Study Guide

The Great Society Speech Quotes

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  • Visions of America

    The purpose of protecting the life of our Nation and preserving the liberty of our citizens is to pursue the happiness of our people. (7)

    What is the "pursuit of happiness" anyway, and how does it relate to life and liberty? Can't you be free but unhappy?

    For half a century we called upon unbounded invention and untiring industry to create an order of plenty for all of our people. (10)

    Except for the years of the Great Depression, the American economy was on a steady upward trajectory for the first half of the 20th century. LBJ seems to be saying that this mission is accomplished; now we have to shoot for something higher.

    We have always prided ourselves on being not only America the strong and America the free, but America the beautiful. (44)

    "America the Beautiful" was inspired by an 1893 trip to the Colorado Rockies. Talk about your purple mountain majesties. Lady Bird was a major force in getting her husband to think about the beauty of the natural environment, but as an old Texas ranch-dweller, he spent a lot of time in the great outdoors himself.

    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. (75)

    It takes big people to solve big problems. The Great Society greatly expanded the federal government's role in American life. For liberals, this was the purpose of government—to get involved on the side of the people. For conservatives, it was heresy.

    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. (81)

    To infinity and beyond. Most Americans in the early 1960s were extremely optimistic about their future. Anything seemed possible—even a Great Society. Johnson was right: Who could have imagined back then that Alexa could open up your remote-controlled window shades; that Siri could find the nearest Starbucks and tell you how to get there; or that you'd be able to take photos of your fancy dessert and send them instantly to all your friends? Now that's what we call progress.

  • Society and Class

    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. (12)

    Growth and prosperity are awesome, but Johnson knew that not all Americans had an equal shot. "Indignation" is the word that jumps out here. LBJ and a lot of Great Society proponents didn't understand just how deep indignation ran in some communities. They would soon find out.

    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. (14-15)

    It's important to remember that Johnson was addressing an overwhelmingly white audience. In 1970, an organization of Black student groups at Michigan led a university strike to demand that the administration increase minority enrollment.

    Each year more than 100,000 high school graduates, with proved ability, do not enter college because they cannot afford it. (60)

    Does this sound familiar? We've been having a discussion about the affordability of college for a very long time. Lots of people were feeling the Bern on this issue in 2016. If anything, college is getting much less affordable.

    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? (85)

    Equality is the law of the land. It says so in the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause, and that amendment was ratified in 1868. Now it's 1964 and way past time to make equality a reality. Five weeks after the speech, Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The following August, the Voting Rights Act became law.

    Will you join in the battle to give every citizen an escape from the crushing weight of poverty? (86)

    Johnson's War on Poverty became the centerpiece of his Great Society. About 34 million Americans lived in poverty in 1964. Officially, that meant they had incomes of $3,000 a year or less at a time when the median American income was $6,600. (Today, those numbers are more like 47 million, $24,000, and $54,000.) How's that war going?

  • Spirituality

    (The Great Society) 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. (19)

    The City of Man is one of two symbolic cities conceived by St. Augustine in the 5th century CE. The other city is the City of God (surprise). We live in the city of "earthly" concerns—making money, getting better stuff than your friends, having the coolest clothes. But we should be able to look up from our phones from time to time to focus on the bigger, more beautiful picture.

    It is a place which honors creation for its own sake and for what it adds to the understanding of the race. (21)

    Sad Great-Society-smashing fact: Sesame Street had to be sold to HBO so it could afford to air reruns on PBS. Kids whose families can afford HBO get the first look.

    It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor. (24)

    Soaring rhetoric there: "renewed," "destiny," "meaning." LBJ's reminding his listeners that achieving the Great Society isn't a one-and-done deal. It's a job that's never finished. How are we doing with that challenge today?

    Once man can no longer walk with beauty or wonder at nature his spirit will wither and his sustenance be wasted. (55)

    Makes you think about all those urban garden projects that get city kids, some of whom have never seen a growing vegetable, to get a look (and taste) of the natural world. This just in: Stanford researchers have proven LBJ's belief about nature lifting the spirit to be true.

    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. (84)

    LBJ pushes the idea that morality and spirituality aren't just personal matters. You can build a society where these ideas are manifested in justice and equal opportunity. We're hearing echoes of Dr. King's 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech again: "No, no, we are not satisfied and will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream."

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