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Gilbert: LBJ’s American Idealism

Many baby boomers and others loathe Lyndon Johnson because of Vietnam. He could be crude, insecure, ruthless, petty, racist, sexist, and more, but he could also be inspiringly idealistic. Perhaps nowhere was his American idealism, and his singular political genius, more visible than in the speech he gave fifty years ago this Sunday before Congress in support of the Voting Rights Act. He spoke, he said, “for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy.”

President Johnson reminded members of Congress that “The Constitution says that no person shall be kept from voting because of his race” and that they all had “sworn an oath before God to support and defend that Constitution.” “We must now act in obedience to that oath,” he said, and eliminate illegal barriers that deny blacks the right to vote.

He said those who don’t want the national government coming into their communities should simply “Allow men and women to register and vote whatever the color of their skin... There is,” he said, “no issue of states’ rights. ”

To deny people their rights because of their race, he said, [quote]“is not only to do an injustice, it is to deny America and to dishonor the dead who gave their lives for American freedom.”

African Americans’ cause “must be our cause too,” he said, because all of us [quote] “must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.” Then he added, “And we shall overcome.”

Johnson spoke in grand, national terms, but also in very personal terms. He explained that his “first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas, in a small Mexican-American school.” Few of his students spoke English; many were poor and came to school hungry. “They never seemed to know why people disliked them,” he said. “But they knew it was so, because I saw it in their eyes... [Y]ou never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child. I never thought then, in 1928, . . . that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students... But now I do have that chance – and I’ll let you in on a secret – I mean to use it...”

Martin Luther King was watching the speech on television in Alabama, and he wept. Those of us today who read or watch Johnson’s speech online may very well do the same.

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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