Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society Speech (1964). The American Economy: A Historical Encyclopedia

The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and early 1960s shed
light on the economic plight of African Americans as well as
that of other less prosperous sectors of the United States. The
Johnson Administration proposed a series of programs designed
to address the needs of the poor, especially in the areas of
education, health care, and housing. President Lyndon B.
Johnson outlined the new policy, known as the Great Society, in
a speech at the University of Michigan on May 22, 1964.

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Remarks at the University of
Michigan on May 22, 1964.
President Hatcher, Governor Romney, Senators McNamara and Hart, Congressmen Meader and Staebler, and other
members of the fine Michigan delegation, members of the
graduating class, my fellow Americans:
It is a great pleasure to be here today. This university has
been coeducational since 1870, but I do not believe it was on
the basis of your accomplishments that a Detroit high school
girl said, “In choosing a college, you first have to decide
whether you want a coeducational school or an educational
Well, we can find both here at Michigan, although perhaps
at different hours.
I came out here today very anxious to meet the Michigan
student whose father told a friend of mine that his son’s education had been a real value. It stopped his mother from
bragging about him.
I have come today from the turmoil of your Capital to the
tranquility of your campus to speak about the future of your
The purpose of protecting the life of our Nation and preserving the liberty of our citizens is to pursue the happiness
of our people. Our success in that pursuit is the test of our
success as a Nation.
For a century we labored to settle and to subdue a continent. For half a century we called upon unbounded invention
and untiring industry to create an order of plenty for all of
our people.
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
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 our 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
it 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.
So I want to talk to you today about three places where we
begin to build the Great Society—in our cities, in our countryside, and in our classrooms.

Many of you will live to see the day, perhaps 50 years from
now, when there will be 400 million Americans—four-fifths
of them in urban areas. In the remainder of this century
urban population will double, city land will double, and we
will have to build homes, highways, and facilities equal to all
those built since this country was first settled. So in the next
40 years we must rebuild the entire urban United States.
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
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.
I understand that if I stayed here tonight I would see that
Michigan students are really doing their best to live the good
This is the place where the Peace Corps was started. It is
inspiring to see how all of you, while you are in this country,
are trying so hard to live at the level of the people.
A second place where we begin to build the Great Society
is in our countryside. We have always prided ourselves on
being not only America the strong and America the free, but
America the beautiful. Today that beauty is in danger. The
water we drink, the food we eat, the very air that we breathe,
are threatened with pollution. Our parks are overcrowded,
our seashores overburdened. Green fields and dense forests
are disappearing.
A few years ago we were greatly concerned about the “Ugly
American.” Today we must act to prevent an ugly America.
For once the battle is lost, once our natural splendor is
destroyed, it can never be recaptured. And once man can no
longer walk with beauty or wonder at nature his spirit will
wither and his sustenance be wasted.
A third place to build the Great Society is in the classrooms of America. There your children’s lives will be shaped.
Our society will not be great until every young mind is set
free to scan the farthest reaches of thought and imagination.
We are still far from that goal.
Today, 8 million adult Americans, more than the entire
population of Michigan, have not finished 5 years of school.
Nearly 20 million have not finished 8 years of school. Nearly
54 million—more than one-quarter of all America—have
not even finished high school.
Each year more than 100,000 high school graduates, with
proved ability, do not enter college because they cannot
afford it. And if we cannot educate today’s youth, what will
we do in 1970 when elementary school enrollment will be 5
million greater than 1960? And high school enrollment will
rise by 5 million. College enrollment will increase by more
than 3 million.
In many places, classrooms are overcrowded and curricula
are outdated. Most of our qualified teachers are underpaid,
and many of our paid teachers are unqualified. So we must
give every child a place to sit and a teacher to learn from.
Poverty must not be a bar to learning, and learning must
offer an escape from poverty.
But more classrooms and more teachers are not enough.
We must seek an educational system which grows in excellence as it grows in size. This means better training for our
teachers. It means preparing youth to enjoy their hours of
leisure as well as their hours of labor. It means exploring new
techniques of teaching, to find new ways to stimulate the love
of learning and the capacity for creation.
These are three of the central issues of the Great Society.
While our Government has many programs directed at those
issues, I do not pretend that we have the full answer to those
But I do promise this: We are going to assemble the best
thought and the broadest knowledge from all over the world
to find those answers for America. I intend to establish working groups to prepare a series of White House conferences
and meetings—on the cities, on natural beauty, on the quality of education, and on other emerging challenges. And from
these meetings and from this inspiration and from these
studies we will begin to set our course toward the Great
The solution to these problems does not rest on a massive
program in Washington, nor can it rely solely on the strained
resources of local authority. They require us to create new
concepts of cooperation, a creative federalism, between the
National Capital and the leaders of local communities.
Woodrow Wilson once wrote: “Every man sent out from
his university should be a man of his Nation as well as a man
of his time.”
Within your lifetime powerful forces, already loosed, will
take us toward a way of life beyond the realm of our experience, almost beyond the bounds of our imagination.
For better or for worse, your generation has been appointed by history to deal with those problems and to lead
America toward a new age. You have the chance never before
afforded to any people in any age. You can help build a society where the demands of morality, and the needs of the
spirit, can be realized in the life of the Nation.
So, will you join in the battle to give every citizen the full
equality which God enjoins and the law requires, whatever
his belief, or race, or the color of his skin?
Will you join in the battle to give every citizen an escape
from the crushing weight of poverty?
Will you join in the battle to make it possible for all
nations to live in enduring peace—as neighbors and not as
mortal enemies?

Will you join in the battle to build the Great Society, to
prove that our material progress is only the foundation on
which we will build a richer life of mind and spirit?
There are those timid souls who say this battle cannot be
won; that we are condemned to a soulless wealth. I do not
agree. We have the power to shape the civilization that we
want. But we need your will, your labor, your hearts, if we are
to build that kind of society.
Those who came to this land sought to build more than
just a new country. They sought a new world. So I have come
here today to your campus to say that you can make their
vision our reality. So let us from this moment begin our work
so that in the future men will look back and say: It was then,
after a long and weary way, that man turned the exploits of
his genius to the full enrichment of his life.
Thank you. Goodby.