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Shribman: A legendary speech turns 50

David Shribman

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 Wallace of Alabama and President Lyndon Johnson. And then, a half-century ago: the greatest speech in Johnson’s life.

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. The process, which continued for an hour, was accompanied by groans from members of his staff. 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.

“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,” Johnson said.

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.

In his remarks, Johnson would assert that “the real hero of this struggle is the American Negro.” Johnson made plain that the sit-ins, marches and protests had changed the national conversation.

“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.

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.”

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.