As we enter part 6, the last post in our series on President Lyndon Johnson’s March 1965 “We Shall Overcome” speech, we look at the context of the speech—how it was made, delivered, and received.
President Johnson had not planned to give the speech at all; he was sending his Voting Rights Act bill to Congress and usually when presidents send a bill to Congress they attach a brief message to it and that’s all. Few presidents will make a public speech to Congress urging the passage of a pending bill because a) members of Congress don’t like being pressured publicly to pass things, and b) if the bill is not passed, then the president loses some clout. But at the last moment—the day before the speech was given—Johnson decided this particular bill needed more than a note. We have applauded speechwriter Richard Goodwin for drafting the We Shall Overcome speech in record time, working overnight on the 14th/15th, with Johnson’s direct order to use “every ounce of moral persuasion the Presidency had… with no hedging, no equivocation”. Goodwin delivered on that request. The actual title of the speech was “The American Promise”, but like so many things in U.S. history and culture it became known by a different name—Johnson’s use of the dynamic civil rights promise “We Shall Overcome” destined the speech to be known by that name.
The genius of the speech, and of Johnson’s delivery, lies in its ability to make voting rights for black Americans personal for all Americans. As Americans, they inherited a mission, and if they refused to carry out that mission, they were betraying their country. This was at the very start of some public doubt about the nation’s involvement in Vietnam, when calling on people to fight for their country was beginning to ring hollow, but here was a forum where everyone could be on board—or, at least refusing to get on board was much more difficult. If Americans weren’t sure they were fighting for liberty and justice in Vietnam, they could be very sure they were fighting for it at home, in the form of voting equality. This was a goal that suited both the radical agenda of social revolutionaries and the more square patriotic agenda of their elders. It even made “summoning into convocation all the majesty of this great government” (not something many average Americans, let alone hippies, could have said without blushing) seem not only necessary, but just and commendable and faith-inspiring.
By calling on the nation to fulfill its covenant with God and man, Johnson made passive acceptance of racial discrimination impossible and a kind of passive action to end it possible: that is, Southern Congressmen who did not want to vote for civil rights legislation could do it with the excuse to their constituents that the president had made it impossible not to, that the tide had turned, and that everyone was going to have to find a new way of getting around. No one likes it, they might say, but that’s how it has to be now. Appealing to the ideal of America itself, rather than existing constitutional amendments that some might say should be overturned, forced opponents of civil rights into the untenable position of arguing against America itself, of betraying the nation’s identity, of being un-American.
Reaction to the speech was very positive and action was swift. As Garth Pauley puts it in his book LBJ’s America: the 1965 Voting Rights Address:
In their coverage of his speech, many journalists lauded the president for invoking and affirming “the most sacred and deeply held convictions of a nation,” which brought “the present chapter of the struggle for human rights into proper perspective.” Citizens echoed these sentiments in their letters and telegrams to the White House. And when editorialists urged swift passage of the president’s bill, their appeals employed the language of Johnson’s narrative: The New York Times even suggested passage was a foregone conclusion because a “people that has responded unflinchingly to every trial of national purpose . . . will not fail this test.” Moreover, following President Johnson’s speech, members of Congress deliberated voting rights legislation using the language of America’s destiny, promise, and purpose. Senators and congressmen claimed that the nation must “make good on its promise… [to] fulfill the revolutionary dream of freedom and equality for all Americans” by “passing a bill which [sic] fully insures that every American… has the right to vote”—which will represent a step “along this nation’s honored march toward further fulfillment of our traditional goals of equal opportunity and equal treatment.” Congress indeed passed the final voting rights bill less than five months after Johnson’s speech. The president signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law on August 6, emphasizing at the signing ceremony that America had righted a historical wrong, enacted its sacred principles, confirmed its promise, and now would endeavor to “fulfill the rights that we now secure.”
Pauley goes on to speculate about the ability of a president today to refer to and rely on a shared moral high ground in America to gather support for a bill, and it’s a thoughtful note to end this series on:
Finding a shared moral language out of which a president can fashion a persuasive appeal is difficult. President Johnson effectively grounded his appeals in a potent narrative that focused on public morality–his listeners’ civic duty to keep and fulfill the sacred American Promise. But as the citizenry continues to become more religiously and culturally diverse, less schooled in the narratives of the nation’s history, more aware of how such narratives can be used to justify depraved causes as well as honorable ones, and perhaps less influenced by the moral authority of the presidency, presidents may find it especially tricky to build moral consensus through oratory. Consider this problem from a perspective afforded by studying Johnson’s speech. He used oratory to help secure the significant public good of equal voting rights, primarily by appealing to the American Promise–of which the Constitution is one expression–rather than the Constitution itself. But could Johnson have crafted such a stirring, persuasive appeal on the basis of constitutional guarantees alone? Would his listeners have found it as moving, meaningful, and motivational? Would we find it as eloquent today?