History Lessons: “Great Society” Facts

U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson delivered U-M’s most famous commencement speech in 1964. Learn the story of what led to that event.
By Gregory Lucas-Myers, ’10


Read time: 2 minutes

On the morning May 22, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson, HDCL’64, delivered the Spring Commencement keynote address to more than 70,000 people in Michigan Stadium. In his iconic “Great Society” speech, Johnson laid out his vision of a country with vast resources and knowledge that would “have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life.”

In celebration of U-M’s “double” commencement this year—the 2022 Spring Commencement on April 30 and the 2020 Comeback Commencement on May 7—following are five factoids about the most famous U-M commencement of them all.

President John F. Kennedy originally received the commencement speech invite. U-M President Harlan Hatcher wrote to the White House in October 1963 to try to arrange for Kennedy to speak the following May. The idea was for Kennedy to speak at U-M following his 1960 Michigan Union speech, in which he planted the seeds for the Peace Corps. Kennedy’s office could not commit to the event, owing to ever-changing demands for the president’s time and attention.

Following the assassination of Kennedy in November, Hatcher reached out to the White House in December. Johnson’s office could not commit at the time, but said to check back in April.

To accommodate Johnson’s schedule, commencement itself had to change. Johnson called Hatcher to accept the commencement invite on April 14—but on the condition that the event be a day earlier. Commencement was moved up from Saturday, May 23, to Friday, May 22.

Johnson’s trip to Ann Arbor was used to bring attention to other causes. Among the Ann Arbor locals who demonstrated for their causes was a group from the Direct Action Committee, an African American rights organization who wanted to shine a light on police brutality.

Johnson’s turn at the podium was the first U-M commencement speech ever to be televised.

Video recording courtesy of C-SPAN

Johnson gifted his text of the speech in an unexpected format. University archivists requested the original text of the speech, and Johnson was happy to oblige—by sending his index notecards, direct from his suit pocket and kept together on a ring. The President even provided his autograph on the cards, which are stored at the U-M Bentley Historical Library.

The full transcript and more insight into President Johnson’s “Great Society” commencement address are available at the U-M Bentley Historical Library.

Gregory Lucas-Myers, ’10, is senior assistant editor of Michigan Alum.

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