It is commencement season, and prominent leaders are appearing at colleges and universities across the country to offer words of encouragement and inspiration to new graduates. Few of their speeches will herald so important a shift in America’s public agenda as that made fifty years ago today, when President Lyndon Johnson described his vision of a “Great Society” in a commencement address at the University of Michigan. Nevertheless, Johnson’s speech, in outlining a view of the progressive movement of American history, bears comparison with Franklin Roosevelt’s “Commonwealth Club Address” in 1932. Johnson told young adults coming of age in 1964 that
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 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 our time. But that is just the beginning. . . .