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