“You never forget what poverty and hatred can do”: Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech
Hello and welcome to part 5 of our series on President Lyndon Johnson’s March 1965 “We Shall Overcome” speech, a clarion call for voting equality in the U.S. We wrap up the speech itself here, which embraces the general and the very personally specific in its range:
[UNDER THE HEADING “RIGHTS MUST BE RESPONSIBILITIES”]
“The bill that I am presenting to you will be known as a civil rights bill. But, in a larger sense, most of the program I am recommending is a civil rights program. Its object is to open the city of hope to all people of all races.
Because all Americans just must have the right to vote. And we are going to give them that right.”
—The return to simple language here after the impressive rhetoric of the midpoint of the speech is in itself powerful, because it is the gateway to President Johnson speaking about his personal experience with race. It also makes a simple point simply: All Americans just must have the right to vote. It’s hard to argue with an idea so simple and so just.
“All Americans must have the privileges of citizenship regardless of race. And they are going to have those privileges of citizenship regardless of race. But I would like to caution you and remind you that to exercise these privileges takes much more than just legal right. It requires a trained mind and a healthy body. It requires a decent home, and the chance to find a job, and the opportunity to escape from the clutches of poverty. Of course, people cannot contribute to the Nation if they are never taught to read or write, if their bodies are stunted from hunger, if their sickness goes untended, if their life is spent in hopeless poverty just drawing a welfare check.
So we want to open the gates to opportunity. But we are also going to give all our people, black and white, the help that they need to walk through those gates.”
—Johnson had just won a landslide election in November 1964, and in January 1965 (two months before the We Shall Overcome speech), Johnson gave his State of the Union address outlining his Great Society program, which would comprehensively reform civil rights in this nation. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was the first plank in the Great Society, the “program I am recommending”, and so we see Johnson not only pushing hard on voting rights, but saying it is only the first part of a huge, long-term, thoroughgoing, exhaustive process of national change. It’s unusual to end a major speech with a major add-on to the topic you have been speaking on, but Johnson wanted the nation to be prepared for the other changes he would be introducing in 1965.
[UNDER THE HEADING “THE PURPOSE OF THIS GOVERNMENT”]
“My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas, in a small Mexican-American school. Few of them could speak English, and I couldn’t speak much Spanish. My students were poor and they often came to class without breakfast, hungry. They knew even in their youth the pain of prejudice. They never seemed to know why people disliked them. But they knew it was so, because I saw it in their eyes. I often walked home late in the afternoon, after the classes were finished, wishing there was more that I could do. But all I knew was to teach them the little that I knew, hoping that it might help them against the hardships that lay ahead.
Somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child.”
—Johnson would always claim that in his crusade for the Great Society, he was only fulfilling the late President Kennedy’s dream of civil rights legislation. He did this because Kennedy was popular in life and untouchable, at that point, in death. But it is hard to picture John Kennedy ever telling the story Johnson tells here. It’s not only because it’s hard to imagine Kennedy being pierced by an encounter with racism. Had any president to that time ever told a story of witnessing racism at work in his home town? Of feeling like a helpless bystander or witness to the poison of racism as administered to children? Of watching children accept their place as despised minorities in their society? One gets the real feeling that Johnson was pierced by this experience, and that he did not ever forget it, and he could not rest easy with this facet of American society. Just as Abraham Lincoln witnessed racism in his youth but did nothing to intervene—did not believe intervention would ever be possible–but then underwent a powerful change that led him to commit himself to a political solution to slavery, so Johnson has now changed and is committing himself, in this speech, to a political solution to racism.
“I never thought then, in 1928, that I would be standing here in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country.
But now I do have that chance—and I’ll let you in on a secret—I mean to use it. And I hope that you will use it with me.”
—Those who knew him knew that when Johnson meant to do something, he did it. So the president was going ahead with civil rights reform, whether the rest of the nation is on board or not, but he believes we will take our chance to end racism and inequality, as he does.
“This is the richest and most powerful country which ever occupied the globe. The might of past empires is little compared to ours. But I do not want to be the President who built empires, or sought grandeur, or extended dominion. I want to be the President who educated young children to the wonders of their world. I want to be the President who helped to feed the hungry and to prepare them to be taxpayers instead of tax eaters. I want to be the President who helped the poor to find their own way and who protected the right of every citizen to vote in every election. I want to be the President who helped to end hatred among his fellow men and who promoted love among the people of all races and all regions and all parties. I want to be the President who helped to end war among the brothers of this earth.”
—Johnson would be haunted by claims like this as Vietnam grew and grew, and the American drive to fight Communism began to seem like just another imperial compulsion. But no matter how his foreign policy soured, Johnson would always believe in his domestic policy, the Great Society, that he outlines here. It was one of his deepest frustrations that the Great Society seemed to fade into oblivion as opposition to the war grew, and took center stage in the American mind.
“And so at the request of your beloved Speaker and the Senator from Montana; the majority leader, the Senator from Illinois; the minority leader, Mr. McCulloch, and other Members of both parties, I came here tonight—not as President Roosevelt came down one time in person to veto a bonus bill, not as President Truman came down one time to urge the passage of a railroad bill—but I came down here to ask you to share this task with me and to share it with the people that we both work for. I want this to be the Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, which did all these things for all these people.”
—This is not just another example of pork, of a president pushing or killing a particular piece of legislation for short-term gain. This is about the heart and soul of the nation. Johnson ropes in many other political leaders to stand with him, to emphasize his intention to get everyone on board with the program.
“Beyond this great chamber, out yonder in 50 States, are the people that we serve. Who can tell what deep and unspoken hopes are in their hearts tonight as they sit there and listen. We all can guess, from our own lives, how difficult they often find their own pursuit of happiness, how many problems each little family has. They look most of all to themselves for their futures. But I think that they also look to each of us.”
—Johnson reminds the Congressional leaders he has just named that they are supposed to be helping people. They sit there in the Capitol building not for their own power and reputation, but to accomplish things for the people, to help people lead better lives. And one can see that Johnson may be referring to black Americans watching out yonder in the 50 States, with deep and unspoken hopes in their hearts that maybe, at last, finally, something is really going to change.
“Above the pyramid on the great seal of the United States it says—in Latin—“God has favored our undertaking.” 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.”
With an invocation of both God and John Kennedy, Johnson may have wrangled enough of a blessing to win over the American people. If the American people do not or will not understand the need for civil rights reform, Johnson hopefully states that God does, and God approves. At any rate, regardless of who approves and who doesn’t, the work begins now: the undertaking begins tonight, it’s already in motion, it’s on. With these words, Johnson closed his speech.