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Reading 3: We Shall Overcome

The following text is taken from President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s nationally televised speech to a joint session of Congress on March 15, 1965:

Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, Members of the Congress:

I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy. 

I urge every member of both parties, Americans of all religions and of all colors, from every section of this country, to join me in that cause.

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. 

There, long-suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans.  Many were brutally assaulted.  One good man, a man of God, was killed.

There is no cause for pride in what has happened in Selma.  There is no cause for self-satisfaction in the long denial of equal rights of millions of Americans.  But there is cause for hope and for faith in our democracy in what is happening here tonight. 

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. 

Our mission is at once the oldest and the most basic of this country: to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man.

In our time we have come to live with the moments of great crisis.  Our lives have been marked with debate about great issues; issues of war and peace, issues of prosperity and depression.  But rarely in any time does an issue lay bare the secret heart of America itself.  Rarely are we met with a challenge, not to our growth or abundance, or our welfare or our security, but rather to the values, and the purposes, and the meaning of our beloved Nation.

The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such an issue.  And should we defeat every enemy, should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation. 

For with a country as with a person, "What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"

There is no Negro problem.  There is no Southern problem.  There is no Northern problem.  There is only an American problem.  And we are met here tonight as Americans—not as Democrats or Republicans—we are met here as Americans to solve that problem.

This was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose.  The great phrases of that purpose still sound in every American heart, North and South: "All men are created equal"—“government by consent of the governed"—“give me liberty or give me death." Well, those are not just clever words, or those are not just empty theories.  In their name Americans have fought and died for two centuries, and tonight around the world they stand there as guardians of our liberty, risking their lives.

Those words are a promise to every citizen that he shall share in the dignity of man.  This dignity cannot be found in a man's possessions; it cannot be found in his power, or in his position.  It really rests on his right to be treated as a man equal in opportunity to all others.  It says that he shall share in freedom, he shall choose his leaders, educate his children, and provide for his family according to his ability and his merits as a human being. 

To apply any other test—to deny a man his hopes because of his color or race, his religion or the place of his birth—is not only to do injustice, it is to deny America and to dishonor the dead who gave their lives for American freedom.

Our fathers believed that if this noble view of the rights of man was to flourish, it must be rooted in democracy.  The most basic right of all was the right to choose your own leaders.  The history of this country, in large measure, is the history of the expansion of that right to all of our people.  Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex and most difficult.  But about this there can and should be no argument.  Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote.  There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right.  There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.

The Constitution says that no person shall be kept from voting because of his race or his color.  We have all sworn an oath before God to support and to defend that Constitution.  We must now act in obedience to that oath.

Wednesday, I will send to Congress a law designed to eliminate illegal barriers to the right to vote.

I will welcome the suggestions from all of the Members of Congress—I have no doubt that I will get some—on ways and means to strengthen this law and to make it effective.  But experience has plainly shown that this is the only path to carry out the command of the Constitution.

There is no constitutional issue here.  The command of the Constitution is plain. 

There is no moral issue.  It iswrong—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. 

I have not the slightest doubt what will be your answer. 

But even if we pass this bill, 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. 

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.

And we shall overcome.

Questions for Reading 3

1. How does the date of this speech relate to the events covered in Reading 2?  What event seems to have been the occasion for the speech?

2. Johnson compares Selma to three other events in American history.  What are they?  Why do you think he chose the ones he did?  Do you think all four events are equally important?  Why or why not?

3. In his speech, President Johnson said “We shall overcome."  “We shall overcome” was one of the anthems of the civil rights movement.  Who do you think Johnson meant by “we”? 

4. John Lewis reported that “I saw Martin Luther King, Jr. cry that night.  I saw tears coming from his eyes as he watched and heard President Johnson's
speech.” 4 Why do you think it affected him so deeply?

5. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, the result of the legislation that President Johnson announced in this speech, became law on August 6, 1965.  According to C. T. Vivian,

6. I knew we had won that, when we won Selma.  The high-water mark of all was Selma.  See, that was the point at which the political was forced to affirm the moral and spiritual.5

What do you think he meant by forcing the political to affirm the moral and spiritual?  Do you agree or disagree with his statement?  Why or why not?

Reading 3 was abridged from the full text of President Johnson’s speech, found on the website of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum http://www.lbjlib.utexas.edu/johnson/archives.hom/speeches.hom/650315.asp (accessed January 28, 2006).

 

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