Members of the Howard University graduating class listening to speech by President Johnson. [LBJ Library photo #A603-10A by Yoichi Okamoto]

LBJ’s war on poverty still only partly won

Jun 12, 2013

June 10, 2013
by Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.

[posted on on June 10, 2013]

Fifty years ago this week, Medgar Evers, the NAACP regional secretary in Mississippi, was murdered by a member of the White Citizens’ Council. Evers’ death received national attention, serving only to strengthen the movement for civil rights.

Two years later, President Lyndon Johnson delivered a historic commencement address at Howard University, laying out progress made and challenges unmet. Johnson praised the “indomitable determination” of African Americans demanding their freedom. He hailed the Supreme Court for outlawing segregation, as well as Congress for passing the first civil rights legislation in 100 years.

The barriers to freedom are tumbling down, but “freedom is not enough,” he told the graduates. “You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying, ‘Now you are free to go where you want.’ . . . You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and bring him to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others.’”

“It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity,” the president said. “All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.” This, Johnson concluded, was “the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. 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.”

Johnson understood that ability can be “stretched or stunted” by the accident of birth — the family you are born into, the neighborhood you live in, the school you attend, the poverty or luxury of your surroundings. He noted the progress that had been made in the building of an African-American middle class. But for “the great majority of Negro Americans,” he said, “there is a much grimmer story. They still . . . are another nation.”

Johnson listed some of the “facts of this American failure.” What is stunning is how little progress has been made since. read more