An Analysis of Lyndon Johnson's Speech Regarding the Great Society of 1964

Categories: History

The 1960’s was one of the most important decades in history; it has received more popular and academic attention than any other. The source I have chosen to analyse as the most important document of this period is Lyndon B. Johnson’s commencement address about the Great Society made in 1964. This speech is highly significant because it was made at the beginning of a new era in American history.

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Johnson speech describes the intentions of the Great Society, for example the institutions that will be dismantled, and the ways in which this can be tackled.

This essay will analyse the source to demonstrate why it is the most important document of the decade. The content of this source is a speech by Lyndon B. Johnson about his new initiative to build a Great Society, which he presented to the students of Michigan University. The source’s content enhances our knowledge and understanding of the 1960s, and it is vitally important because it instigated a new era in American history. The Great Society was Johnson’s proposal for the creation of a greater America; the initiative focused on domestic policy, rather than foreign policy, and this separated his ideas from those of John F. Kennedy. The Great Society’s main goal was to put “an end to poverty and racial injustice”), which were two of America’s most significant social issues during this period. Throughout his speech, Johnson describes his plans for the Great Society, declaring that the building blocks should be laid in three places – “our cities, in our countryside and in our classrooms”.

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It is important for historians to recognise the ways in which Johnson conceptualised poverty in the sixties; he acknowledges that change is needed regarding housing, transport and the environment, but also believes that the effort to tackle poverty will need to be a collective one, with the cities, countryside and classrooms working together in order to create a Great Society. Although the issue of civil rights is not prominent part in his speech, Johnson recognises that a society can only grow and become great if racial injustice is ended. He uses no language in the speech which specifically refers to civil rights, but he uses generic language like “our society will not be great until every young mind is set free”), implicitly alluding to civil rights, but in relation to issues of education with the argument that society cannot be great until everybody is given the same opportunities.

Johnson also mentions how the Great Society will transform the role of central government; he acknowledges that programs created by the government aim to commence the progression towards a Great Society, but he also believes that these programs “require us to create new concepts of cooperation” and work together as a collective effort. The language Johnson uses throughout the speech is inciting and motivating; he calls for the people of America to “join in the battle”4. The tone of the speech is both descriptive and inspiring, as Johnson utilises this speech as an outlet to communicate his idea of the Great Society and to inspire the graduates to stand up and be counted and make a difference in the world, testifying “your generation has been appointed by history… to lead America toward a new age.”

I therefore believe that the content of the source significantly contributes to the argument that it is most important document of the decade. Johnson was born in Texas and had an advantageous upbringing which allowed him to attend and then graduate from university; this set his political career into motion. He was also a devout Christian and a democrat. Johnson’s educational background may have affected his values, for example in regards to equal opportunities in education and the dismantling of poverty, which would have had a clear impact on the source.

Similarly, his beliefs as a Christian may have caused him to focus his speech on helping people by means of ending poverty. Johnson was inaugurated as president after the assassination of John. F. Kennedy in 1964, and he gave his speech at his commencement address. The speech can be viewed as a rally call for the new generation and for the audience of his speech, which consisted of fellow politicians based in Michigan and students graduating from Michigan University. The audience of the source contributes to the importance of the speech, as the graduating students from a prestigious university such as Michigan University are the people who will be able to create change and help construct the society Johnson envisions. Johnson writes his speech from the perspective and belief that he can create a real difference within American society, and he is aware that it will be broadcast not only to the students of Michigan University but also to millions of people across America.

Consequently, he uses this as a platform to accumulate support for the upcoming election. The expectations of the audience would have been to receive an inspiring speech on their prospects. They may have had an idea on the topic as Johnson had mentioned his vision of the Great society in a previous speech in Ohio. The audience’s expectations could have affected the source as they were graduating and their futures were in limo so they would have been interested to improve society so they could have a better live. The function of the source is to inspire people to challenge the social boundaries and help create a Great Society in which people can flourish. I would argue that the context of this source makes it highly influential and a leading contender for the most important document of the decade. This document is a highly important source for historians today.

Johnson’s speech significantly impacted the 1960s because it set in motion an attempt to end the war on poverty. This source is at its most useful when considering information on the Great Society and Johnson’s challenge of poverty, which was having a crushing effect upon society. The source creates debates about whether the speech was successful in terms of impacting society. The major programs introduced by the Great Society encompassed most the decade. There were forty major programs which intended to eliminate poverty by improving living conditions and enabling people to remove themselves from poverty. The 1964 Food Stamp Act and the 1966 Housing and Urban Development Act illustrate that the government introduced programs to try and create better lives for the American people. This source is useful for historians as it depicts of Johnson’s grand vision and the ways in which he planned to tackle the war on poverty. The source provides historians with many topics to debate, for example whether the legacy of the Great Society and the war on poverty was long-lasting, or whether it even managed to last the decade. Another of the biggest issues of the 1960s was the Civil Rights Movement.

In his speech, Johnson commits the government to ending racial injustice in American society. Kenneth Andrews argues that the programs introduced by Johnson’s war on poverty “created a new set of opportunities and constraints for the civil rights movement”, believing local movements had a large impact upon the war on poverty. There were numerous local movements across America, for example the “national movement of poor people”, which saw citizens of all different social classes and racial groups come together to protest about poverty. This is useful for historians as we can see how the people reacted to the programs of the Great Society, and how important it was in the historiography of the Civil Rights Movement. This source gives historians an insight into the domestic programs Johnson was attempting to introduce in the sixties. It gives historians a glimpse into the ways in which government was conducted in the sixties and how they attempted to uphold social upheaval in support of Johnson’s beliefs on Education in the Great society.

The SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) agreed with Johnson that education must be improved to create a better America. The SDS argued that a person needs an education to do anything in society, whether this refers to jobs or further education. This is important because it shows that Johnson did have support for his vision and it shows historians how society functioned before the idea of the Great Society. One potential problem with arguing that this source is the most important of the 1960s is that Johnson has contradicted himself; by the end of Johnson’s tenure as president he had introduced thousands of troops into Vietnam and was on the brink of an embarrassing foreign policy defeat.

However, this source was significant to the few issues and for a few years of the sixties, and so I believe that it remains the key source of the decade. Overall, I believe that this is a very interesting and useful primary source for historians to use when studying 1960s America and American politics. This source enables us to develop our knowledge of Johnson’s Great Society and of how he sought to create this vision. It creates debate about which issues from the sixties make an important source. The content of this source makes it important because the issues spoken of are, in my opinion, the most important of the sixties. However, it is important to remember that this speech is just one portion of the many important issues and events of the 1960s.


  1. C. Brown, ‘Cleveland: conference of the poor’ in Bloom & Breines, Takin’ it to the streets, 77-80.
  2. K. Andrews, Social Movements and Policy Implementation: The Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and the War on Poverty, 1965-1971’, American Sociological Review, 66/1 (Feb 2001): 71-95.
  3. Lyndon B. Johnson, ‘Commencement address – the Great society’ (22 May 1964)
  4. M. Harrington, ‘The Other America’ (1962), In Robert Griffin and Paula Baker (eds), ‘Major Problems in American History since 1945′, 216-219.

Cite this page

An Analysis of Lyndon Johnson's Speech Regarding the Great Society of 1964. (2021, Sep 15). Retrieved from

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