Lyndon Johnson, Howard University Commencement Address (1965)

Lyndon Johnson, Howard University Commencement Address (1965)

On June 4, 1965, President Johnson delivered the commencement address at Howard University, the nation’s most prominent historically black university. In his address, Johnson explained why “opportunity” was not enough to ensure the civil rights of disadvantaged Americans.

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 down. 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.

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 do 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.

Thus it is not enough just 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. 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.

For what is justice?

It is to fulfill the fair expectations of man.

Thus, American justice is a very special thing. For, from the first, this has been a land of towering expectations. It was to be a nation where each man could be ruled by the common consent of all–enshrined in law, given life by institutions, guided by men themselves subject to its rule. And all–all of every station and origin–would be touched equally in obligation and in liberty.

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.

All it will take is for all of us to understand what this country is and what this country 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 all America.

And, once lit, it will never again go out.

[Source: Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965. Volume II, entry 301, pp. 635-640. Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1966. Available online via LBJ Library (]