“This is one Nation”: Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech

Posted on April 17, 2014. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

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.

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What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? – Johnson’s We shall overcome speech

Posted on April 3, 2014. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Politics | Tags: , , , , |

Welcome to part 2 of our series on President Lyndon Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech, delivered on live TV to the nation on March 15, 1965. In this post, we will begin our close reading of this pivotal declaration that America was founded on the promise of civil rights for all—if not immediately, then inexorably, as time passed, and we grew wiser and more powerful in our commitment to natural rights, human freedom, and an American ideal of liberty and justice for all.

Let’s get right into it, as Johnson did that evening:

“Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, Members of the Congress:

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

I urge every member of both parties, Americans of all religions and of all colors, from every section of this country, to join me in that cause.”

—Somehow the phrase “Members of the Congress” leaps out at us as more than a description of the House and Senate. We are all, as Americans, members of a congress that was and to a large extent still is unique in the world. We are a congress of nations and peoples joined together in a perpetual union as Americans. This is reiterated by Johnson’s description of us as being from “all religions and all colors, from every section”. To this Congress of Americans, Johnson speaks “for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy”; the two are inseparable, one can’t live without the other. This is a message that some Americans have always and are still trying to shut down, but Johnson is putting it in the spotlight.

“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. There, long-suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many were brutally assaulted. One good man, a man of God, was killed.”

Connecting—equating—the white policemen in Selma with the British regulars at Lexington and Concord and with the Confederate leadership at Appomattox was daring. Johnson is very clear here: the white police of Selma fought and killed Americans trying to exercise their rights and freedoms as Americans. There is no other way to define it. They were not protecting Southern society, or Southern womanhood, or keeping down violent blacks, or maintaining law and order, or upholding the law of the land, or any of the other justifications racial violence was so constantly wrapped in by its perpetrators.

“There is no cause for pride in what has happened in Selma. There is no cause for self-satisfaction in the long denial of equal rights of millions of Americans. But there is cause for hope and for faith in our democracy in what is happening here tonight. For the cries of pain and the hymns and protests of oppressed people have summoned into convocation all the majesty of this great Government—the Government of the greatest Nation on earth. Our mission is at once the oldest and the most basic of this country: to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man.”

—The U.S. federal government has heard the cries of its people, and is about to come to their aid. Again, the idea of an American Congress made up not of a few hundred elected officials but of all American citizens, a “convocation of this great Government” is powerfully presented. Our great Government can be summoned into action by any of its people—not just whites. And that is because its mission is to take action to ensure justice, for all. When Johnson says that the mission of the U.S. federal government is the mission of the nation itself, the founding principle and demand placed on that government and on all Americans, he, like Martin Luther King, Jr., is making a powerful argument: it is not an attack on the U.S. to criticize it for failures to provide justice for all. It is a course correction. Equal rights for all races is not some foreign idea that a few people are trying to force into American government and society, it is the original basis for that government and society. The Founders intended that rights be extended to all, over time if not immediately. The history of America is one of extending rights: the right of black men to vote, then of women to vote, then of all people over 18 regardless of race, sex, or origin; the right of interracial couples to marry, then of gay couples to marry; the right of black children to attend schools with white children, and then of mentally challenged children to attend mainstream schools, and eventually of all children to attend public schools without being hampered—the list goes on. In the U.S., we extend rights, through trial and error and argument and sometimes ferocious antagonism, to more and more people. Because that is what this nation was founded to do. That is its mission.

So to demand equal civil rights for black Americans is not some disruptive, un-American demand that the nation abandon its identity and heritage and tradition. It is the usual, necessary texture of America itself. It is what Americans do, and only those who fight to restrict rights are un-American.

“In our time we have come to live with moments of great crisis. Our lives have been marked with debate about great issues; issues of war and peace, issues of prosperity and depression. But rarely in any time does an issue lay bare the secret heart of America itself. 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. For with a country as with a person, “What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

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.”

—It is Johnson speaking the words, Johnson who believed in them; Johnson who would dedicate himself to the civil rights movement, and Johnson who was willing to “betray” his southern identity by standing up for black Americans, but we must take a moment to express our thanks and gratitude to the man who wrote these magnificent words that gave Johnson a platform to stand on: presidential speech writer Richard Goodwin (husband of historian Doris Kearns Goodwin; she also worked for President Johnson). Here, through Goodwin’s words, Johnson is saying that Cold War America may think its biggest problem or threat is Communism, especially in the growing war in Vietnam, but in reality, that threat is external. It does not “lay bare the secret heart of America itself”. Fighting Communism is just a way to stand up for stated American values of freedom. Fighting for civil rights, however, runs the risk of exposing our internal conflicts, our failures to live up to our ideals, our values of freedom, our inability to fully guarantee freedom at home even as we try to export it to the rest of the world. Fighting for civil rights takes the case off the watch so everyone can see the mechanisms inside that can become stuck or loose or rusty.

Civil rights is not about external threats, from Communism or an economic downturn, but about our internal health as a nation: are we who we are supposed to be? Because in the long-term, that internal health dictates our success and our national future. The greatest threat to our national security during the Cold War does not come from outside but from within. If we do not fight for civil rights, then we have no democracy to oppose Communism with. Fail to provide civil rights, and “we will have failed as a people and as a nation”, no matter what happens in Vietnam. We could, in fact, “gain the whole world” for democracy, winning the Cold War and stamping out Communism, and be in more danger than we were before, because we lost our own American soul by denying our own people their freedom. For a Cold War American president to say that fighting Communism was not the  most important thing Americans could do was astounding.

And then the magnificent, unequivocal statement: “There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.” For centuries, black Americans had been treated as aliens by people and by our laws; they were not full citizens, not “real” Americans, and in demanding equal rights, black Americans were traitors who wanted to destroy the good society white Americans had built, one which gave black people a “place” in service to the superior race. Here Johnson, through the words of Goodwin, demolishes this lie. Blacks were not wrong to ask for equality, the problem is not some regional issue the rest of us don’t have to worry or care about, Northerners who journey South to join the fight are not traitorous instigators of a new civil war. There was murder in Selma a week earlier because Americans had yet to fully live up to their national mandate of freedom. Americans had failed, and Americans would find a solution—now.

“This was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose. The great phrases of that purpose still sound in every American heart, North and South: “All men are created equal”—“government by consent of the governed”—“give me liberty or give me death.” Well, those are not just clever words, or those are not just empty theories. In their name Americans have fought and died for two centuries, and tonight around the world they stand there as guardians of our liberty, risking their lives.”

—Just as the white police of Selma are comparable to British regulars during the Revolution, so the black Americans they attacked and killed are comparable with every white American who ever fought and died in the name of his country. Black Americans are guardians of American liberty—this is an astoundingly bold and honest statement of fact that no previous president had made since Lincoln. Even Truman and Eisenhower, the only presidents we could say made a real effort to end segregation, and men who were personally repulsed by racism, did not go this far. Black Americans had been treated as people we should pity and do favors for, out of the kindness of our hearts. Now they were the Minutemen who rode out to risk all to protect the rest of us who stayed home. They were the men in the statues erected in memory of heroes who gave their lives for liberty. Black Americans held the torch that white Americans had tried to blow out, and, failing that, had tried to hide away.

“Those words are a promise to every citizen that he shall share in the dignity of man. This dignity cannot be found in a man’s possessions; it cannot be found in his power, or in his position. It really rests on his right to be treated as a man equal in opportunity to all others. It says that he shall share in freedom, he shall choose his leaders, educate his children, and provide for his family according to his ability and his merits as a human being. To apply any other test—to deny a man his hopes because of his color or race, his religion or the place of his birth—is not only to do injustice, it is to deny America and to dishonor the dead who gave their lives for American freedom.”

—Again, we are getting a radical revision of America, in which black Americans are the heroes whose memories we dare not dishonor, and the un-American way is to discriminate, the true Americans are black, and they are leading the way for the rest of us to follow.

Lyndon Johnson was not an attractive man. He was, in 1965, still seen by many Americans as a pale substitute for the man he replaced in office. His voice was a little grating, and he did not modulate his rather hectoring tone or his Texas accent. (And this at a time when wealthy Americans still faked a semi-English accent as a sign of their sophistication–watch any movie from the 1940s or 50s.) He couldn’t stand in front of the nation and assume its good will. He couldn’t assume they would be won over by his charm or his popularity. He could, on the other hand, assume that his Southern allies in Congress and in state governments would be infuriated by this speech and feel personally betrayed and attacked by an erstwhile comrade. Whatever popularity Johnson did have was in the South, and that was potentially evaporating by the sentence as he spoke on March 15.

Yet Johnson forged ahead, and we will too, continuing our close reading in the next post.

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