On a day for King, remembering Johnson’s call
Dedicating the memorial to Martin Luther King on the National Mall this October day, President Barack Obama said, “Nearly 50 years after the March on Washington, our work, Dr. King’s work, is not yet complete. We gather here at a moment of great challenge and great change.”
At the height of some of the greatest challenges of the Civil Rights movement, another president stepped forward to speak for change. President Johnson spoke to Congress on March 15, 1965, one week after “Bloody Sunday,” when civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama were brutally beaten.
What became known as Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech was strong and stirring. Somehow, it is not terribly well-remembered. But it was, as Johnson biographer Robert Caro recalled, a speech “that made Martin Luther King cry.”
Unusually for a presidential address to Congress and for Johnson himself, it was a personal speech, one that gave insight into Johnson’s experiences and thinking. That night President Johnson harkened back nearly four decades when, as a young man he worked as a teacher.
My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Tex., 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’s experiences touched him — and they touched the lives of those he taught. Caro noted what was said by, “the Mexican-American children of impoverished migrant workers he had taught as a 21-year-old schoolteacher in the little town of Cotulla, Tex.; to the ends of their lives they would talk about how hard he had worked to teach and inspire them. “He used to tell us this country was so free that anyone could become president who was willing to work hard enough,” one student said. Others remember what one calls the story about the “little baby in the cradle.” As one student recalled, “He would tell us that one day we might say the baby would be a teacher. Maybe the next day we’d say the baby would be a doctor. And one day we might say the baby — any baby — might grow up to be president of the United States.”
Said Johnson that night before Congress, “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.”
For these to be to be real possibilities, America would need to undermine racist policies and forces. People’s life chances, Johnson recognized, depended on their own actions, but also on the structures of power and opportunity.
Thus Johnson spoke directly and concretely of the efforts to disenfranchise African-Americans.
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.
And, like other great orators, Johnson portrayed the civil rights struggle as fulfilling core American values. Martin Luther King had proclaimed in 1963, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” Johnson spoke these words:
[R]arely 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. . .
There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. . .
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.
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.
And what made King cry? It was, Caro says, when Johnson said:
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.
Johnson took the words of that song sung so many times by civil rights protestors and he joined the power of the presidency to that “We.” His efforts after that night led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights, a step so long and so hard in the making.
And in October 2011 President Obama came close to repeating that invocation.
I know we will overcome. I know there are better days ahead. Let us keep striving, let us keep struggling, let us keep climbing to that promised land of a nation and a world that is more fair and more just.
Obama’s confidence in our ability to overcome our own struggles echoed both King and Johnson and once again called America forward as a nation. As we continue to act, we should remember the words and role of that teacher and president, Lyndon Baines Johnson.