Skip to Content

Full Text of Remarks Delivered During the 2010 July 4th Celebration

Speech by NEA Executive Director John Wilson and remarks by NEA Executive Committee members

NEA Executive Director John Wilson: Thank you, Dennis.  Happy Independence Day!

You know, we use this celebration to honor our freedoms, our legacies, and our heroes.

And before we get started on our celebration, a celebration of 1965 and the Great Society, I want to honor our legacy and the hero, the President of the National Education Association in 1965, Dr. Lois Ettinger. 

I have asked Lois to be beside me so she can tug my coattails if we get anything wrong.



Land of liberty and boundless opportunity.  A place where people can arrive with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and build a solid and secure life for their families.  A nation where a child can expect a more prosperous life than the generation before, and where that child's own economic fate is not tied solely to the financial status of his or her parents.For more than two centuries, economic opportunity and upward mobility have formed the foundation of the American dream and remain at the core of our nation's identity.

And perhaps no brief period in our history better illustrated the meaning of those values than the year 1965.

45 years ago, these were the facts of American life:

  • Half of all Americans over age 65 had no medical insurance, and a third of the aged lived in poverty.
  • More than 90 percent of the black adults in many southern counties were not registered to vote. Only a third of the children in this country ages three to five years old had attended a nursery school or kindergarten. Today, most Americans would find those situations unacceptable and indeed they have been reversed, in large part because of laws enacted in 1965, the high water mark of president Lyndon B. Johnson's drive for what he called the Great Society.

It is undeniable that LBJ's Great Society social reforms changed the American landscape.  "We have the opportunity" he declared, "to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society."  And on this Independence Day, 45 years later, we come here to celebrate his powerful vision for equality and democracy.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the all NEA choir under the direction of Executive Committee member Greg Johnson, Bob Lague and featuring soloist Ramone Moore of Virginia, Rebecca Marlow of Georgia, and Matt Garcia of Washington.

Ladies and gentlemen, your all NEA choir.

(NEA choir performs "An American Trilogy")


John Wilson:  Who was Lyndon Baines Johnson?  In the beginning of his career he was a schoolteacher, and this experience would inform his vision for the rest of his life.

Teachers and education support professionals try to make a difference in the lives of their students, and president Johnson was determined to make a difference in the lives of his fellow Americans.

During The Great Depression, President Roosevelt asked him to head a vocational training program, which he did until he ran for the United States House in a special election.  He served in World War II and was elected to the United States Senate in 1948 where he rose to the position of majority leader because of his brilliant grasp of the legislative process.

Johnson was a masterful politician, but to him, political power was not an end in itself.  It was always a means to an end, a way to accomplish an agenda about which he cared passion passionately.  He realized that power means nothing unless it is used to accomplish something worthwhile.

When fate thrust him into the presidency, the combination of his talent and vision allowed him to make history.

President Johnson assumed office at a time of national tragedy, after the assassination of president Kennedy.

A year later he was reelected in a landslide, and his party held a two to one edge in Congress.  The economy was strong and growing, and Johnson recognized that most of the American people shared his dream for an end to poverty and racial injustice.

He knew it was time to reach for his vision. 

(NEA choir performing "The Power of One")


The Great Society represented one of the most ambitious policy agendas in American history    to end poverty, to promote equality, improve public education, rejuvenate cities and protect the environment.  President Johnson called it "the greatest outpouring of creative legislation in the history of the nation," an assessment that at the time was not viewed as hyperbole.  In 1964, Johnson had guided the Civil Rights Act to passage.  Then, in a nine month period in 1965, the main elements of the Great Society program were approved.  Some of the milestones include: 

  • Medicare and Medicaid; the elementary and secondary education act;
  • the higher education act;
  • the Voting Rights Act;
  • head start; and
  • the establishment of the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities. 

On the day that we honor our nation's independence, we celebrate President Johnson's quest to give every person an equal opportunity to achieve her or his dreams.

This celebration will feature the NEA Executive Committee members reading excerpts from Johnson's speeches as he announced or signed each piece of historic legislation in 1965.

On April 11th, President Johnson traveled to the former one room school room he attended as a child.  With his first teacher seated beside him, he signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  This was the first general aid to education program ever adopted by Congress.  This law brought a massive infusion of federal dollars into our nation's schools, and provided resources to help educate disadvantaged children in inner cities and rural areas.

Lois will tell you, it was a law that we embraced, we supported, and we fought in partnership with President Johnson.

Executive Committee member Christy Levings:  I want to welcome to this little school of my childhood many of my former schoolmates, as well as some of my dear friends from the educational institutions of this area.  My attorney general tells me that it is legal and constitutional to sign this act on a Sunday, even on Palm Sunday.  My minister assured me that the Lord's day will not be violated by making into law a measure which brings mental and moral benefits to millions of our young people.  So I have chosen this time and this place for two reasons. 

First, I do not wish to delay by a single day the programs that strengthen this nation's elementary and secondary schools.  Second, I felt a very strong desire to go back to the beginnings of my own education, to be reminded and to remind others of that magical time when the world of learning began to open before our eyes.

From our very beginnings as a nation, we have felt a first commitment to the ideal of education for everyone.  It fits itself into our Democratic creed.  For too long political acrimony held up our progress.  For too long, children suffered while jarring interests caused stalemates in the efforts to improve our schools.  Since 1946, Congress tried repeatedly and failed repeatedly to enact measures for elementary and secondary education.  Now, within the past three weeks, the House of Representatives and the Senate have passed the most sweeping educational bill ever to come before Congress.  It represents a major new commitment of the federal government, to quality and equality in the schooling that we offer our young people.  By passing this bill, we bridge the gap between helplessness and hope for more than five million educationally deprived children.  We put into the hands of our youth more than 30 million new books, and into many of our schools their first libraries.

We reduce the terrible lag in bringing new teaching techniques into the nation's classrooms.  We strengthen state and local agencies which bear the burden and the challenge of better education, and we rekindle the revolution    the revolution of the spirit against the tyranny of ignorance.

As the son of a tenant farmer, I know that education is only valid in its passport from poverty, the only valid passport.  As a former teacher    and I hope a future one    I have great expectations of what this law will mean for all our young people.  As President of the United States, I believe deeply no law has signed or will ever sign means more to the future of America.  We have established the law.  Let us not delay in putting it to work.  

Remarks in Johnson City, Texas, upon the signing of the elementary and secondary education bill, April 11, 1965.

John Wilson:  On May 18th, Project Head Start was announced as a preschool program to help disadvantaged children before they entered elementary school.  President Johnson said the program was conceived to make certain that poverty's children would not be forever more poverty's captives.

He called the response from neighborhoods and communities the most stirring and the most enthusiastic of any peacetime program that he could remember.

Executive Committee Member Paula Monroe:  Today we are able to announce that we will have opened and believe operating this summer coast to coast some 2,000 child development centers serving as many as possibly a half million children.  This news means nearly half the school children of poverty will get a head start on their future.  These children will receive preschool training to prepare them for regular school in September.  They will get medical and dental attention that they badly need, and parents will receive counseling on improving the home environment.  This is the most remarkable accomplishment, and it has been done in a very short time.  It would not be possible except for the willing and enthusiastic cooperation of Americans throughout the country.

I believe this response reflects a realistic and wholesome awakening in America.  It shows that we are recognizing that poverty perpetuates itself.  Five  and six year old children are inheritors of poverty, of poverty's curse, and not its creditors.  Unless we act, these children will pass it onto the next generation, like a family birthmark.

This program means that 30 million man years, the combined life span of these youngsters, will be spent productively and rewardingly rather than wasted in tax supported institutions or in welfare supported lethargy.  I believe that this is one of the most constructive and one of the most sensible and one of the most exciting programs that this nation has undertaken.  And I don't say that just because the most ardent, most active and most enthusiastic supporter of this program happens to be the honorary national chairman, Mrs. Johnson.  We have taken up the age old challenge of poverty, and we don't intend to lose generations of our children to this enemy of the human race.  This program, like so many others, will succeed in proportion as it is supported by voluntary assistance and understanding from all of our people.  So there are going to be millions of good neighbors, volunteers who will give their time, a few hours each week, caring for these children, helping in a hundred ways to draw out their potentials.  We need housewives, and we need teachers and doctors, we need men and women of all walks and all interests, to lend their talents, their warmth, their hands, and their hearts.

The bread that is cast upon these waters will certainly return many thousandfold.  What a sense of achievement.  And what great pride, and how happy that will make all of us who love America feel about this undertaking.

Remarks on Project Head Start, May 18th, 1965.

John Wilson:  On July 30th, both Medicaid and Medicare were created when President Johnson signed amendments to the Social Security act, extending quality health care services to low income women and children, and persons over the age 65, among others.  In 1948, President Harry S. Truman became the first sitting president to officially endorse national health insurance.  The signing was held at the Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri.  Former President Truman was present at the ceremony, and Johnson presented him the first Medicare card in honor of his long standing advocacy for national health care coverage.

Executive Committee Member Greg Johnson:  It was a generation ago that Harry Truman said, and I quote him, "Millions of our citizens do not have a full measure of opportunity to achieve and to enjoy good health.  Millions do not now have protection or security against economic effects of sickness, and the time has now arrived for action to help them attain that opportunity and to help them get that protection."

Well, today, Mr. President, and my fellow Americans, we are taking such action, 20 years later, because the need for this action is plain.  It is so clear indeed that we marvel not simply at the passage of this bill but what we marvel at is that it took so many years to pass it.  There are more than 18 million Americans over the age of 65.  Most of them have low incomes.  Most of them are threatened by illness and medical expenses that they cannot afford.

And through this new law, every citizen will be able in its productive years when it's earning to insure himself against the ravages of illness in his old age.

No longer will Americans be denied the healing miracle of modern medicine.  No longer will illness crush or destroy the savings that they have so carefully put away over a lifetime so that they might enjoy dignity in their later years.

No longer will young families see their own incomes and their own hopes eaten away simply because they are caring carrying out their deep moral obligations to their parents and to their uncles and to their aunts.  And no longer will this nation refuse the hand of justice to those who have given a lifetime of service and wisdom and labor to the progress of this progressive country.

President Harry Truman, as any president must, made many great decisions of great moment, although he has always made them frankly and with the courage and clarity that few men have ever shared.  The immense intricate questions of freedom and survival were called up many times in the web of Harry Truman's judgment.  And this is in the tradition of leadership.

But there is another tradition that we share today.  It calls upon us never to be indifferent toward despair.  It commands us never to turn away from helplessness.  It directs us to never to ignore or spurn those who suffer untended in a land that is bursting with abundance. 
Because of this document, and the long years of struggle which so many have put into creating it, in this town and a thousand other towns like it, there are men and women in pain who will now find ease.  There are those alone in suffering who will now hear the sound of some approaching footsteps coming to help.  There are those fearing the terrible darkness of despairing poverty    despite their long years of labor and expectation    who will now look up to see the light of hope and realization.  There can just be no satisfaction, nor any act of leadership, that gives greater satisfaction than this.

Remarks at the signing of the Medicare Medicaid bill, July 30th, 1965.

John Wilson:  On August 6th, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.  The law helped end the segregationist status quo that kept black voters from the polls.  The document was signed after one of the civil rights movement's most dramatic events.  In March 1965, state troopers attacked protestors near Selma, Alabama.  That day became known as Bloody Sunday, and it galvanized the nation.  Five months later, the President signed new voting protections for African Americans.

Executive Committee Member Joyce Powell:  Today is a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield.  It was only at Appomattox, a century ago, that an American victory was also a Negro victory and two rivers, one shining with promise, the other dark stained with oppression, began to move toward one another.  Yet, for almost a century, the promise of that day was not fulfilled.  Today is a towering and certain mark that in this generation that promise will be kept.  In our time, the two currents will finally mingle and rush as one great stream across the uncertain and the marvelous years of the America that is yet to come. 

This Act flows from a clear and simple wrong.  Its only purpose is to right that wrong.  Millions of Americans are denied the right to vote because of their color.  This law will ensure them the right to vote.  The wrong is one which no American in his heart can justify.  The right is one in which no American true to our principles can deny. 

There were those who said smaller and more gradual measures should be tried.  But they had been tried.  For years and years, they had been tried and tried and tried, and they had failed and failed and failed.  And the time for failure is gone.

There were those who said that this is a many sided and very complex problem.  But however viewed, the denial of the right to vote is still a deadly wrong, and the time for injustice has gone.

This law covers many pages, but the heart of the act is plain.  Wherever, by clear and objective standards, states and counties are using regulations or laws for tests to deny the right to vote, then they will be struck down.  Today, what is perhaps the last of the legal barriers is tumbling.

There will be many actions and many difficulties before the rights woven into law  are also woven into the fabric of our nation.  But the struggle for equality must now move toward a different battlefield. 

So we will move step by step, often painfully, but I think with clear vision, along the path toward American freedom.  It is difficult to fight for freedom, but I also know how difficult it can be to spend long years of habit and custom to granted.  There is no room for injustice anywhere in the American mansion.  But there is always room for understanding toward those who see the old ways crumbling.  And to them, today, I simply say this:  It must come. 

It is a right that it should come.  And when it has, you will find that a burden has been lifted from your shoulders, too.  The central fact of American civilization, one so hard for others to understand, is that freedom and justice and the dignity of man are not just words to us.  We believe in them.  Under all the growth and the tumult and abundance, we believe.  And so as long as some among us are oppressed, and we are a part of that oppression, it must blunt our faith and sap the strength of our high purpose. 

Thus, this is a victory for the freedom of the American Negro, but it is also a victory for the freedom of the American nation, and every family across this great, entire, searching land will live stronger in liberty, will live more splendid in expectation, and will be prouder to be American because of the act that you have passed, and that I will sign today. 

Remarks in the Capitol Rotunda at the signing of the Voting Rights Act, August 6th, 1965.

John Wilson:  On September 29th, the National Foundation of the Arts and the Humanities was created.  This new law was the future of several pieces of legislation.  It was described as the reawakening, the quickening, and, above all, the unstunted growth of our cultural vitality.
It was authorized by this act that schools buy equipment to teach arts and humanities and to finance training institutes for the teachers and the arts and humanities.

Executive Committee Member Princess Moss:  In the long history of man, countless empires and nations have come and gone.  Those which created no lasting works of art are reduced today to short footnotes in history's catalogue.

Art is a nation's most precious heritage, for it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves and to others the inner vision which guides us as a nation.  And where there is no vision, the people perish. 

This new bill creating the National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities gives us the power to turn some of those dreams and ideas into reality.  We would not have this bill but for the hard and thorough and dedicated work of some of our great legislators in both houses of the Congress.  These men and women have worked long and hard and effectively to give us this bill.

And now we have it.  Let me tell you what we are going to do with it.

Working together with the state and the local governments and with many private organizations in the arts, we will create a national theater to bring ancient and modern classics of the theater to audiences all over America.  We will support a national opera company and a national ballet company.  We will create an American film institute, bringing together leading artists of the film industry, outstanding educators, and young men and women who wish to pursue the 20th century art form as their life's work.

We will commission new works of music by American composers.  We will support our symphony orchestras.  We will bring more great artists to our schools and universities by creating grants for their time in residence.

But these actions and others soon to follow cannot alone achieve our goals.  To produce true and lasting results, our states and municipalities, our schools and our great private foundations must join forces with us.  It is in the neighborhoods of each community that a nation's art is born.

In countless American towns, there live thousands of obscure and unknown talent.  What this bill really does is to bring active support to this great national asset, to make fresher the winds of art in this great land of ours.

The arts and the humanities belong to the people, for it is, after all, the people who create them.

Remarks at the signing of the Arts and Humanities Bill, September 29th, 1965.

John Wilson:  On November the 8th, President Johnson signed the Higher Education Act with the goal of strengthening United States colleges and universities.  It was the first congressional approval creating scholarships and low interest loans for students, and it increased federal money given to universities.  The act also established a National Teachers Corps which was designed to improve elementary and secondary education in needy urban and rural areas.

Executive Committee member Leonard Paolillo:  In a very few moments I will put my signature on the Higher Education Act of 1965.
The President's signature upon this legislation passed by this Congress will swing open a new door for the young people of America.  For them and for this entire land of ours, it is the most important door that will ever open    the door to education.  And this legislation is the key which unlocks it. 

To thousands of young men and women, this act means the path of knowledge is open to all that have a determination to walk in.  It means a way to deeper personal fulfillment, greater personal productivity, and increased personal reward.

This bill, which I will make law, is an incentive to stay in school.  It means that a high school senior, anywhere in this great land of ours, can apply to any college or any university in any of the 50 states and not be turned away because his family is poor.

So to thousands of young people, education will be available, and it's a truism that education is no longer a luxury.  Education in this day and age is a necessity.  And in my judgment, this nation can never make a wiser or more profitable investment anywhere else.  This bill that I will signing will help our colleges and our universities add grasp to their reach for new knowledge and enlightenment.  From this act will also come a new partnership between campus and community, turning the ivory towers of learning into the allies of a better life in our cities.
Too many people for too many years argued that education and health and human welfare were not the government's concern.  And while they spoke, our schools fell behind, our sick people went unattended, and our poor fell deeper into despair.  But now, at last, we have quit talking and started acting.  You have witnessed a historic moment.  You should carry the memory and the meaning of this moment with you throughout your life.

And when you look into the faces of your students and your children and your grandchildren, tell them that you were there when it began.
When we leave here this morning, I want you to go back and say to your children, and to your grandchildren, and to those who come after you and follow you, tell them that we have made a promise to them.  Tell them that the truth is here for them to see, and tell them that we have opened the road and we have pulled the gates down, and the way is open, and we expect them to travel it.

Remarks at Southwest Texas State College upon the signing of the Higher Education Act, November 8th, 1965.

John Wilson:  Just as President Johnson came into office under tragic circumstances, he relinquished his post in the hope that his departure would help heal a nation divided by a controversial war.

Today, some people only remember those bookends of his presidency.  But his accomplishments were great, and they seem even more significant today, when politics is increasingly focused on tearing down opponents rather than building up our nation.

As LBJ said, "Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a good carpenter to build one."

Lyndon Baines Johnson was a good carpenter, and the laws he made are still standing strong, bulwarks of our nation's health care, education and civil rights.

As we look back on his accomplishments 45 years ago and close out this very special Independence Day celebration, I hope we can all be inspired    including our political leaders today    inspired to tackle the challenges of our time, especially in public education, because, as we all know, our nation will not truly achieve our goals of equality and justice until every student, every student, has an opportunity to attend a great public school.

Listen to the power of this man of one, and seize the day.

(NEA choir performs "Seize the Day")



  • anc_dyn_linksThe State of Our Union: Turning Hope into Action
  • anc_dyn_linksFull Text of Remarks Delivered During the 2010 July 4th Celebration
  • anc_dyn_linksText of LBJ Speeches as Read by NEA Executive Committee

RA Media Headlines

View All RA Media Articles

View All RA Speeches


facebook icon Twitter icon Flickr icon YouTube icon Instagram icon

Follow us on Twitter with the hashtag #neara16.