FIFTY YEARS AGO THIS WEEK, on May 22, 1964, Lyndon Baines Johnson stood before that year’s graduating class at the University of Michigan and delivered the speech that launched his Great Society program. It is a sad commentary on both the state of our economy and our politics that a Democratic president giving a similar speech today is almost unimaginable.
In a way, Johnson was speaking directly to us, the descendants of those policy makers and visionaries:
“The challenge of the next half-century is whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth [i.e., the fruits of economic progress of the previous 50 years] to enrich and elevate our national life and to advance the quality of our American civilization. Your imagination and your initiative and your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth. For in your time, we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society but upward to the Great Society.”
The mid-1960s were heady days in American society. It was the crest of the post-war economic boom, real progress had been made in racial relations in the South and elsewhere, and the New Deal and the victory in World War II meant that Americans overwhelmingly trusted their government to do the right thing most of the time.
And plenty that LBJ and the 89th Congress did have enduring and positive effects. The Medicare program drastically reduced elderly poverty; Medicaid meant that poor people were no longer crushed by medical debt, or had to go without medical care altogether because of an inability to pay. The Head Start program has been so successful that even many conservatives defend it today. The Civil and Voting Rights Acts made it possible for African Americans to exercise what most people recognize as basic civil rights without interference from the entrenched white power structure of the South.
Less tangibly, there was a flush of idealism in the United States that is hard to convey to today’s more jaded generations. Even if the Great Society had its failures — and it had plenty — they were at least well-intentioned failures. Johnson envisioned completely eliminating poverty in the U.S. in the decades after his programs were enacted. The verdict of history is that, so far at least, this goal has not been achieved. But that does not diminish the value of the Great Society’s successes.
The expectations were pretty straightforward: Provide the poor with the advantages that had built the white American middle class — education, health care, income support, and so on — and then the middle class would be expanded by formerly poor people, and all would live happily ever after.
The factor they failed to take proper measure of was the effects of history.
Sargent Shriver, who led LBJ’s war on poverty in the 1960s, referred to this when he said: “We weren’t quite prepared for the bitterness and the antagonism and the violence — in some cases, the emotional outbursts — that accompanied an effort to alleviate poverty. … There were an awful lot of people, both white and black, who had generations of pent-up feelings. … The placid life of most middle-class Americans was stunned, shocked, by all this social explosion, and then a lot of fear came into the hearts and minds of a lot of middle-class people — not only fear, but then real hostility.”
Having spent the second half of the 1960s in Richmond, California, in a predominantly black neighborhood, I can attest to the rage that suddenly found a national audience at that time. Giving a voice to long-suppressed feelings can be traumatic for everyone concerned. Validating the suffering of people who have been victimized for generations can make the suffering they have experienced suddenly and unbearably vivid. This goes a long way in explaining the social unrest that swept the country in the second half of the 1960s.
There was an opportunity for white, middle class America to sit and listen to that rage, and to appreciate the deep and very real causes of it. To do so would have required heroic levels of humility, because most white Americans were unprepared to acknowledge their complicity — particularly in the form of a long and cold silence — in causing it. But remaining present would mean that the rage would eventually fade away, and what followed would be an opportunity for honest conversation, an airing of grievances, redress of those grievances and, ultimately, reconciliation and healing.
We still have that opportunity. You and I can decide to make America the place envisioned by LBJ. I hope that one day we make that decision, and commit to the difficult but eternally worthy project of making of this nation a more perfect union.