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On this day in 1964: LBJ lifts up ‘Great Society’ policies during U of M commencement 

By: - May 22, 2022 3:49 am

President Lyndon Johnson meets with Michigan political leaders at Cobo Hall in Detroit in 1964. He is joined by former Gov. John Swainson, U.S. Sen. Phil Hart, former Gov. G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams and U.S. Rep. Neil Staebler (D-at large). | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University, Tony Spina Collection

On May 22, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson called on the American government to implement policy ideas that would come to be known as the “Great Society” during spring commencement at the University of Michigan.

He delivered the address before 90,000 people at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. Gov. George Romney, who was later considered a potential GOP presidential candidate against Johnson, was there. So was former Michigan Gov. G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams, who was serving at the time as Johnson’s assistant secretary of state for African affairs. 

The Great Society was a set of policy initiatives, legislation and programs that aimed to eliminate poverty, reduce crime, abolish inequality, and improve the environment.

President Lyndon Johnson (left) at the 1964 University of Michigan spring commencement. | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

“In the next 40 years,” said Johnson, who received an honorary degree from the university, “We must rebuild the entire urban United States.”

Almost one in every five Americans (19%) lived in poverty, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics. 

Johnson, a liberal Democrat who assumed the presidency after John F. Kennedy was fatally shot Nov. 22, 1963, used the “Great Society” term nine times, and asked four questions during the 15-minute address: 

“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 build a richer life of mind and spirit?” 

The Great Society policy initiative helped to influence important federal legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the creation of Head Start, Medicaid and Medicare programs. 

Johnson served as president until January 1969. He died on Jan. 22, 1973. 

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.

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