In the midst of the traumas in Selma that I described last week, President Lyndon B. Johnson went to Congress on March 15, 1965, to address the nation and to introduce the legislation that would become the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  Johnson and his administration had been working for quite some time to draft this legislation, but as the consummate legislator-become-president, LBJ wanted the timing to be right and the bill to be perfect.  Presidential aide Bill Moyers remembered LBJ’s logic:

“First, it’s got to pass.  We can’t risk defeat or dilution by filibuster on this one.  This bill has to go up there clean, simple and powerful. Second, we don’t want this bill declared unconstitutional.  This can’t be just a two line bill.  The wherefores and the therefores are insurance against that.”

Bloody Sunday in Selma changed everything, so eight days later, Dick Goodwin drafted the address that became known as “The American Promise.”  LBJ began with a straightforward yet astounding first sentence:

“I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy.”

He continued by setting this speech in its historical context:

“At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom.  So it was at Lexington and Concord.  So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.”

LBJ acknowledged the unparalleled economic prosperity of the United States and the strides that had been made in the space race but contended the issue of voting rights was of the utmost importance:

“Rarely are we met with a challenge, not to our growth or abundance, our welfare or our security, but rather to the values and the purposes and the meaning of our beloved Nation.  The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such an issue.  And should we defeat every enemy, should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation.”

To emphasize this point, LBJ cited Matthew 16:26:

“For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

Similar to the tone of JFK’s civil rights address several years earlier, LBJ made it clear the problem that faced the nation:

“There is no Negro problem.  There is no Southern problem.  There is no Northern problem.  There is only an American problem.  And we are met here tonight as Americans — not as Democrats or Republicans — we are met here as Americans to solve that problem.”

LBJ quoted the Declaration of Independence and referenced the 15th Amendment.  He then summarized the main provisions of the legislation he was proposing.  He reminded Congress that the legislation sent by JFK and ultimately signed by LBJ as the 1964 Civil Rights Act had originally included a voting rights provision that Congress removed.  Then, reminiscent of an argument made many times by Martin Luther King, Jr., LBJ argued the time for action had come:

“This time, on this issue, there must be no delay, no hesitation and no compromise with our purpose.  We cannot, we must not, refuse to protect the right of every American to vote in every election that he may desire to participate in.  And we ought not and we cannot and we must not wait another 8 months before we get a bill.  We have already waited a hundred years and more, and the time for waiting is gone.”

LBJ several times quoted the anthem of the civil rights movement and positioned this movement as a responsibility for the nation:

“What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America.  It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.  Their cause must be our cause too.  Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.  And we shall overcome.”

He then expressed support for the efforts of civil rights protestors:

“The real hero of this struggle is the American Negro.  His actions and protests, his courage to risk safety and even to risk his life, have awakened the conscience of this Nation.  His demonstrations have been designed to call attention to injustice, designed to provoke change, designed to stir reform.”

LBJ consistently tied the issue of civil rights back into key components of his Great Society program — housing, education, employment, and other anti-poverty measures.  He concluded by referencing the Latin motto above the pyramid on our paper currency:

“God will not favor everything that we do.  It is rather our duty to divine His will.  But I cannot help believing that He truly understands and that He really favors the undertaking that we begin here tonight.”

 

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