By David M. Shribman WDRB Contributor from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The events that March came on a gale of fury, and with furious speed: the "Bloody Sunday" civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, the confrontation at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the tense meeting between Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama and President Lyndon B. Johnson. And then, a half-century ago today: the greatest speech in Johnson's life, perhaps the greatest presidential speech since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The setting could not have been more dramatic. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had drawn the nation's attention to the drive for the black vote in the face of intractable opposition from whites who had created artificially high barriers to registration. Johnson, a Southerner with Southern mentors but with a growing sense of purpose for his presidency, decided to send voting-rights legislation to Congress -- a decision made so swiftly that Lady Bird Johnson likened it to "deciding to climb Mount Everest while you are sitting around a cozy family picnic."
The president summoned a speechwriter, Richard Goodwin, to prepare with less than a day's notice the first speech for specific legislation that any president had delivered in the House chamber since the Truman administration. One page at a time, a draft began reaching Johnson at about 6 p.m. He scratched out a line here, added a thought there. The process, which continued for an hour, was accompanied by groans from members of his staff. Strong men nearly broke as the president continued his revisions. The text handed to Lady Bird in the visitors' gallery, she wrote in her diary, "came to an abrupt end two-thirds of the way through." If America were a work in progress, so, too, was the speech that would fuel that progress.
I speak tonight, the president said, for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy.
His delivery was slow, deliberate. It was not the fast talk of Texas, nor the treacly pleading of the "Johnson treatment," the trademark LBJ approach he used as Senate majority leader to win votes and change minds. It was the tone and timbre of a president who -- like George W. Bush after the terrorist attacks of 2001 -- found his cause, and his voice.
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.
Later -- including this year, after the release of the film "Selma" -- there would be debates, serious and searing, about whether the credit for great civil rights achievements belonged to a white president or to black activists. Johnson, who favored locutions such as "your president wants ..." and who was no stranger to self-aggrandizement, nonetheless argued that it was the marchers who had removed the scales from a nation's eyes, and who deserved better on the scales of justice.
Indeed, in these remarks he would assert that "the real hero of this struggle is the American Negro." And, in the 13th sentence of a speech that would run 42 minutes, Johnson made plain that the sit-ins, marches and protests had changed the national conversation.
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.
The genius of this speech, written in eight hours, was its simplicity. The sentences were short, the summons to action clear, the presidential demeanor serious.
There is no constitutional issue here. The command of the Constitution is plain. There is no moral issue. It is wrong -- deadly wrong -- to 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.
Two years earlier, in a Memorial Day speech ahead of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Vice President Johnson responded to the civil rights leader's "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," acknowledging the merit of the King argument that "justice too long delayed is justice denied." He returned to that theme powerfully in his speech in the Capitol:
The time of justice has now come, and I tell you that I believe sincerely that no force can hold it back. It is right in the eyes of man and God that it should come, and when it does, I think that day will brighten the lives of every American.
Only a day earlier, hundreds had gathered across from the White House. There, facing a phalanx of police officers, they sang the battle hymn of the civil rights movement, their "We Shall Overcome" aimed both at the segregationists in the South and the Southerner in the executive mansion. They could not have known that the next day the president would use their anthem as a reprise line, making their cause his cause.
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.
Sitting in the House chamber that night were Sens. Lister Hill of Alabama and Richard Russell of Georgia, whom the young Lyndon Johnson regarded as a father figure.
"You trained that boy," Lister said of the 36th president the next morning. "What happened to that boy?"
"I just don't know, Lister," responded Russell. "He's a turncoat if there ever was one."
But watching this speech some 800 miles away from the Capitol in Selma were Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis, who had been beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and who would later serve in Congress.
They listened to a man from whose lips N-word sometimes slipped -- who grew up knowing not even one black person, but who was marked by his time teaching school to Mexican-American children in 1928 in the Texas town of Cotulla -- and they saw the determination in his eyes when he quoted a song that he probably did not know included the words "deep in my heart/I do believe."
"I looked at Dr. King; tears came down his face," Lewis told an interviewer in 2009.
No one had ever seen him cry before. That night, the tears did flow.
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (email@example.com, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.)
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