This Day in History: President Johnson’s ‘Forgotten American’ Speech

On this day in history, March 6, 1968, President Johnson delivered his “Forgotten American” speech, speaking on the problems facing American Indians and laying out a detailed plan of increased support for American Indian self determination.

Here is how he started the speech:

Mississippi and Utah–the Potomac and the Chattahoochee–Appalachia and Shenandoah . . . The words of the Indian have become our words–the names of our states and streams and landmarks.

His myths and his heroes enrich our literature. His lore colors our art and our language. For two centuries, the American Indian has been a symbol of the drama and excitement of the earliest America.

But for two centuries, he has been an alien in his own land.

The speech includes data that looks familiar today on the struggles faced by American Indian communities: high unemployment for adults and high drop-out rates of American Indian students. The speech continues:

The American Indian, once proud and free, is torn now between white and tribal values; between the politics and language of the white man and his own historic culture. His problems, sharpened by years of defeat and exploitation, neglect and inadequate effort, will take many years to overcome.

The speech was given nearly 50 years ago in the middle of the Civil Rights struggles of the ’60s. Johnson finished the speech with the lofty language, still waiting to be met:

But there can be no question that the government and the people of the United States have a responsibility to the Indians.

In our efforts to meet that responsibility, we must pledge to respect fully the dignity and the uniqueness of the Indian citizen.

That means partnership–not paternalism.

We must affirm the right of the first Americans to remain Indians while exercising their rights as Americans.


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