"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."
Lyndon B. Johnson
March 15, 1965
History is, indeed, a harsh mistress. She beckons to those who will follow her when she deems that a great moment is at hand — but she never mentions that the window of opportunity is slamming shut nor does she identify what it is that must be addressed. She just gives vague nods in a general direction and lets you figure out the rest.
In the context of history, you have only minutes — seconds, really — to act, too. Then that window slams shut, and a new one will open sometime in the future, but history gives no warning until the moment is upon us again.
Nor can you apply what you learned from the last time to the new one — like old generals who are constantly trying to fight the last war and neglecting the things that will enable them to win the current one. "History doesn't repeat itself," Mark Twain cautioned, "but it does rhyme."
Fifty years ago, Lyndon B. Johnson gave what was probably the most inspiring speech of his presidency — his address to Congress advocating passage of the Voting Rights Act. It broke no new legal ground, really. It was designed to enforce what had been the law of the land for nearly a century in the form of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. They were part of the Reconstruction Amendments that guaranteed rights of citizenship, particularly the right to vote, to minorities, but, as everyone knew, they had not been enforced in most parts of the South.
The voting rights legislation came at a time when LBJ was, arguably, at the height of his political power, prestige and influence. In the year following John F. Kennedy's assassination, Johnson's approval rating had been at its highest — in the 70s — and no president can sustain those numbers indefinitely, but Johnson was doing pretty well after nearly 18 months in the White House. Just a few months earlier, he had been elected to a full four–year term as president in a landslide of historic proportions, and, as he delivered his speech 50 years ago tonight, his approval rating, according to Gallup, was 68%.
Johnson wanted to do something about the situation, but he wanted to proceed slowly, possibly because he wanted to conserve his political capital — which, in hindsight, might have been a good thing to do. America soon soured on the war in Vietnam, and he needed that capital to keep his approval ratings above 50% — a point he dropped below almost permanently by the middle of 1966.
What Johnson told his allies was that he didn't think Congress would be eager to take on another civil rights measure so soon after passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But Johnson embraced the idea and enthusiastically pressed for the bill's passage in Congress.
As it turned out, his support for the Voting Rights Act appears to have had little influence on his approval ratings. He remained above 60% for the rest of 1965 — even managed to hit 70% in May. But, of course, that was still in the future; he was hesitant to move quickly in the early spring of 1965.
Perhaps the populist, liberal wing of the Democrat Party of 1965 knew what both parties seem to have forgotten in the 21st century — that history is a harsh mistress and one must act quickly to satisfy her. I have read that the liberals of the day were eager to capitalize on their sweeping victories in the 1964 elections, and history certainly indicates there was good reason for that. Following the 1964 elections, the Democrats had the greatest congressional majorities — in both chambers — that any party has had since the Republic's early years.
The lesson of history is that, when such extremes are reached, there is usually a correction that occurs, and huge majorities begin to dwindle. It is only possible in hindsight, of course, to determine when critical mass was reached. At the time, though, the temptation to believe that popularity has not peaked must be hard to resist.
In a democracy, political success is fleeting — and, in fact, Johnson's approval ratings did plummet in the second half of his term. The unpopularity of the war had a lot to do with it; likewise, the civil rights movement almost certainly had something to do with it. As his approval ratings fell, so did Democrat majorities in the House and Senate.
There is a steep price to be paid for failing to act quickly enough — or failing to recognize history's call when it comes. It was the populist, liberal wing that pressured Johnson to send a voting rights bill to Capitol Hill. The events on the Edmund Pettus Bridge accelerated the process.
In my lifelong love affair with history, I have come to appreciate its timing, its ironies. So it is with this moment in history.
Johnson delivered what many believe is the most powerful speech in presidential history only a week and a half after the centennial of Abraham Lincoln's masterful "With malice toward none" second inaugural address. History wasn't repeating itself, but it was rhyming.
Johnson's speech, of course, came a week after "Bloody Sunday" in Selma, Alabama — an event that has been re–created recently in the movie "Selma."
Anyone who thinks little progress has been made in racial relations in this country since Johnson gave his speech hasn't been paying attention. I was quite young when LBJ made that speech, and I wasn't aware of the historic events that were happening around me, but I had been to the single–screen movie theater in my hometown, and I had seen blacks being ushered into a corner of the balcony through a back door, and I knew that blacks were treated differently than whites. The public schools in my hometown didn't integrate until I enrolled in first grade. Mine was the first class in my hometown's history to go all the way from first grade through the twelfth integrated.
Since I wasn't old enough to read in 1965, I can't tell you if public drinking fountains and restrooms were still segregated in my hometown when LBJ made his speech, but if they weren't, they must have been at some time. I grew up in the South. Not the deep South where the worst things were happening, but it was still the South. In my home state, Orval Faubus led an ill–fated attempt to halt the desegregation of Little Rock Central years before George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door and Bull Connor let loose the police dogs and fire hoses on civil rights activists in Alabama.
In those days, civil rights activists could be heard singing "We Shall Overcome." The phrase had become synonymous with "the movement," as I heard most blacks in my hometown call it, sanctified by the blood that had been spilled by so many. The casualties in Selma were only the latest, but they were the straw that broke the camel's back. Selma was too high profile for Johnson to ignore.
On this occasion, historian William Manchester observed, the president "concluded his speech with a phrase that had become hallowed by the blood and tears of a new generation of black Americans marching for justice. He said that 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.'
"That was fine liberal eloquence," Manchester wrote, "but at times during the year it appeared to be a doubtful prediction. The eleventh anniversary of the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education passed on May 17, and racism seemed stronger than ever."
My memory is foggy — I was, after all, a small child at the time — but I remember hearing the black ladies with whom my mother worked on our local Human Relations Council speaking of how great it was that the president had used that phrase.
It was more than symbolic to them.