Presidential Commencement Speeches Addressing Race Relations during the Civil Rights Movement


As the previous four blog posts in this series have shown, the timing of a particular Presidential commencement speech is by no means an accident. When the White House press office announces the President’s upcoming commencement addresses, several factors likely played a role in the President’s choices. This week, we examine the way three presidents addressed the issue of civil rights for black Americans throughout the 20th century.

Prior to President Johnson’s laws that effectively ended racial discrimination in the law, many rights were denied to African Americans.[1 ]Three U.S. Presidents alluded to African American education in their commencement addresses. Of these three, only one could actually find a solution. Between 1932 and 1964, we notice two trends in commencement addresses as the years passed: more specific acknowledgement of civil rights, and a greater sense of urgency regarding ending racial injustice.

Herbert Hoover at Howard University, 1932

The first Presidential commencement address at a historically black institution was delivered by Herbert Hoover at Howard University in June 1932. Hoover, who was preoccupied with the Great Depression, was on a harried speaking engagement. Dressed in an ordinary suit and tie,[2] Hoover began:

It is an inspiration to come into this great institution of higher education for the Negro race. Nothing that the Federal Government has done reflects more credit upon it for the meeting of an obligation than this institution to bring to a great segment of our population the means of overcoming a handicap for which they were not responsible and of leveling upward for them an equal opportunity to share in the full measure of citizenship with their brethren of other races. It is vital in a democracy that the public opinion upon which it rests shall be an informed and educated opinion. The Negro race comprises 10 percent of our population, and unless this 10 percent is developed proportionately with the rest of the population, it cannot pull its proper strength at the oars of our pressing problems of democracy.[3]

Given that civil rights for African Americans were almost non-existent at that point in time, the timing and manner of speaking suggests that this address was ceremonial in nature. Timing-wise, this speech could be commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, or the 65thanniversary of the founding of Howard. However, almost 70 years since then, African Americans were still being denied common rights.

Harry Truman at Howard University, 1952

President Harry S. Truman’s June 1952 appearance at Howard was the school’s second Presidential commencement address. However, Truman became the first President to specifically address black disenfranchisement in his commencement address. He spoke candidly of the issue:

I wish I could say to you who are graduating today that no opportunity to use your skills and knowledge would ever be denied you. I can say this: I know what it means not to have opportunity. I wasn't able to go to college at all. I had to stay at home and work on the family farm. You have been able to get the college education that is so important to everyone in this country. Some of us are denied opportunity for economic reasons. Others are denied opportunity because of racial prejudice and discrimination. I want to see things worked out so that everyone who is capable of it receives a good education. I want to see everyone have a chance to put his education to good use, without unfair discrimination.[4]

Unlike Hoover’s short 377-word address,[5] Truman’s speech was much longer. It showed a noticeable, gradual trend of the increasing acknowledgement of the struggle for equality of African Americans.

Like most of his predecessors’ commencement addresses delivered up to that point, Truman’s speech was no accident. First, the venue was appropriate because, due to its Washington-centric location, Howard is one of the most well-known (if not the best known) of all the historically black colleges in the U.S.  The most effective rhetorical techniques in Truman’s address were blending ethos, logos andpathos.[6] Truman’s ethos as President would have been enough in and of itself to speak on the topic. However, he increased his ethos substantially when he used logos to reveal that he was someone who experienced the longing for an education.

Truman’s pathos was particularly effective during the first and last sentences of this part of his speech. The phrases “I wish” and “I want to see” appeals to the audiences’ emotions because Truman was convinced that his goals were a noble cause. He felt the need to share his personal experiences through logos to enhance the appeal of these goals while he still had time in office.[7] Although the movement was still in its infancy by that point, it made enough of an impact to coax Truman to take action at the podium stand. 

Lyndon B. Johnson at the University of Texas-Austin, 1964

On May 30, 1964 Johnson gave the commencement oration for the University of Texas at Austin. In his speech, delivered at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, he advocated equal rights for African Americans. He directly asked his audience:

Will you decide to leave the future a society where a man is kept from sharing in our national life because of the color of his skin, or the church he attends, or the place of his birth? Or will you join to give every American the equal rights which are his birthright?[8]

Without a doubt, the Civil Rights Movement was one of the most important social upheavals of the 1960s. Johnson, during the latter part of his speech, utilized pathos and ethos in several ways to build support for this measure. On a national level, Johnson’s speech echoed his predecessor.[9] Since President Johnson was Kennedy’s Vice President prior to his ascension to the Presidency, Johnson was intimately familiar with his superior’s views and policies.[10] Like the address the week prior at the University of Michigan, Johnson’s address at UT-Austin had an audience that was still recovering from Kennedy’s assassination. In a sense, Johnson was subtly asking the audience, “What better way to honor President Kennedy’s memory than to pass into law a policy he felt was important?”  Since Kennedy’s death was fairly recent at the time, the public was almost guaranteed to give the matter more due consideration compared to later years.

Johnson’s second use of ethos occurred at the end of his commencement speech. Unlike appealing nationally in Kennedy’s memory, he appealed more regionally to UT-Austin itself. However, the issue of civil rights was still at the heart of his talk. He concluded:

The inscription over the Main Building at the University of Texas reads, "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shah make you free." Only by opening the truths of knowledge to all our people can we free them for a future of greatness.[11]

Johnson’s ingenious use of the school’s motto—a source of tradition and pride for every school—conjures up affection for the university. Johnson placed UT in the national spotlight because its motto would be the one of the goals of Johnson’s Presidency. Johnson, no doubt aware of the publicity surrounding minority access to education, made this one of his primary goals for the “Great Society” programs he passed.


Like the previous four stories, we can see how these presidents acknowledged and discussed an issue on the public’s consciousness. Although Hoover and Truman’s appearances at Howard University predated the modern Civil Rights Movement, their presence alone intensified the celebration of the inherent ideals of Howard’s charter. When the Civil Rights Movement was occurring in 1964, President Johnson cleverly “transplanted” the ideals of equality at an institution that was not predominantly African American. When examining all three addresses as a whole, each President showed that diversity of thought could be accomplished by welcoming students from all walks of life.



[1]Just a sampling of this exhaustive list of rights denied include voting, equal housing and equal dining facilities.

[2]Hoover did not wear any graduation regalia affiliated with Howard University when he gave his commencement speech. For more information, see the appendix.

[3]"Commencement Address at Howard University. June 10, 1932” (accessed May 27, 2011).

[4]"Commencement Address at Howard University. June 13, 1952." (accessed April 29, 2011).

[5]As of this writing, Hoover’s address at Howard is the shortest Presidential commencement speech.

[6]In rhetoric, Pathos is the appeal to audience emotion. It is one of the three forms of persuasion (the others being Ethos and Logos).

[7]The timing indicates that he was a “lame duck” that was hesitant to engage in any major changes to the Civil Rights movement. Due to the passage of the twenty-second amendment on February 27, 1951, he was not eligible to run for another term in office. Regardless of whether a Democrat or Republican would win office, his term would ultimately expire on January 20, 1953.

[8]"Commencement Address at the University of Texas. May 30, 1964.” (accessed April 29, 2011).

[9]Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. "Address on Civil Rights (June 11, 1963) John Fitzgerald Kennedy." (accessed May 18, 2011). Kennedy, who advocated for civil rights before his assassination., gave a televised address on June 11, 1963, Kennedy informed the American people: “I am, therefore, asking the Congress to enact legislation giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public—hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments.”

[10]Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. "Address to Joint Session of Congress (November 27, 1963) Lyndon Baines Johnson." May 18, 2011). Just five days after Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson made an address to a joint session of congress. In his speech, he laid-out his intention to handle the civil rights struggle in a legal sense. He remarked: “First, no memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long. We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for one hundred years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law.”

[11]“Johnson, University of Texas, 1964.”