Today is the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s unveiling of his vision of a Great Society, presented in a graduation speech at the University of Michigan in 1964, almost six months to the day after he was sworn in as president after Kennedy’s assassination here in Texas..
If you have any baggage about Johnson — any at all — unpack that suitcase and lay it aside. Let’s look at the radical vision, not the often disappointing results.
Here’s the speech (about 8 minutes) on video. If you prefer reading, you can follow the transcript.
So what is this Great Society? It is a lot like the Beloved Community that Martin Luther King, Jr. described:
The challenge of the next half century is whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization.
Your imagination, 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 Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in out time. But that is just the beginning.
The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.
It is a place where man can renew contact with nature. It is a place which honors creation for its own sake and for what is adds to the understanding of the race. It is a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.
But most of all, the Great Society is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor.
Since the goal of Compassionate San Antonio is to be recognized as a world-class compassionate city, I was especially struck by what he had to say about cities. The issues he describes are the ones we are facing this very minute:
Aristotle said: “Men come together in cities in order to live, but they remain together in order to live the good life.” It is harder and harder to live the good life in American cities today.
The catalog of ills is long: there is the decay of the centers and the despoiling of the suburbs. There is not enough housing for our people or transportation for our traffic. Open land is vanishing and old landmarks are violated.
Worst of all expansion is eroding the precious and time honored values of community with neighbors and communion with nature. The loss of these values breeds loneliness and boredom and indifference.
Our society will never be great until our cities are great. Today the frontier of imagination and innovation is inside those cities and not beyond their borders.
New experiments are already going on. It will be the task of your generation to make the American city a place where future generations will come, not only to live but to live the good life.
A Great Society — a Compassionate City — is one where we treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves, and where we refrain from treating others in ways we would not like to be treated. As LBJ said, this is a challenge constantly renewed. Renewed TODAY.