Thirty years ago in a 1965 speech delivered at Howard University’s commencement, Lyndon Johnson set out the terms on which his administration intended to pursue affirmative action. More than civil rights legislation was needed in order to achieve racial equality, the president insisted. With this in mind, he came to the heart of his speech, a short, one-sentence paragraph in which he declared, “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all others,’ and still justly believe you have been completely fair:’
In trying to sum up America’s racial struggles in a metaphor that did them justice, Johnson was following a long presidential tradition. In 1820, Thomas Jefferson, himself a slave owner, described the slavery issue as a “fire-bell in the night.” In that masterful figure of speech he captured the danger of racism and the nation’s need...
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