It Happened at Michigan — LBJ’s ‘Great Society’ speech at U-M


When President Lyndon B. Johnson stood before the Class of 1964 at Michigan Stadium, it was the first time a sitting president had stepped foot on the U-M campus.

His speech would be one of the most significant in Johnson’s presidency.

Six months earlier, Johnson had assumed the presidency in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. He was determined to continue Kennedy’s commitment to strengthening the social safety net for those Americans who were poor, uneducated, uninsured or Black.

A photo of Lyndon Johnson addressing U-M graduates in 1964
President Lyndon B. Johnson told U-M graduates: “I have come today from the turmoil of your capital to the tranquility of your campus to speak about the future of your country.” (Photo courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library)

Johnson’s May 22 appearance drew upwards of 85,000 graduates and family members to the stadium on a sunny morning. After arriving by Air Force One at Detroit Metro Airport, the president landed by helicopter just outside the stadium.

“In your time, we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society but upward to the great society,” he told graduates. “The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But that is just the beginning.”

He called for more vital cities, with affordable housing and strong public transportation; protection of natural resources, including parks, forests and lakes; and more support for public education. And he asked for help from U-M graduates.

“You have the chance never before afforded to any people in any age,” he said. “You can help build a society where the demands of morality, and the needs of the spirit, can be realized in the life of the Nation.”

A photo of media members and television cameras capturing Lyndon Johnson's remarks in 1964
Media turnout for Lyndon Johnson’s appearance was unlike any previous U-M commencement. (Photo courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library)

Where the Great Society was Johnson’s vision for the country, his domestic policy aspirations would be overshadowed by the demands and controversy of the Vietnam War.

Days after Johnson’s Ann Arbor appearance, university officials asked for the president’s written remarks. A presidential aide working in the White House obliged.

“After a great search of inside suit coat pockets, the cards that the President used for his Ann Arbor speech were found,” wrote Ivan Sinclair. “It was a pleasure for him to sign them and have me send them to you.”

Johnson’s Great Society note cards can be found at the Bentley Historical Library



  1. Ruth Gretzinger
    on May 29, 2024 at 12:21 pm

    I was at that graduation! Our third-grade class from Mack School went there on a field trip. It was blazing hot, and we left early b/c of that. The line I remember was when LBJ said the question was “whether a college is educational or coeducational” and believe it or not, that got a huge laugh back then. (We still had “men’s” and “women’s” colleges in those days.)

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