rights laws were essential but not sufficient, Johnson told his audience. “Freedom is not enough. 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.”

Notwithstanding the legislative victories, by all conventional measures—unemployment, median income, poverty, infant mortality—the status of blacks was worsening compared to that of whites, the president observed: “The walls are rising and the gulf is widening.”

And while the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had outlawed the kind of racial segregation that had predominated in public accommodations and schools in the south, segregation was growing in the north, he noted. Most blacks in northern cities were confined to slums, living in “a world of decay, ringed by an invisible wall.”

So it was time for “the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights,” Johnson said—a stage in which the nation would pursue “not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact, and equality as a result.”

How could America achieve this? Jobs were part of the answer, Johnson said. Another part was an expansion of the antipoverty programs his administration had been introducing. In his state of the union address in January 1964, LBJ had declared an “unconditional war on poverty” in America. At Howard, he pledged to accelerate and broaden that war.

Then he spoke of another cause of the nation’s racial gulf: the “breakdown of the Negro family structure”—in particular, the fact that fathers were missing from many black families. Twenty-three percent of nonwhite families were headed by a single woman, compared with 9 percent of white families. “For this, most of all, white America must accept responsibility,” the president said. “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 problem “is not pleasant to look upon,” Johnson said. “But it must be faced by those whose serious intent is to improve the life of all Americans.”

A conference titled “To Fulfill These Rights” would be convened at the White House in the fall, he said, at which scholars, experts, and civil rights leaders, black and white, would develop solutions for such problems, and a plan for the next stage in the battle for civil rights.

The speech was warmly received by the Howard audience, and Johnson soon received a telegram from Dr. Martin Luther King: “Never before has a president articulated the depths and dimensions of the problem of racial injustice more eloquently and profoundly.”

Johnson had spoken “as no President ever has spoken” about the country’s racial problems, Douglas Kiker wrote in the New York Herald Tribune. He’d called for “the full, true assimilation of the Negro into the mainstream of U.S. society,” Kiker wrote, while acknowledging that “this is going to be the most difficult social task in the nation’s history.”

But nothing came of that moment of possibility. In late July, seven weeks after the Howard speech, Johnson announced that he was sending more troops to Vietnam. The nation soon would be mired in that war, which would drain the treasury and leave little for domestic programs. In August, a race riot broke out in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts; the six days of looting and arson by African-Americans turned many white Americans against the civil rights cause. In November, the “To Fulfill These Rights” conference was a disaster, marked by acrimony over the idea that the troubles of black families should be a focus.

Goodwin, the speechwriter who wrote the Howard address, now is 83 and living in Massachusetts with his wife, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. He’s still proud of the speech, he told me yesterday—and profoundly disappointed that its challenge was never met. “Vietnam killed everything in domestic policy,” he said. “The president’s energy and attention were drained away by the war. There was no possibility of moving forward on this issue.” Goodwin left the White House that summer, and later joined the antiwar movement.

So for racial justice, the promising moment was squandered. And by the conventional measures today—unemployment, median income, poverty, and infant mortality—the gap between black America and the rest of the nation is still vast. The proportion of African-American families headed by single parents has climbed from a quarter to two-thirds. Racial segregation has abated only slightly. The “glorious opportunity” to end America’s one huge wrong awaits another generation.