Of all the civil rights policies enacted by U.S President Lyndon Johnson, affirmative action is arguably one of the most enduring – and most challenged.
Johnson made it clear during a commencement address at Howard University on June 4, 1965, where he stood.
In his speech, “To Fulfill These Rights,” Johnson argued that civil rights were only as secure as society and the government were willing to make them.
“Nothing in any country touches us more profoundly, and nothing is more freighted with meaning for our own destiny than the revolution of the Negro American,” Johnson said.
In my view as a scholar of the history of affirmative action, Johnson’s speech and the legal structure it helped produce directly contradict those who would dismantle affirmative action and besmirch diversity programs today.
As the Supreme Court looks ready to strike down affirmative action in college admissions, it’s my belief that unlike the court’s conservative majority, Johnson understood that the U.S. could not serve as a moral leader around the world if it did not acknowledge its past of racial injustices and try to make amends.
Johnson knew that changing laws was only part of the solution to racial disparities and systemic racism.
“Freedom is not enough,” he declared. “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”
In proposing to address these injustices, Johnson laid out a phrase that would become a defense of affirmative action.
“We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.”