President Obama’s Farewell Address

Posted on January 13, 2017. Filed under: Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

Presidential farewell addresses are fairly predictable. They are dramatic, emotional, and long. But sometimes they are very important, because they shine a clear light on how our highest leader thinks about the United States, his analysis of what is good and bad about the nation, and how he wants us to think about it. You may recall our series on the first farewell address, from George Washington, and  our series on Ronald Reagan’s 1989 farewell address. Both are instances of important farewell addresses. Both warn the American people against dangers and urge them to preserve what America stands for (though they could not possibly be more different in how they define each of those categories).

Now Barack Obama has delivered his farewell, and we feel it is important, partly because of the president giving it, and partly because of the president about to follow him. Here is the first installment in our close-reading (we take our text from the official White House transcript, omitting only the times it tells you people applauded [“Applause”]):

THE PRESIDENT: Hello, Chicago! It’s good to be home! Thank you, everybody. Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you. All right, everybody sit down. We’re on live TV here. I’ve got to move. You can tell that I’m a lame duck because nobody is following instructions. (Laughter.) Everybody have a seat.

—Right away we see Obama doing something different: he’s the only president since Lyndon Johnson to give his Farewell Address in front of a live audience (Johnson gave his as part of his last State of the Union Address in 1969). Presidents before TV generally saw farewell addresses as literary artifacts: they were published without ever being delivered as speeches. Presidents in the radio age gave their addresses over the radio. And with the exception of Johnson, presidents in the TV age gave their addresses on TV. There is usually no call-and-response between president and audience. Here, we see Obama responding to the audience, and we deleted about a half-dozen references to applause.

Why the actual speech? There seem to be two possible or likely answers: first, Obama enjoys talking to a live audience; second, it was particularly important for him to see the faces of his supporters (since people who do not support him would be unlikely to show up at this event). He has always expressed great affection for and closeness to his supporters, and as he hands off the presidency to someone who clearly does not like Obama supporters, Mr. Obama wanted to “be with them” one last time as president. This jibes with the overall optimism of Obama’s message; he seems to have wanted to bolster the mood and hopes of those who look forward to Trump’s presidency with dread. It’s far easier to do this in person, where you can gesture and laugh and walk around a little—not things you can really do as well on TV.

My fellow Americans, Michelle and I have been so touched by all the well wishes that we’ve received over the past few weeks. But tonight, it’s my turn to say thanks.  Whether we have seen eye-to-eye or rarely agreed at all, my conversations with you, the American people, in living rooms and in schools, at farms, on factory floors, at diners and on distant military outposts — those conversations are what have kept me honest, and kept me inspired, and kept me going. And every day, I have learned from you. You made me a better President, and you made me a better man.

So I first came to Chicago when I was in my early 20s. And I was still trying to figure out who I was, still searching for a purpose in my life. And it was a neighborhood not far from here where I began working with church groups in the shadows of closed steel mills. It was on these streets where I witnessed the power of faith, and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss.

AUDIENCE: Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!

THE PRESIDENT: I can’t do that.

AUDIENCE: Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!

—It seems odd to us that people began to chant “four more years” at this point. It’s something Americans do, but not usually this early in a speech, and not usually until the president says something about what he’s accomplished in office. Here, Obama has made only  a fairly boilerplate statement, so far as presidential speeches go, about what he’s learned from the American people, and just begun to talk about his early years (something almost every address since Reagan seems to do). And even this reminiscing, so far, is pretty standard—talking about the dignity of hard-working Americans who meet challenges bravely.

Maybe people’s emotions were sparked because the president speaking is black, and for the first time, so are the working people dealing with struggle and loss. Obama will address this openly later in the Address, when he says (in so many words) that “hard-working Americans” has become a code for “white Americans”. But as a young black organizer, Obama met with black Americans who struggled but possessed dignity and faith, and he recognized them as real Americans. This may have hit his audience and led them to cry out for four more years of a black president.

Next time: the most important thing any president, any American, could say

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CNN’s 10 “most bizarre” elections in U.S. history

Posted on March 11, 2016. Filed under: American history, Politics, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , |

We were looking for the video CNN uses in its ads for its new series Race for the White House, which shows the changing face of the White House from the mid-1800s to the present (very interesting—more and more barriers put between the street and the building). We couldn’t find it, but in the mayhem of features on the site we did find “10 of the most bizarre elections in American history”. The name implies that many more than 10 American presidential elections were bizarre, but likely they just mean 10 were actually bizarre.

At any rate, they do a pretty good job describing the 10 elections/campaigns they list. No glaring errors. They don’t say the 1824 election really was a corrupt bargain, they just note that Jackson claimed it was. They admit that the 1876 election was rigged by racist southerners to give the Republican candidate the presidency if he would end Reconstruction. And they focus on the real issue of the 1964 campaign—Johnson’s commitment to ending institutional racism—instead of talking about the Daisy ad.

This was more than we expected of CNN, so we thought we’d pass it along with our commendation.

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“You never forget what poverty and hatred can do”: Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech

Posted on April 23, 2014. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

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.

Next time, we’ll look at the reaction it provoked.

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“The command of the Constitution is plain”: Johnson’s We Shall Overcome Speech

Posted on April 10, 2014. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , |

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.

Next time, we will pick up with Johnson as he embraces the logic and the passion of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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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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Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech

Posted on March 27, 2014. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , |

March 2014 marks the anniversary of a crucially important milestone in U.S. history: President Johnson’s 1965 speech calling on Americans—white Americans—to commit themselves to voting equality for black Americans.

The Fifteenth Amendment had guaranteed all U.S. citizens the right to vote regardless of race. But the concerted efforts of whites, particularly in the South, to prevent at first black American men, and then women, from exercising that right, meant that by 1965 only about 20% of black Americans qualified to vote (that is, at least 18 years of age and a U.S. citizen) were voting. Intimidation, torture, and murder were regularly used to keep black Americans from voting. Southern states passed laws requiring black Americans to pay poll taxes and pass literacy tests to be able to vote.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which Johnson pushed through Congress with all his considerable energy and powers of persuasion, outlawed discrimination in hiring and housing, but it had little impact on the number of black Americans being registered to vote. On March 7, 1965, nonviolent, unarmed marchers protesting repression of the vote in Selma, Alabama were brutally attacked by state police armed with clubs, bull whips, and tear gas. The attack was filmed by national television crews and broadcast to the nation. It was one thing to hear about police brutality, and to speculate that it must have been justified somehow; it was another thing entirely to see young people being beaten to the ground and then kicked and beaten further, all for asking that they be allowed to exercise a right they had been granted by the U.S. government almost exactly a century before.

President Johnson was one of those Americans who watched the footage from Selma and was infuriated and repelled by what he saw. Johnson was a sincere proponent of civil rights, and he had staked a lifetime of political clout on passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Everyone expected him to back down after that, and not “push” the Southern Democrats for anything more on the race front. Instead, Johnson went on TV himself, and spoke to the nation, one week after the attack at Selma, and asked the American people to live up to their creed and ensure the voting rights of black Americans.

We’ll go through his powerful address in the next few posts, and then talk about the reaction it provoked and the legislation it enabled.

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