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10. Lyndon Baines Johnson - We Shall Overcome
Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, Members of the Congress:
I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy. I
urge every member of
both parties, Americans of all religions and of all colors, from every section
of this country, to
join me in that cause.
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. There, longsuffering men and
women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many were brutally
assaulted. One good man, a man of God, was killed.
There is no cause for pride in what has happened in Selma. There is no cause for selfsatisfaction
in the long denial of equal
rights of millions of Americans. But there is cause for
hope and for faith
in our democracy in what is happening here tonight. 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. Our
mission is at once the oldest and the most basic of this country: to right wrong, to do justice,
to serve man.
In our time we have come to live with
the moments of great crisis. Our lives have been
marked with debate about great issues issues
of war and peace, issues of prosperity and
depression. But rarely 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, or our welfare or our
security, but rather to the values, and the purposes, and the meaning of our beloved nation.
The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such an issue.
And should we defeat every enemy, and should
we double our wealth and conquer the stars,
and still be unequal to
this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation. For with
a country as with a person, "What is a man profited,
if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"
There is no Negro problem. There is no
Southern problem. There is no Northern problem.
There is only an American problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans not
Democrats or Republicans. We are met here as
Americans to solve that 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, 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, or his religion, or the place of his
is not only to do injustice, it is to deny America and to dishonor the dead who gave their
lives for American freedom.
Our fathers believed that if this noble view of the rights of man was to flourish, it must be
rooted in democracy. The most basic right of all
was the right to choose your own leaders. The
history of this country, in large measure, is the history of the expansion of that right to all
of our people. Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex and most difficult. But about
this there can and should be no argument.
Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote.
There is no reason which can excuse the denial
of that right. There is no duty which weighs
more heavily on us than
the duty we have to
ensure that right.
Yet the harsh fact is that in many places in
this country men and women are kept from voting
simply because they are Negroes. 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. Experience has
clearly shown that the existing process of law cannot overcome systematic and ingenious
law that we now have on the books and
I have helped to put three of them there can
ensure the right to vote when local officials are determined to deny it. In
such a case our duty must be clear to all of us. The Constitution
says that no person shall be
kept from voting because of his race or his color. We have all sworn an oath before God to
support and to defend that Constitution. We must
now act in obedience to that oath.
Wednesday, I will send to Congress a law
designed to eliminate illegal barriers to the right to
vote. The broad principles of that bill will be in
the hands of the Democratic and Republican
leaders tomorrow. After they have reviewed it, it will come here formally as a bill. I am
grateful for this opportunity to come here tonight at the invitation of the leadership to reason
my friends, to give them my views, and to
visit with my former colleagues. I've had
prepared a more comprehensive analysis of the legislation which
the clerk tomorrow, but which
to the clerks tonight. But I want
to really discuss
now, briefly, the main proposals of this legislation.
This bill will
restrictions to voting in
State, and local which
deny Negroes the right to vote.
This bill will establish a simple,
uniform standard which cannot be used, however ingenious the effort, to
Constitution. It will provide for citizens to be registered by officials of the United States
Government, if the State officials refuse to register them. It will eliminate tedious,
unnecessary lawsuits which delay the right
to vote. Finally, this legislation will
properly registered individuals are not prohibited from voting.
I will welcome the suggestions from all of the Members of Congress I
have no doubt that I
will get some on
ways and means to strengthen
this law and to
make it effective. But
experience has plainly shown
this is the only path
to carry out the command of the
To those who seek to avoid action by their National Government in their own
to and who seek to
maintain purely local control over elections, the answer is
simple: open your polling places to all your people.
Allow men and women to register and vote whatever the color of their skin.
Extend the rights of citizenship to every citizen
of this land.
There is no constitutional issue here. The command of the Constitution
is plain. There is no
It is wrong deadly
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. I have not
the slightest doubt what will be your answer.
the last time a President sent a civil rights bill
to the Congress, it
contained a provision
protect voting rights in
Federal elections. That civil rights bill was passed after eight
months of debate.
And when that bill came to my desk from the Congress for my signature,
the heart of the voting provision had been eliminated. This time, on this issue,
there must be
no delay, or no
hesitation, or no compromise with our purpose.
We cannot, we must
not, refuse to protect
the right of every American to vote in every
he may desire to participate in. And we ought not, and we cannot, and we must
not wait another eight
months before we get a bill. We have already waited a hundred years
and more, and the time for waiting is gone.
So I ask you
to join me in working long hours nights
if necessary to
this bill. And I don't make that
request lightly. For from the window where I sit with
problems of our country, I recognize that
from outside this chamber is the outraged
conscience of a nation, the grave concern of many nations, and the harsh judgment of history
on our acts.
But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma
is part of a
far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America.
It is the effort of
American Negroes to secure for themselves the full
blessings of American
life. 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.
As a man whose roots go deeply into Southern soil, I know how agonizing racial feelings are. I
how difficult it is to reshape the attitudes
and the structure of our society. But a century
has passed, more than a hundred years since the Negro was freed. And he is not fully free
It was more than a hundred years ago that Abraham Lincoln, a great President of another
party, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. but emancipation is a proclamation, and not a
fact. A century has passed, more than a hundred years, since equality was promised.
is not equal. A century has passed since the day of promise. And the promise is unkept.
The time of justice has now come. I
you that I believe sincerely that
no force can hold it
is right in the eyes of man and God that it should come. And when
it does, I
that day will brighten
the lives of every American. For Negroes are not
the only victims. How
many white children have gone uneducated?
How many white families have lived in stark
poverty? How many white lives have been scarred by fear, because we've wasted our energy
and our substance to maintain the barriers of hatred and terror?
I say to all of you here, and to all
tonight, that those who appeal
to hold on to
the past do
so at the cost of denying you your future.
This great, rich, restless country can offer opportunity and education and hope to all, all black
and white, all North and South, sharecropper and city dweller. These are the enemies:
poverty, ignorance, disease. They're our enemies, not our fellow
man, not our neighbor. And
these enemies too
disease, and ignorance: we shall overcome.
Now let none of us in any section
look with prideful righteousness on the troubles in another
section, or the problems of our neighbors. There's really no part of America where the promise
of equality has been
fully kept. In Buffalo as well as in Birmingham,
in Philadelphia as well as
Selma, Americans are struggling for the fruits of freedom.
This is one nation. What
happens in Selma or in
Cincinnati is a matter of legitimate concern to
every American. But let
each of us look within our own hearts and our own communities, and
let each of us put our shoulder to the wheel
to root out injustice wherever it exists.
As we meet
here in this peaceful, historic chamber tonight, men
from the South, some of
whom were at Iwo Jima, men
from the North who have carried Old Glory to far corners of the
world and brought
it back without a stain on
it, men from the East and from the West, are all
fighting together without
regard to religion, or color, or region, in Vietnam. Men from every
region fought for us across the world twenty years ago.
in these common dangers and these common sacrifices, the South
contribution of honor and gallantry no
any other region in the Great Republic and
in some instances, a great many of them, more.
the slightest doubt
that good men from everywhere in
this country, from the
Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Golden
Gate to the harbors along the Atlantic, will
rally now together in this cause to vindicate the freedom of all
For all of us owe this duty. and I believe that all of us will respond to
it. Your President makes
that request of every American.
hero of this struggle is the American Negro. His actions and protests, his courage to
risk safety and even to risk his life, have awakened the conscience of this nation. His
demonstrations have been designed to call attention to injustice, designed to provoke change,
designed to stir reform.
He has called upon
us to make good the promise of America. And who
among us can say that we would have made
the same progress were it
not for his persistent
faith in American democracy.
heart of battle for equality is a deep seated belief in
the democratic process.
Equality depends not on the force of arms or tear gas but depends upon
the force of moral
right. not on recourse to
violence but on respect for law and order.
And there have been many pressures upon your President and there will be others as the days
come and go. But I pledge you
that we intend to fight this battle where it should be
the courts, and in the Congress, and in the hearts of men.
We must preserve the right of free speech and the right of free assembly. But the right of free
speech does not carry with
it, as has been said,
to holler fire in a crowded
We must preserve the right to free assembly. But free assembly does not
carry with it the
to block public thoroughfares to
have a right to protest, and a right
to march under conditions that do
not infringe the
constitutional rights of our neighbors. And I intend to protect all
those rights as long as I am
permitted to serve in
We will guard against violence, knowing it
strikes from our hands the very weapons which we
seek: progress, obedience to law, and belief in
Selma, as elsewhere, we seek and pray for peace.
We seek order. We seek unity. But we
the peace of stifled rights, or the
order imposed by fear, or the unity that
stifles protest. For peace cannot be purchased at
the cost of liberty.
we had a good day there as
in every city, we are working for a just
and peaceful settlement
And we must all remember that after this speech
I am making
tonight, after the police and the FBI and the Marshals have all gone, and after you have
promptly passed this bill, the people of Selma and the other cities of the Nation
and work together. And when
the attention of the nation
has gone elsewhere, they must
heal the wounds and to build a new
This cannot be easily done on a battleground of violence, as the history of the South
is in recognition of this that men of both races have shown such an outstandingly
impressive responsibility in recent days last
The bill that I am presenting to you will be known as a civil rights bill. But, in a larger sense,
most of the program I am recommending is a civil rights program. Its object
is to open the
city of hope to all people of all races.
Because all Americans just must
have the right to vote.
And we are going to give them that
right. All Americans must
have the privileges of citizenship regardless
of race. And they are
have those privileges of citizenship regardless
But I would like to caution
you and remind you
that to exercise these privileges takes much
more than just legal
right. It requires a trained
mind and a healthy body.
requires a decent
home, and the chance to find a job, and the opportunity to escape from the clutches of
Of course, people cannot contribute to
if they are never taught to read or write,
their bodies are stunted from hunger,
if their sickness goes untended, if their life is spent
hopeless poverty just drawing a welfare check. So we want
the gates to opportunity.
But we're also going to give all our people, black and white,
the help that
they need to walk
through those gates.
My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas, in a small MexicanAmerican
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. And 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
them the little that I
knew, hoping that it might help them against
the hardships that
E. Eidenmuller. Property
of AmericanRhetoric.com. . Copyright 2006. All rights reserved.
And somehow you
never forget what poverty and hatred can do when
you see its scars on the
face of a young child.
then, in 1928, that I would be standing here in
1965. It never even occurred to me in
my fondest dreams that I might
have the chance to
help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this
now I do have that chance and
I'll let you in on a secret I
to use it. And I
that you will
use it with
This is the richest and the most
country which ever occupied this globe. The might of
past empires is little compared to ours. But
not want to be the President who built
empires, or sought grandeur, or extended dominion.
to be the President who educated young children to
the wonders of their world.
to be the President who helped to
feed the hungry and to prepare them to be taxpayers
instead of taxeaters.
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.
to be the President who helped to
end hatred among his fellow
men, and who
promoted love among the people of all
races and all regions and all parties.
to be the President who helped to
end war among the brothers of this earth.
And so, at the request of your beloved Speaker, and the Senator from Montana,
leader, the Senator from Illinois, the minority leader, Mr. McCulloch, and other Members of
both parties, I
came here tonight not
as President Roosevelt came down
one time, in
person, to veto a bonus bill, not as President Truman came down one time to urge the
passage of a railroad bill
I came down here to ask you
to share this task with me, and
to share it with the people that we both work for. I want
this to be the Congress, Republicans
and Democrats alike, which did all these things for all these people.
Beyond this great chamber, out yonder in fifty States, are the people that we serve. Who can
tell what deep and unspoken
hopes are in their hearts tonight as they sit there and listen. We
can guess, from our own
lives, how difficult
find their own
pursuit of happiness,
how many problems each little family has. They
look most of all
to themselves for their
look to each of us.
Above the pyramid on the great seal of the United States it says in Latin: "God has favored
our undertaking." God will not favor everything that we do. It
is rather our duty to divine His
will. But I cannot help believing that
He truly understands and that He really favors the
undertaking that we begin here tonight.