“The command of the Constitution is plain”: Johnson’s We Shall Overcome Speech
Hello and welcome to part 3 of our series on President Lyndon Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech, delivered on live TV on March 15, 1965. Today we jump right back in where we left off in this groundbreaking speech in part 1, as Johnson moves on from his powerful re-definition of the “Negro Problem” as the “American Problem”.
[under the heading “THE RIGHT TO VOTE”]
“Our fathers believed that if this noble view of the rights of man was to flourish, it must be rooted in democracy. The most basic right of all was the right to choose your own leaders. The history of this country, in large measure, is the history of the expansion of that right to all of our people. Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex and most difficult. But about this there can and should be no argument. Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.
Yet the harsh fact is that in many places in this country men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes.”
—Again, Johnson is direct. (We have already shouted out to the man who wrote this speech, presidential speechwriter Richard Goodwin. He put into powerful, unafraid, and unapologetic words what Johnson believed.) Democracy exists to protect and promote individual rights, primarily the right to be governed by free consent. There is absolutely no justification for denying any citizen of a democracy their civil rights, including the right to vote. Race, the ultimate justification for discrimination, is shut down and ignored.
“Every device of which human ingenuity is capable has been used to deny this right. The Negro citizen may go to register only to be told that the day is wrong, or the hour is late, or the official in charge is absent. And if he persists, and if he manages to present himself to the registrar, he may be disqualified because he did not spell out his middle name or because he abbreviated a word on the application. And if he manages to fill out an application he is given a test. The registrar is the sole judge of whether he passes this test. He may be asked to recite the entire Constitution, or explain the most complex provisions of State law. And even a college degree cannot be used to prove that he can read and write. For the fact is that the only way to pass these barriers is to show a white skin.”
—Johnson would have seen all of these barriers to black voting in action growing up in Texas. They would have been accepted as necessary to the democratic process: if black Americans voted, they would vote in liberals who would change national law to get rid of Jim Crow (legal racial segregation and discrimination). You couldn’t let black citizens vote because they would vote to destroy the Southern way of life. Everyone was better off in their place, whites on top, blacks on the bottom, and so all the tricks Johnson describes were played to maintain the status quo. But Johnson strips away this social justification, this threat of political and social anarchy, to leave racial discrimination exposed for the world to see and to judge as the primitive, tyrannical beast that it is.
“Experience has clearly shown that the existing process of law cannot overcome systematic and ingenious discrimination. No law that we now have on the books—and I have helped to put three of them there—can ensure the right to vote when local officials are determined to deny it. In such a case our duty must be clear to all of us. The Constitution says that no person shall be kept from voting because of his race or his color. We have all sworn an oath before God to support and to defend that Constitution. We must now act in obedience to that oath.”
—“What can I do about it? I’m just one person against a whole system”: this is the easy stand that Johnson assails next. If you see something, you have to do something. If you see injustice, you have to end that injustice. Americans have a duty not only to justice but to God himself to defend the Constitution that grants civil rights to all. God is decisively moved from the side of racism (“God made the races unequal”) to the side of equality. It’s also noteworthy that Johnson mentions his own legislation as part of the impotent failure of law to address injustice thus far: Johnson was not a man who brooked failure, and he would move heaven and earth, as most people knew, to accomplish something he wanted to see accomplished. This was the type of man who was now dedicating himself to real equality in America.
[Under the heading “GUARANTEEING THE RIGHT TO VOTE”]
“Wednesday I will send to Congress a law designed to eliminate illegal barriers to the right to vote. The broad principles of that bill will be in the hands of the Democratic and Republican leaders tomorrow. After they have reviewed it, it will come here formally as a bill. I am grateful for this opportunity to come here tonight at the invitation of the leadership to reason with my friends, to give them my views, and to visit with my former colleagues. I have had prepared a more comprehensive analysis of the legislation which I had intended to transmit to the clerk tomorrow but which I will submit to the clerks tonight. But I want to really discuss with you now briefly the main proposals of this legislation.”
—We are in real time here: there’s no misty and ill-defined future date at which Johnson will begin unspecified efforts to make sure black Americans can vote. Johnson was speaking on Monday the 15th. On Wednesday the 17th, he will have a draft law before Congress, and they will have been prepped for that by the analysis he is giving the Congressional clerk that very evening, once he’s done speaking to the nation.
Where does Johnson get the confidence to move so quickly? He had been the master of Congress during his many years there. He was a man who knew every member of Congress: knew them personally, sought them out, knew their families, their constituents, what they wanted, what they hated, who they needed to be introduced to, what they would and would not be willing to trade to achieve their goals. Johnson was renowned for turning a handshake into an intimate encounter, putting his face just millimeters from the other man’s face, gripping his arm, telling him what he had to do for Johnson, and asking him what he needed in return. When he comes now as president to “visit with his former colleagues”, they know he will drill right down to their souls from the word go.
“This bill will strike down restrictions to voting in all elections—Federal, State, and local—which have been used to deny Negroes the right to vote. This bill will establish a simple, uniform standard which cannot be used, however ingenious the effort, to flout our Constitution. It will provide for citizens to be registered by officials of the United States Government if the State officials refuse to register them. It will eliminate tedious, unnecessary lawsuits which delay the right to vote. Finally, this legislation will ensure that properly registered individuals are not prohibited from voting.”
—That’s one powerful piece of legislation. Is it really possible to create a law or a standard that cannot be perverted or denied? The only way to ensure that the law Johnson gets passed is upheld is for every American to take up its banner and get out on the streets and uphold it. See something, say something. Johnson believes we will do this.
“I will welcome the suggestions from all of the Members of Congress—I have no doubt that I will get some—on ways and means to strengthen this law and to make it effective. But experience has plainly shown that this is the only path to carry out the command of the Constitution. To those who seek to avoid action by their National Government in their own communities; who want to and who seek to maintain purely local control over elections, the answer is simple: Open your polling places to all your people. Allow men and women to register and vote whatever the color of their skin. Extend the rights of citizenship to every citizen of this land.”
—The understatement of the clause in the first sentence is classic. Johnson goes on to address the heart of the refusal to let black Americans vote (that they will elect national leaders who will force state governments to remove their racist laws) here: “those who seek to avoid action by their National Government in their own communities; who want to and who seek to maintain purely local control over elections”. Johnson does not offer these people a safety net. He flatly says there is no way forward but to give up that control over local elections.
[Under the heading “THE NEED FOR ACTION”]
“There is no constitutional issue here. The command of the Constitution is plain. There is no moral issue. It is wrong—deadly wrong—to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country. There is no issue of States rights or national rights. There is only the struggle for human rights.”
—Once more our hats are off to Richard Goodwin for writing this, and Johnson for delivering it. There is absolutely no legal justification for denying black citizens the vote. None. The old arguments about the Constitution guaranteeing states the right to conduct their own elections, about black people threatening our democracy with an ignorant vote, about some people being qualified intellectually to vote and others not being qualified—all are put into the bonfire. Nothing in the American founding principles justifies or calls for or condones racial discrimination in voting. The end.
“I have not the slightest doubt what will be your answer. The last time a President sent a civil rights bill to the Congress it contained a provision to protect voting rights in Federal elections. That civil rights bill was passed after 8 long months of debate. And when that bill came to my desk from the Congress for my signature, the heart of the voting provision had been eliminated. 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.’
—You think Johnson is going to say, “I know your answer will be Yes! Yes, I’ll get on board! I support you, President Johnson!” But we are thrown for a loop as he basically says, I know you don’t want to do this. Southerners don’t want this because it wrecks up their system; Northerners don’t want it because they are sick of racial violence in the South and want to forget about it. Johnson references Kennedy, saying if this popular president couldn’t inspire you to do this work, I know I can’t. But he doesn’t give up. He takes the nation in close, puts his face close to ours, and says into our ears, “You have to do this for me. This has to be done.”
“So I ask you to join me in working long hours—nights and weekends, if necessary—to pass this bill. And I don’t make that request lightly. For from the window where I sit with the problems of our country I recognize that outside this chamber is the outraged conscience of a nation, the grave concern of many nations, and the harsh judgment of history on our acts.”
—Again, Johnson tells us we now have a full-time job: upholding and extending the right to vote. We all just signed an employment agreement, and now we’re on the clock, no breaks, no vacations. Why? Because U.S. failure to live up to its founding ideals has torn this country apart, and inspired the disdain and contempt of the world, and while it’s too late to prevent history books from displaying our past failures, we can provide a date on which racial prejudice in the U.S. ended and a new era began: March 1965.
So we see the definition, the existence, the quality of the nation itself is in the balance here. What is more important than swinging that balance toward the good, the admirable, the American? What is more important than America being American by living up to its defining ideals? Nothing.