Sunday, April 13, 2014

The American Promise 1965/2014

In 1965, almost 50 years ago, President Lyndon Bains Johnson stood before a joint session of the Congress of the United States of America, announced that he would be sending a bill for consideration, a bill that would be known as the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Just a week earlier, on March 7, 1965, a group of 600 civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama, were attacked by state and local police.   Two nights later, on March 9, segregationists attacked three white ministers who supported the march, killing one, James J. Reeb.

In announcing this bill, President Johnson made what may be his most eloquent and moving speech, where he recalls, as a young man, teaching at a school where his eyes were opened to what poverty really looks like.  The full written speech can be found here.  A full video of the address before Congress is above.

In March of 1965 I was all of 12 years old, and had no idea of the momentous nature of the events, no idea of the import of the oppression and degradation being visited on my fellow citizens.  Now, looking back at those times I see what my youth and location in a Northern city sheltered me from. I never knew what youth of my ages in Mississippi, California, Alabama or Texas experienced.

Looking at that speech now, for me, the most moving part of the address is below, where Johnson details his experience in that school:
"...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 going to have those privileges of citizenship regardless of race.

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. It requires a decent home, and the chance to find a job, and the opportunity to escape from the clutches of poverty.

Of course, people cannot contribute to the Nation if they are never taught to read or write, if their bodies are stunted from hunger, if their sickness goes untended, if their life is spent in hopeless poverty just drawing a welfare check.
So we want to open the gates to opportunity. But we are 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 Mexican-American 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.
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 teach them the little that I knew, hoping that it might help them against the hardships that lay ahead.
Somehow you 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 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 country.
But now I do have that chance—and I'll let you in on a secret—I mean to use it. And I hope that you will use it with me.
This is the richest and most powerful country which ever occupied the globe.
The might of past empires is little compared to ours.
But I do not want to be the President who built empires, or sought grandeur, or extended dominion.
I want to be the President who educated young children to the wonders of their world.
I want to be the President who helped to feed the hungry and to prepare them to be taxpayers instead of tax-eaters.
I want 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.
I want 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.
I want to be the President who helped to end war among the brothers of this earth..."

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law on August 6, 1965.

Sadly, shamefully, parts of the protections for voting that Johnson called for in this 1965 speech are under attack, a half-century later, under the guise of "protecting the vote" by use of "voter-id" laws.