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A great speech turns 50: LBJ's eloquent call for voting rights came together quickly

David Shribman

By David Shribman

Published March 16, 2015

   A great speech turns 50: LBJ's eloquent call for voting rights came together quickly

The events that March came on a gale of fury, and with furious speed: the “Bloody Sunday” civil-rights march from Selma to Montgomery, the confrontation at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the tense White House meeting between Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama and President Lyndon B. Johnson. And then, a half-century ago today: the greatest speech in Mr. Johnson’s life, perhaps the greatest presidential speech since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The setting could not have been more dramatic. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had drawn the nation’s attention to the drive for the black vote in the face of intractable opposition from whites who had created artificially high barriers to registration. Mr. Johnson, a Southerner with Southern mentors but with a growing sense of purpose for his presidency, decided to send voting-rights legislation to Congress — a decision made so swiftly that Lady Bird Johnson likened it to “deciding to climb Mount Everest while you are sitting around a cozy family picnic.”

The president summoned a speechwriter to prepare with less than a day’s notice the first appeal for specific legislation that any president had delivered in the House chamber since the Truman administration. One page at a time, a draft began reaching Mr. Johnson at about 6 p.m. He scratched out a line here, added a thought there. The process, which continued for an hour, was accompanied by groans from members of his staff. Strong men nearly broke as the president continued his revisions. The text handed to Mrs. Johnson in the visitors’ gallery, she wrote in her diary, “came to an abrupt end two-thirds of the way through.” If America were a work in progress, so, too, was the speech that would fuel that progress.

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

His delivery was slow, deliberate. It was not the fast talk of Texas, nor the treacly pleading of the “Johnson Treatment,” the trademark LBJ approach he used as Senate majority leader to win votes and change minds. It was the tone and timbre of a president who — like George W. Bush after the terrorist attacks of 2001 — found his cause, and his voice.

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.

Later — including this year, after the release of the film “Selma” — there would be debates, serious and searing, about whether the credit for great civil-rights achievements belonged to a white president or to black activists. Mr. Johnson, who favored locutions such as “your president wants…” and who was no stranger to self-aggrandizement, nonetheless argued that it was the marchers who had removed the scales from a nation’s eyes, and who deserved better on the scales of justice.

But some civil-rights leaders believe Mr. Johnson deserves more credit than he received in the “Selma” film, where he was portrayed as a reluctant warrior, and a deeply self-interested one. “He was as committed in his own way,” former National Urban League President Vernon E. Jordan said in an interview in Pittsburgh earlier this month, “as Martin was in his.”

But in these remarks the president would assert that “the real hero of this struggle is the American Negro.” And, in the 13th sentence of a speech that would run 42 minutes, Mr. Johnson made plain that the sit-ins, marches and protests had changed the national conversation.

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.

The genius of this speech, written in eight hours by Richard N. Goodwin, was its simplicity. The sentences were short, the summons to action clear, the presidential demeanor serious.

“There were all these lines in there that, after the president said them, seemed natural,” Mr. Goodwin, a onetime Tufts University history major, said in an interview. “They didn’t seem so natural when I was typing them out. I was just trying to do the best I could.”

Mr. Goodwin, steeped in the poetry of Yeats and Wordsworth, had written two other landmark American speeches — Mr. Johnson’s speech setting out his vision of the Great Society (“The Great Society is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work”) and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s remarks on race delivered in South Africa exactly two years before he would be assassinated (“For two centuries, my own country has struggled to overcome the self-imposed handicap of prejudice and discrimination based on nationality, social class or race-discrimination profoundly repugnant to the theory and command of our Constitution.”)

He typed with frantic speed, propelled by the passions of the moment, and by his own passions. “The key,” he said, “was that I was asked to write on something I was deeply committed to.”

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.

Two years earlier, in a Memorial Day speech ahead of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Vice President Johnson responded to the civil rights leader’s letter from a Birmingham jail, acknowledging the merit of the King argument that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” He returned to that theme powerfully in his speech in the Capitol:

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.

Only a day earlier, hundreds had gathered across from the White House. There, facing a phalanx of police officers, they sang the battle hymn of the civil-rights movement, their “We Shall Overcome” aimed both at the segregationists in the South and the Southerner in the executive mansion.

They could not have known that the next day the president would use their anthem as a reprise line, making their cause his cause.

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.

“I knew how important that song was,” said Mr. Goodwin. “In the course of writing I figured it was just the right fit. I guess it worked.”

Sitting in the House chamber that night were Senators Lister Hill of Alabama and Richard Russell of Georgia, whom the young Lyndon Johnson regarded as a father figure.

“You trained that boy,” Mr. Lister said of the 36th president the next morning. “What happened to that boy?”

“I just don’t know, Lister,” responded Mr. Russell. “He’s a turncoat if there ever was one.”

But watching this speech some 700 miles away from the Capitol, in the Selma home of the Rev. Joseph H. Jackson, were Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis, who had been beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and who would later serve in Congress.

They listened to a man from whose lips the word “nigger” sometimes slipped — who grew up knowing not even one black person but who was marked by his time teaching school to Mexican-American children in 1928 in the Texas town of Cotulla — and they saw the determination in his eyes when he quoted a song that he probably did not know included the words “deep in my heart/I do believe.”

“I looked at Dr. King and tears came down his face,” Mr. Lewis told an interviewer in 2008. No one had ever seen him cry before. That night the tears did flow.

David Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in journalism, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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