Sunday, March 15, 2015

LBJ | Mar. 15–50 Years Since Voting-Rights Speech

The "We Shall Overcome" song has a long history.
This day in 1965 LBJ gave his famed 5-minute speech on voting rights to a joint session of Congress. It is usually called the "We Shall Overcome" speech.

Watch it here.

It is considered one of the Great American Documents. Read it here.

Eight days earlier, 600 people started to march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital, Montgomery.

They followed activists John Lewis and Hosea Williams in protest against the murder of a civil-rights activist, Baptist deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson.

They marched six blocks to the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Then Selma and state law enforcement officers attacked them with clubs and tear gas.

The response is remembered as "Bloody Sunday". It was televised nationally

Activists from all over the country immediately made plans to come to Selma, including Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  On Tuesday, March 9, King led marchers back to the bridge, where they knelt and prayed.

That night, a visiting white minister from Boston who had come south to march was assaulted and died two days later.

Pressure became intense for Johnson to unveil his long-promised voting rights bill. On March 13, he condemned the violence in Selma and promised to deliver the bill by March 15.

On Sunday evening, March 14, LBJ was caught up in the rising level of national outrage. He decided on a public speech. The morning of March 15, he told his chief speechwriter, Richard Goodwin, to whip one up to be delivered that evening.

Goodwin produced the speech and Johnson delivered it to Congress and to 70 million Americans watching on television. He was interrupted by applause 36 times. He said: 
Their cause must be our cause, too, because it's not just Negroes, but really, it's all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome... 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.
After the speech, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee approached LBJ to promise hearings on the bill "the following week". Johnson replied to the effect: "That's not good enough. Get those hearing started this week and work into the night."

The following Sunday, thousands of marchers again set off from Selma. This time after marching for five days they made it to Montgomery. Martin Luther King addressed the huge crowd and explained why the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was not enough.

Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in August 1965.


Whatever the intent of the Selma police on Bloody Sunday, it is hard to think of any police action before or since that has done more to advance the cause it was meant to hinder.

On the other hand, the way the legislation played out was humiliating for many southerners. It looked like another defeat for the Confederacy. For traditional Roman Catholics in particular, the combination of Vatican II and aggressive civil rights enforcement was unsettling, creating an opening for GOP strategists to create a southern strategy.

On civil rights issues LBJ united the Democratic Party and, for a while, the nation, as only a southerner could do. But the Vietnam War came along and re-divided the Democratic Party, electing Richard Nixon.

(Thanks to Garrison Keillor whose post in today's Writer's Almanac inspired this one.)