August 28, 2008; New York Times; Johnson's Dream, Obama's Speech; by Robert A. Caro.
AS I watch Barack Obama's speech to the Democratic convention tonight, I will be remembering another speech: the one that made Martin Luther King cry. And I will be thinking: Mr. Obama's speech and in a way his whole candidacy might not have been possible had that other speech not been given.
That speech was President Lyndon Johnson's address to Congress in 1965 announcing that he was about to introduce a voting rights act, and in some respects Mr. Obama's candidacy is the climax at least thus far of a movement based not only on the sacrifices and heroism of the Rev. Dr. King and generations of black fighters for civil rights but also on the political genius of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who as it happens was born 100 years ago yesterday.
When, on the night of March 15, 1965, the long motorcade drove away from the White House, heading for Capitol Hill, where President Johnson would give his speech to a joint session of Congress, pickets were standing outside the gates, as they had been for weeks, and as the presidential limousine passed, they were singing the same song that was being sung that week in Selma, Ala.: "We Shall Overcome." They were singing it in defiance of Johnson, because they didn't trust him.
They had reasons not to trust him.
In March 1965, black Americans in the 11 Southern states were still largely unable to vote. When they tried to register, they faced not only questions impossible to answer like the infamous "how many bubbles in a bar of soap?" but also the humiliation of trying to answer them in front of registrars who didn't bother to conceal their scorn. Out of six million blacks old enough to vote in those 11 states in 1965, only a small percentage 27 percent in Georgia, 19 percent in Alabama, 6 percent in Mississippi were registered.
What's more, those who were registered faced not only beatings and worse but economic retaliation as well if they tried to actually cast a ballot. Black men who registered might be told by their employer that they no longer had a job; black farmers who went to the bank to renew their annual "crop loan" were turned down, and lost their farms. Some, as I have written, "had to load their wives and children into their rundown cars and drive away, sometimes with no place to go." So the number of black men and women in the South who actually cast a vote was far smaller than the number registered; in no way were black Americans realizing their political potential.
More important, many civil rights leaders felt that President Johnson wasn't helping them nearly as much as he could have and that in fact he never had. He had passed a civil rights bill in 1964, but it hadn't been a voting rights bill.
And they remembered his record, a long record. It was not merely that during his first 20 years, 1937 through 1956, in the House and Senate, he had voted against every civil rights bill even bills aimed at ending lynching.
Leaders of the civil rights movement who had watched their bills die, year after year, in Congress not a single civil rights bill had been enacted since 1870 knew that Johnson had been not merely a voter but a strategist against civil rights, a tactician so successful that Richard Russell of Georgia, the leader of the Senate's mighty "Southern caucus," had raised him to power in the Senate, had, in fact, made him his anointed successor as the South's legislative leader, the young hope of the elderly Southern senators in their desperate battle to maintain racial segregation.
In 1956, by which time Lyndon Johnson was majority leader, he devised and carried out the strategy that had not only crushed a civil rights bill in the Senate by a majority greater than ever before, but had done so in a way that humiliated, in a particularly vicious manner, the liberal senator who refused to bow to his wishes, Paul Douglas of Illinois.
In 1957 he had engineered the passage of a civil rights bill. The mere fact of its passage in the face of Southern senatorial power it was the first civil rights bill to be enacted in 87 years made it a significant benchmark in the history of American government, and the guile and determination with which Johnson drove it to passage made it a landmark of legislative mastery as well. But he was forced to weaken it to get it through, and liberals, not understanding the obstacles he had surmounted, blamed him for not making it stronger.
Some civil rights leaders who had been talking to Lyndon Johnson since he became president were now, by the spring of 1965, convinced of his good faith, but most were not, and the mass of the movement, symbolized by those protesters outside the White House gates, still distrusted him.
Men and women who knew Lyndon Johnson, however, felt there was another element to the story. They included the Mexican-American children of impoverished migrant workers he had taught as a 21-year-old schoolteacher in the little town of Cotulla, Tex.; to the ends of their lives they would talk about how hard he had worked to teach and inspire them. "He used to tell us this country was so free that anyone could become president who was willing to work hard enough," one student said.
Others remember what one calls the story about the "little baby in the cradle." As one student recalled, "He would tell us that one day we might say the baby would be a teacher. Maybe the next day we'd say the baby would be a doctor. And one day we might say the baby any baby might grow up to be president of the United States."
His former students weren't alone. Men and women at Georgetown dinner tables were also convinced of the sincerity of Johnson's intentions. "I remember at this dinner party, Johnson talking about teaching the Mexican-American kids in Cotulla, and his frustration that they had no books," recalls Bethine Church, the wife of Senator Frank Church of Idaho. "I remember it as one of the most passionate evenings I've ever spent."
These men and women felt Johnson truly wanted to help poor people and particularly people of color, and that he was held back only by his ambition: his desire to be president, and because he was a senator from a Southern state. But when, in 1957, ambition and compassion were finally pointing in the same direction when he realized that he would never become president unless he removed the "magnolia scent" of the South he set out to pass a civil rights bill, he did it with a passion that showed how deeply he believed in what he was doing.
The bill he got was the weak one, and civil rights leaders blamed him because the advances it made were meager. Only a week before the March 1965 speech, Dr. King had said that at the rate voter registration was going, it would take 135 years before even half the blacks in Mississippi were registered. And as the limousines were pulling through the gates that night in March, the protesters were singing "We Shall Overcome," as if to tell Lyndon Johnson, we'll do it without you.
But they didn't have to.
When Johnson stepped to the lectern on Capitol Hill that night, he adopted the great anthem of the civil rights movement as his own.
"Even if we pass this bill," he said, "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."
And, Lyndon Johnson said, "Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice."
He paused, and then he said, "And we shall overcome."
Martin Luther King was watching the speech at the home of a family in Selma with some of his aides, none of whom had ever, during all the hard years, seen Dr. King cry. But Lyndon Johnson said, "We shall overcome" and they saw him cry then.
And there was another indication of the power of that speech. When the motorcade returned to the White House, the protesters were gone.
Another significant moment had occurred in the Capitol after the speech, as Johnson was coming down the aisle accepting congratulations.
It wasn't just congratulations he wanted. One of the congressmen on the aisle was Emanuel Celler, the 76-year-old chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which handled civil rights legislation. Long a rights champion but now an elderly man, Celler said he would start hearings on the bill the following week, but "I can't push that committee or it might get out of hand."
Suddenly, Johnson wasn't smiling. His eyes narrowed and his face turned cold. He was still shaking Celler's hand, but with his other hand he was jabbing at the old man. "Start them this week, Manny," he said. "And hold night sessions, too."
Celler did. The heroism of the march at Selma, the heroism all across the South, the almost unbelievable bravery of black men and women and children, so many children who marched, and were beaten, and marched again, for the right to vote, created the rising tide of national feeling behind the passage of civil rights legislation, the legislation not only of 1965 but of 1964 and 1957. That feeling did so much to make the legislation possible. It has taken me scores of pages in my books to try to describe that heroism, and all of them inadequate. But it also took Lyndon Johnson, whom the black leader James Farmer, sitting in the Oval Office, heard "cajoling, threatening, everything else, whatever was necessary" to get the 1965 bill passed and who, with his legislative genius and savage will, broke, piece by piece, in 1957 and 1964 and 1965, the long unbreakable power of the Southern bloc.
"Abraham Lincoln struck off the chains of black Americans," I have written, "but it was Lyndon Johnson who led them into voting booths, closed democracy's sacred curtain behind them, placed their hands upon the lever that gave them a hold on their own destiny, made them, at last and forever, a true part of American political life."
LOOK what has been wrought! Forty-three years ago, a mere blink in history's eye, many black Americans were unable to vote. Tonight, a black American ascends a stage as nominee for president. "Just give Negroes the vote and many of these problems will get better," Lyndon Johnson said. "Just give them the vote," and they can do the rest for themselves.
All during this long primary campaign, after reading, first thing every morning, newspaper articles about Barack Obama's campaign for the presidency, I would turn, as part of the research for my next book, to newspaper articles from 1965 about Lyndon Johnson's campaign to win for black people the right to vote.
And I would think about Johnson's great speech, when he adopted the rallying cry of black protest as his own, when he joined his voice to the voices of all the men and women who had sung the mighty hymn of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King cried when he heard that speech. Since I am not black, I cannot know cannot even imagine Dr. King's feelings. I know mine, however. To me, Barack Obama is the inheritor of Lyndon Johnson's civil rights legacy. As I sit listening to Mr. Obama tonight, I will be hearing other words as well. I will be hearing Lyndon Johnson saying, "We shall overcome."
Robert A. Caro, who has won Pulitzer Prizes for his biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, is at work on the fourth and final volume of his Johnson biography.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company