“This is one Nation”: Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech
Hello and welcome to part 4 of our series on President Lyndon Johnson’s March 1965 “We Shall Overcome” speech demanding not only equal voting rights for black Americans, but an overhaul of American society to embrace justice. Last time, we were asking whether any voting rights law passed by Congress could really be enforced. Many pieces of legislation guaranteeing voting equality were already on the books, and gathering dust there as states went their own way and continued to deny black citizens their rights, loudly claiming that they had state sovereignty and a “special” way of life to protect.
Johnson addresses this concern as we go forward, so let’s pick that up:
[under the heading “WE SHALL OVERCOME”]
“But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. 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.”
—Here, listeners would have wondered if they had really just heard their uptight-looking, cantankerous white Southern president quote the famous rallying cry of the civil rights movement. And had he really just said that all Americans inherit the burden and shame of racism and injustice? Again, we see Johnson’s insistence that racism was not a “negro problem”, an issue that trouble-making radicals kept bringing up or making up, but part of the fabric of American life and the part that needed to be ripped out and replaced, not honored and enshrined as “tradition”.
“As a man whose roots go deeply into Southern soil I know how agonizing racial feelings are. I know how difficult it is to reshape the attitudes and the structure of our society. But a century has passed, more than a hundred years, since the Negro was freed. And he is not fully free tonight. It was more than a hundred years ago that Abraham Lincoln, a great President of another party, signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but emancipation is a proclamation and not a fact. A century has passed, more than a hundred years, since equality was promised. And yet the Negro is not equal.
A century has passed since the day of promise. And the promise is unkept.”
—That first sentence is enormous. It says that Johnson is proud of being from the South. That he has seen racism in the South, and the damage it does. Between the lines, but not invisible, is the idea that racism causes “agony” for its victims and its perpetrators, which may well include Johnson who, growing up in the South, likely perpetrated racism in his youth. Racism causes agony in a few ways: it forces white people to be dissatisfied with society, and to long for a whites-only world where they are unchallenged; it leads white people to believe they must commit crimes and terrible acts to bring that whites-only world into being; it forces black people to live apart from and in fear of white people; it exposes black people to the agony of death, injury, rape, and terror at the hands of racists; and finally, it eats away at the nation and our founding beliefs. It is time, 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, to exit this horrible trap of racism and the endless churn, murder, anguish, and rage it produces.
“The time of justice has now come. I tell you that I believe sincerely that no force can hold it back. It is right in the eyes of man and God that it should come. And when it does, I think that day will brighten the lives of every American. For Negroes are not the only victims. How many white children have gone uneducated, how many white families have lived in stark poverty, how many white lives have been scarred by fear, because we have wasted our energy and our substance to maintain the barriers of hatred and terror?
So I say to all of you here, and to all in the Nation tonight, that those who appeal to you to hold on to the past do so at the cost of denying you your future. This great, rich, restless country can offer opportunity and education and hope to all: black and white, North and South, sharecropper and city dweller. These are the enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease. They are the enemies and not our fellow man, not our neighbor. And these enemies too, poverty, disease and ignorance, we shall overcome.”
—Again Johnson invokes God, and firmly re-settles him on the side of equality rather than racism, which was a significant change of address for the Lord for many Americans. Then he goes deeper into the “agony” of entrenched racism, describing how it divides whites and uses terror on those who don’t live up to their perceived duty to keep black people down, and describing the poverty of white people in states where so much time and money and resources are devoted to keeping black people down that there is nothing left to raise poor whites up—they are told that their membership in the white race is enough for them. It was daring of Johnson to address this directly, as so many poor whites clung on to that trade-off of racial superiority in place of real security, comfort, and achievement. To blame white Southern society for this situation rather than fall back on the old yarn that the North victimized the South so cruelly after the Civil War that the South could never fully recover was a step in a new direction. Even addressing this issue was a step in a new direction: name the president who had dared to talk openly about white poverty in the South and describe its real cause.
[under the heading “AN AMERICAN PROBLEM”]
“Now let none of us in any sections look with prideful righteousness on the troubles in another section, or on the problems of our neighbors. There is really no part of America where the promise of equality has been fully kept. In Buffalo as well as in Birmingham, in Philadelphia as well as in Selma, Americans are struggling for the fruits of freedom.
This is one Nation. What happens in Selma or in Cincinnati is a matter of legitimate concern to every American. But let each of us look within our own hearts and our own communities, and let each of us put our shoulder to the wheel to root out injustice wherever it exists. As we meet here in this peaceful, historic chamber tonight, men from the South, some of whom were at Iwo Jima, men from the North who have carried Old Glory to far corners of the world and brought it back without a stain on it, men from the East and from the West, are all fighting together without regard to religion, or color, or region, in Viet-Nam. Men from every region fought for us across the world 20 years ago. And in these common dangers and these common sacrifices the South made its contribution of honor and gallantry no less than any other region of the great Republic—and in some instances, a great many of them, more. And I have not the slightest doubt that good men from everywhere in this country, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Golden Gate to the harbors along the Atlantic, will rally together now in this cause to vindicate the freedom of all Americans. For all of us owe this duty; and I believe that all of us will respond to it. Your President makes that request of every American.”
—How is it that Americans, Southern and Northern, will fight around the world for peace and justice, and enter without fear the worst maelstrom of war in human history, World War II, without a look back, and fight even now in Vietnam for freedom from Communism, but find fighting in the war against racism too hard, too doomed, too unconvincing? Is it because they don’t feel they have a mandate? Let the president offer one now.
[under the heading “PROGRESS THROUGH THE DEMOCRATIC PROCESS”]
“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. He has called upon us to make good the promise of America. And who among us can say that we would have made the same progress were it not for his persistent bravery, and his faith in American democracy.”
—As we saw in part 2, Johnson is again saying black Americans are the true Americans. As he did earlier in the speech, Johnson says black Americans are the heroes of justice and liberty, the Minutemen of the national conscience, the lonely supporters of American ideals. Black Americans have been carrying white dead weight for 200 years, dragging whites along the road to freedom, dealing with white crimes, lies, and selfishness along the way in hopes of achieving real democracy for all. It’s time for white Americans to get down off black Americans’ backs and do their part.
“For at the real heart of battle for equality is a deep-seated belief in the democratic process. Equality depends not on the force of arms or tear gas but upon the force of moral right; not on recourse to violence but on respect for law and order. There have been many pressures upon your President and there will be others as the days come and go. But I pledge you tonight that we intend to fight this battle where it should be fought: in the courts, and in the Congress, and in the hearts of men. We must preserve the right of free speech and the right of free assembly. But the right of free speech does not carry with it, as has been said, the right to holler fire in a crowded theater. We must preserve the right to free assembly, but free assembly does not carry with it the right to block public thoroughfares to traffic. We do have a right to protest, and a right to march under conditions that do not infringe the constitutional rights of our neighbors. And I intend to protect all those rights as long as I am permitted to serve in this office. We will guard against violence, knowing it strikes from our hands the very weapons which we seek—progress, obedience to law, and belief in American values.”
—The courts, the Congress, and the hearts of men: that’s a pretty expansive theater of war. But Johnson knows that just passing more laws that aren’t enforced in the courts, or never reach the courts because they are never put into effect on the local level, won’t help, and will even set back the cause of civil rights. In the immediate term, Johnson will uphold the rights of black and white Americans to march in civil rights protests. Remember that he is giving this speech in response to Alabama state troopers viciously attacking peaceful marchers in Selma, Alabama. Those police officers had no justification for doing that—they were breaking the law, preventing citizens from upholding the Constitution, and fostering crime. Johnson is ready to take on the entrenched force for racism that was “law enforcement” in the South and the rest of the nation.
“In Selma as elsewhere we seek and pray for peace. We seek order. We seek unity. But we will not accept the peace of stifled rights, or the order imposed by fear, or the unity that stifles protest. For peace cannot be purchased at the cost of liberty. In Selma tonight, as in every—and we had a good day there—as in every city, we are working for just and peaceful settlement. We must all remember that after this speech I am making tonight, after the police and the FBI and the Marshals have all gone, and after you have promptly passed this bill, the people of Selma and the other cities of the Nation must still live and work together. And when the attention of the Nation has gone elsewhere they must try to heal the wounds and to build a new community. This cannot be easily done on a battleground of violence, as the history of the South itself shows. It is in recognition of this that men of both races have shown such an outstandingly impressive responsibility in recent days—last Tuesday, again today.”
—Saying that the president will uphold the rights of citizens is easier than making it happen. How can Johnson really guarantee the safety of black people in Selma once federal forces are gone, and the white establishment is left alone to deal with black people as it will (as it always has)? Johnson holds out hope that people on both sides, black and white, are ready to start something new which, crucially, means that at least some white people are willing to opt out of the predictable, socially mandated retribution that would leave more black men lynched, more black houses burned, more black women raped, more black families intimidated. Maybe, at last, some people are tired of living in a perpetual “battleground of violence”, and that, combined with federal scrutiny and TV cameras, will make change possible.
In this section of the speech, Johnson spoke as an insider pulling back a thick, heavy curtain to show the world the workings of the society he grew up in. He minced no words about the necessity of racism to the Southern status quo. He intimated that he too necessarily participated in that racism growing up in the South. Next time, he will do more than intimate about his own past, and he will conclude his speech with a personal call to the nation.