Dr. Nabrit, members of this distinguished faculty, distinguished alumni, students:
This day is for prayers of thanksgiving. It is a day for remembrance and wonder.
One hundred years ago, out of the embers of a terrible war, this university was born to serve a people who had been liberated-liberated from the "peculiar institution" of slavery.
Another Johnson--the 17th President of the United States--signed his name to a law establishing Howard University, in the District of Columbia, as "a university for the education of youth in the liberal arts and sciences." The first four students were white. They were the living witnesses to a faith in our human dignity that has united men and women of both races until this very hour.
But the purpose of those who founded Howard University was not merely to create one more institution of higher learning. It was to fulfill the promise of Abraham Lincoln that had been made 4 1/2 long years before:
"That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State . . . shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free."
Emancipation was a proclamation, but it was not a fact.
Howard University was created to help make the promise of the proclamation a fact of life.
! do not need to tell you that the purpose of the founders was not wholly achieved in their time--nor in the century that followed. Howard sent forth into the world trained teachers, doctors, artists, theologians, lawyers, and businessmen--but for millions, the promise of freedom remained unfulfilled. For them, the ordinary fact of life was enslavement--to poverty, to ignorance, to second-class citizenship.
In our time--nearly a century after the war that brought an end to official slavery-we have begun the long-delayed process of liberation. We have struck off most of the bonds of discrimination that bound the Negro to the tragic past. The fundamental rights of citizenship are his: to vote, to use public accommodations, to attend school, to seek a job, to receive hospital care--without discrimination because of color.
These rights had to be secured, not only to give life to Abraham Lincoln's proclamation, not only to render justice to Negro Americans, but because the conscience of humanity demanded that they be secured. They were not handed down from above, as a reward for good behavior. They were a legacy acquired by birth--and finally passed on to their rightful heirs.
Yet even they did not suffice. I came here 20 months ago, on a late afternoon in June, to say "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 as you please ....
"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."
I have come back here to Howard today to renew my commitment to that task, and to remind you and to tell you again that so long as I live, in public or private life, I shall never retract or retreat or amend that commitment.
I have seen with my eyes what can be done when hundreds of thousands of children are given a Head Start in life;
--when 8 million others begin to receive a better education in elementary and secondary schools;
--when millions of men can find work in a thriving economy;
--when millions of older people have the haunting fear of medical costs lifted from them;
--when young men and women are given the chance to take hold of their lives in Neighborhood Youth Corps and Job Corps programs;
--when those without skills can acquire them;
--when 9 million workers--the forgotten ones at the bottom of the economic ladder, the elevator operators, the charwomen, the waitresses--are assured a decent minimum wage for the first time this year.
I have seen these things happen the last 3 years, and much more I have seen happen. I do not want to and I never expect to turn back.
I know that millions of men and women --Negro and white--are still trapped in poverty, in dark city slums and in depressed rural areas. I know that results are slow in coming in from the best efforts men can make, for our adversaries--ignorance, discrimination, and the despairing conviction of failure--are old, well-entrenched, and tough.
But despite the shortcomings of what we have done so far, despite the stubbornness of the problems we face, I cannot bring myself today to bewail our fate. The last few years have convinced me that we have the will, the knowledge, the integrity, the resources-and the stubbornness, too--to remain dedicated to this task until it is accomplished.
It was less than 10 years ago as a Senator that I struggled through the night to pass the first civil rights bill through the Congress in almost 85 years. It was a frail instrument indeed and we so recognized it--but it did pass. It was only the first. Seven years later as President, I signed into law a measure that had the power to change the conditions of life for Negro Americans. One year after that we opened the voting booths for good.
This is the work of less than 10 years: four civil rights measures striking at the last chains of enslavement after we had waited almost a century. This was the task of every man and woman who worked, and who prayed, and who legislated to bring it about.
Because we have come so far, I know and you know that we have the power to go Barther; to make the past 10 years only a prologue, and the next 10 years the time when the Negro in America can say at last "I am a free man." I believe it will be so. I shall bend my will to make it so.
It is not hard to feel this way, here at Howard.
This campus has been the home, and is the home today, of men and women who knew their mission in life was far greater than service to themselves. Many of them have been my friends. Some of them have been called to the Federal service during my Presidency:
--the great lawyer, Solicitor General Thurgood Marshall;
--three distinguished jurists, Judge Spottswood Robinson of the Court of Appeals, Judge William Bryant and Judge Joseph Waddy of the United States District Court;
--Ambassador Patricia Harris;
--Mr. Hobart Taylor, Director of the Export-Import Bank;
--Mr. Andrew Brimruer, member of the Federal Reserve Board;
--Commissioner John Duncan, of the District of Columbia;
--Mrs. Frankie Freeman, of the United States Civil Rights Commission;
--Dr. John Hope Franklin, of the Board of Foreign Scholarships.
These sons and daughters of Howard-together with Under Secretary Ralph Bunche of the United Nations, and Senator Ed Brooke of Massachusetts, whom, I am sorry to say, I did not appoint--are a testimony to Howard's maturity far more compelling than the passing of a hundred years.
For they represent the fruition of an ideal: that as men become free themselves, they assume responsibility for the freedom and well-being of others, regardless of race. These men and women are devoting themselves to the affairs of our Nation. They are not devoting themselves to Negro problems alone, but rather to the problems of our entire society.
That is your challenge, you who follow them. For the work that lies ahead is demanding, and it involves far too many lives in urgent need of help, to be parceled out by race. Tomorrow's problems, which will be placed squarely in your hands, will not be divided into "Negro problems" and "white problems." There will be only human problems, and there will be more than enough to go around.
I said at the beginning that this day is for prayers of thanksgiving, for remembrance, and wonder.
Our prayers are to the God who has strengthened the will of a grateful people. Our remembrance is of those who created and sustained this great university, and brought here thousands of young men and women from all over the world, and gave them the power to serve their fellow man.
Our wonder--our very great wonder--is for the human spirit, that having endured infinite wrongs, can yet hold to its faith in the dignity of life.
For one hundred years, that spirit has prevailed here at Howard University. May it always prevail.