Johnson’s “We shall overcome” speech: What LBJ wanted his speechwriter to know

President Lyndon Johnson’s speech urging Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act is one of the great American speeches of the twentieth century.

“We Shall Overcome” – Lyndon Johnson, March 15, 1965

It was also, as Johnson biographer Robert Caro wrote, “the speech that made Martin Luther King cry.”

I wrote about this speech right after the Martin Luther King memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C. and pointed, among other things, to the personal stories Johnson told about his early experiences. (I hope you will click over to read that post.)

In the speech, Johnson spoke about seeing those who struggled and the need for policy changes to create real opportunity for people.

How the speech was written casts a little more light on the importance of  those experiences

Today presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin was at the University of Maine and gave a fascinating talk, followed by a question and answer session.

At one point, she mentioned that her husband Richard Goodwin wrote that great speech and had used language that placed the civil rights struggle in the context  of essential moments in American history.

And indeed it was, with words like these:

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.

But, remembering the personal words, I asked, “How did your husband know to talk about Johnson’s experiences? Did President Johnson talk to him about that?”

And what she replied was this: The speech was written quickly. It was delivered in the evening and Goodwin learned he would be writing it that very morning. And the only thing Johnson told him he wanted in it was his experiences in seeing the impact of discrimination, of racism.

The Voting Rights Act was signed into law on August 6, 1965

Now, Johnson was not a great orator. But he was a man of depth of feeling, of great passion. His intensity, his commitment to civil rights, came from a deep well, and he wanted to convey the source of that commitment to his speechwriter, so that it would be shared with the American public.

And with that great speech Johnson placed himself as part of the “we” that sought — nay demanded — change, as he said “We shall overcome.”

For more on Johnson’s early experiences, see the first of Robert Caro’s volumes on Johnson’s life, The Path to Power. The fourth volume, The Passage of Power, is scheduled to be released May 1, 2012.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.