What is the Great Society at Fifty?

In June 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson delivered a commencement address at the University of Michigan in which he challenged the new graduates to look beyond the material trappings of “the rich society and the powerful society,” and instead to join in “the battle to build the Great Society,” one committed to ending poverty and racial injustice and to making it possible for “every young mind” to achieve his or her full potential.

Johnson’s speech has since gained renown for giving a name to a sweeping array of social policy innovation that came to include the War on Poverty, the Civil and Voting Rights Acts, Medicare and Medicaid, federal aid to education, major immigration reform, affirmative action in employment and higher education, and much more. While equal rights and opportunity were a reality for all under Johnson's vision, key components of his agenda remain unrealized and mired in political controversy and debate today.

Key Moments of the Great Society

LBJ Speech at Michigan, "We have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society."

Ladybird Johnson Launching the Head Start Program

Sargent Shriver speaks on Community Action and the Office of Economic Opportunity

Civil Rights leaders on the Selma to Montgomery March, 1965, marching for voting rights

President Johnson signs the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 in front of the Statue of Liberty

Former President Truman, longtime supporter of national insurance, watches President Johnson sign the 1965 Social Security Amendments creating Medicare

The Great Society at Fifty: Democracy in America 1964/2014 initiative at UC Santa Barbara brings together faculty from the Departments of History, Asian American Studies, Black Studies, Chicana and Chicano Studies, Feminist Studies, Political Science, and Sociology in a collaborative program of course offerings, panel discussions, conferences, public lectures, and town/gown symposia throughout the 2013-14 academic year. 

On this fiftieth anniversary of the Great Society, our initiative provides an opportunity for teaching, public outreach, and community engagement on an extraordinarily broad range of still contested commitments (to political and social rights, economic and social opportunities, more inclusive immigration policies) that may once again be approaching historical turning points much as they were half a century ago.

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