Obama at Morehouse, LBJ at Howard

Barack Obama at Morehouse College:

Well, we’ve got no time for excuses. Not because the bitter legacy of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they have not. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; we know those are still out there. It’s just that in today’s hyperconnected, hypercompetitive world, with millions of young people from China and India and Brazil — many of whom started with a whole lot less than all of you did — all of them entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything that you have not earned.

Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was. Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination. And moreover, you have to remember that whatever you’ve gone through, it pales in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured — and they overcame them. And if they overcame them, you can overcome them, too.

But if you stay hungry, if you keep hustling, if you keep on your grind and get other folks to do the same — nobody can stop you.

Lyndon Johnson at Howard University:

But freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.

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.

Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.

This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. 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.

For the task is to give 20 million Negroes the same chance as every other American to learn and grow, to work and share in society, to develop their abilities–physical, mental and spiritual, and to pursue their individual happiness.

To this end equal opportunity is essential, but not enough, not enough.


Update (May 21, 8:15 am)

Via Jordan Adam Banks, this from Ta-Nehisi Coates is excellent:

Taking the full measure of the Obama presidency thus far, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this White House has one way of addressing the social ills that afflict black people — and particularly black youth — and another way of addressing everyone else. I would have a hard time imagining the president telling the women of Barnard that “there’s no longer room for any excuses” — as though they were in the business of making them. Barack Obama is, indeed, the president of “all America,” but he also is singularly the scold of “black America.”

It’s worth revisiting the president’s comments over the past year in reference to gun violence. Visiting his grieving adopted hometown of Chicago, in the wake of the murder of Hadiya Pendleton, the president said this:

For a lot of young boys and young men in particular, they don’t see an example of fathers or grandfathers, uncles, who are in a position to support families and be held up in respect. And so that means that this is not just a gun issue; it’s also an issue of the kinds of communities that we’re building. When a child opens fire on another child, there is a hole in that child’s heart that government can’t fill. Only community and parents and teachers and clergy can fill that hole.

Two months earlier Obama visited Newtown. The killer, Adam Lanza, was estranged from his father and reportedly devastated by his parents divorce. But Obama did not speak to Newtown about the kind of community they were building, or speculate on the hole in Adam Lanza’s heart.

No president has ever been better read on the intersection of racism and American history than our current one. I strongly suspect that he would point to policy. As the president of “all America,” Barack Obama inherited that policy. I would not suggest that it is in his power to singlehandedly repair history. But I would say that, in his role as American president, it is wrong for him to handwave at history,…


  1. Paul Rosenberg (@PaulHRosenberg) May 20, 2013 at 6:13 pm | #

    No fair comparing Obama to LBJ. Compare him to Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable. Then he starts looking… respectable.

    • Nick Cahalane May 22, 2013 at 7:08 pm | #

      Are you saying Dr. Huxtable isn’t respectable? I think Theo’s school teachers would disagree.

      • Paul Rosenberg (@PaulHRosenberg) May 22, 2013 at 8:12 pm | #

        Au contrare! Obama & Huxtable are both respectable negroes. That was my subtextual point. And of the two, Obama, being President, the more respectable of the two. Pairing Obama with FDR, however, does not go down nearly as well, as Corey’s post so painfully shows.

  2. BillR May 20, 2013 at 8:25 pm | #

    FDR who didn’t have much time for senior Senators and Congressmen said to an advisor after meeting the 28 year old LBJ that he could be “the first American President from the Southwest”. After one term in the Senate, he became Majority Leader in a chamber that where seniority ruled and by his own efforts “pulled a nineteenth-century—indeed, in many respects an eighteenth-century—body into the twentieth century.”

    Within 18 months of becoming President he had achieved more than anyone since FDR and nobody has come close since. He was quite prescient about the type of identity politics that would put an Obama in the White House too:

    From an August 29, 1968, phone conversation between President Lyndon B. Johnson and Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. Then the Democratic nominee for president, Humphrey was in the process of choosing a running mate. Three days earlier, Senator Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, a Japanese American who lost his right arm while serving in World War II, delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. The recording was released last December by the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library.

    Lyndon B. Johnson: If you’re not going to the South, I would really look over the West awfully good, because I’m telling you the people got fed up with the East. And you can do New York and Pennsylvania with what we gonna do with the Jews and what we gonna do with the Italians by being friendly. Now this would be a natural if it would work, and nobody ever mentioned it to me, but I never heard as many compliments on anybody as I did on Inouye. He answers Vietnam with that empty sleeve. He answers your problems with Nixon with that empty sleeve. He has that brown face. He answers everything in civil rights, and he draws a contrast without ever even opening his mouth. I’ve never known him to make a mistake. He’s got cold, clear courage. He’s as loyal as a dog, as you must have observed. He’d never undercut you. He ought to appeal to the West. He ought to appeal to the world. It would be fresh and different. He’s young and new. And I think your secretary could call him and say, Would you please go to Utah, South Carolina, San Francisco? And I believe he could go to all of them and never lay an egg. Lady Bird said, watching him on television, This is the best man I know of except Hubert. He’s asked nothing, he’s done nothing, but he wouldn’t be miserable in the place. Now another fellow will be, and be lazy and other things. The Southern boys–I wouldn’t irritate ’em more than I had to–they all love Inouye. I don’t know why. I think one thing is that they just look at him and they can’t fuss at him and say he doesn’t love peace. In other words, the South can’t get mad at him because he’s colored, and he would appeal to every other minority because he is one. I think you have to be satisfied, and I don’t want you to think you have to satisfy me. Inouye doesn’t appeal to you?

    • john mak May 20, 2013 at 10:25 pm | #

      What if….?

  3. zenner41 May 21, 2013 at 12:42 am | #

    Well, I think Obama is trying to talk about a country at a time in which much of what LBJ was looking forward to in the ’60s has been accomplished (or at least some of it), but we’re still not enjoying our picnic lunch by the waters of Zion at all, by a long shot. He doesn’t know quite what to tell the graduates what to do about it, but who does?

    It would have been nice if he had delivered a commencement address in which he said, approximately, “OK, folks, it’s time to raise the Red Flag again — get out there and make the revolution.” But no one could seriously expect him to say anything like that, even if he secretly believed it, which he doesn’t, of course. Lots of people are calling for him to “do a Bulworth” these days, but obviously he won’t.

    And even if he did, it would go over with most Americans like a lead balloon, just as the film Bulworth did. Anyone who believes that a socialist revolution is necessary today is just going to have to go out there on their own, with a few comrades hopefully but with no hero in the White House to lead them, and figure out how to advance the cause on their own. Nobody’s going to help us. We’re going to have to do it on our own.

    So I don’t care that Obama is not the person to haul us to the waters of Zion by our suspenders. It’s all up to us.

    • Jonny Butter May 22, 2013 at 10:49 am | #

      Well, I think Obama is trying to talk about a country at a time in which much of what LBJ was looking forward to in the ’60s has been accomplished (or at least some of it), but we’re still not enjoying our picnic lunch by the waters of Zion at all, by a long shot.

      Not really. Much of what LBJ aspired to and did has been *undone*. Throbbing-gristle black/white racism is no longer socially acceptable, which is a great relief. But the civil rights struggle was about social justice, not just jim crow. Social justice is at a low ebb right about now.

      Our approach to social justice nowadays is like putting in bike lanes: find a cheap way to mollify people who sorta care about an issue. A mayor puts in bike lanes so that he looks ‘progressive’ about transport issues but it costs next to nothing and ignores the real problems. Likewise, it is a revolution that gay people aren’t, you know, illegal anymore, and thank god for it. But it really costs next to nothing to simply stop persecuting people. What about real social justice? What about de-institutionalizing degradation?

  4. Jacob May 21, 2013 at 2:22 am | #

    “Hey, maybe if I yell at all these blacks, America will forget that I’m black.”

    Louie CK has a great bit about how guys are like on first dates:

    “Just a mish-mash of different kinds of dudes for a few seconds each. Just Anything.” Pay attention to when Louie cycles through all the random facial expressions and mannerisms; the posture Obama took is in there somewhere.

    • Jacob May 21, 2013 at 2:24 am | #

      ugh my apologies. you can’t post anything anywhere without it embedding. it didn’t even keep my timestamp. skip to 2:37 to see what i meant.

  5. Chris Harlos May 21, 2013 at 9:13 am | #

    Obama, the public intellectual, in thrall to Bill Cosby, the popular entertainer and conservative moralizer.

  6. Neil 63 May 27, 2013 at 6:28 am | #

    “But if you stay hungry, if you keep hustling, if you keep on your grind and get other folks to do the same — nobody can stop you”

    In 2011 Morris Berman attributed this attitude to America’s decline and multiple failings. I cannot but see the speech quoted as Obama’s riposte to that thesis. Obama evidently believes that the trope of ‘hustling’ has ideological utility otherwise he wouldn’t use it. As a non-American it makes me wonder if it’s true that this language and tawdry vision of life still resonates with vast sections of the American population,or is doubt finally beginning to set in?

  7. Robin Marie May 28, 2013 at 5:33 pm | #

    While I agree with the general point the juxtaposition of these two speeches is making, I would be careful about sentimentalizing Johnson’s Howard University speech, and the liberal line on black poverty, in general, that it represents. In that same speech, Johnson went on to talk about how all the social policy in the world would fail to cure poverty in black communities unless the black family was fixed — taking his cue, of course, from the Moynihan Report. While Obama seems to deny that inequality does, in fact, have consequences that cannot be solved simply by the will of individuals, and Johnson at least seemed to recognized this, Obama also continues the tradition of Johnson’s speech by again implying that, at the end of the day, the problem is in the black community and can only be solved by the black community getting its shit together. Plenty of liberals in the 1960s would have been perfectly comfortable with that sentiment — and most of them are today.

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