July 15, 2004

President Lyndon B. Johnson's Special Message to the Congress: The American Promise

March 15, 1965

[As delivered in person before a joint session at 9:02 p.m.]

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 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, 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.

THE RIGHT TO VOTE

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.

Yet the harsh fact is that in many places in this country men and women are
kept from voting simply because they are Negroes.

Every device of which human ingenuity is capable has been used to deny this
right. The Negro citizen may go to register only to be told that the day is
wrong, or the hour is late, or the official in charge is absent. And if he
persists, and if he manages to present himself to the registrar, he may be
disqualified because he did not spell out his middle name or because he
abbreviated a word on the application.

And if he manages to fill out an application he is given a test. The
registrar is the sole judge of whether he passes this test. He may be asked to
recite the entire Constitution, or explain the most complex provisions of
State law. And even a college degree cannot be used to prove that he can read
and write.

For the fact is that the only way to pass these barriers is to show a white
skin.

Experience has clearly shown that the existing process of law cannot
overcome systematic and ingenious discrimination. No law that we now have on
the books-and I have helped to put three of them there—can ensure the right
to vote when local officials are determined to deny it.

In such a case our duty must be clear to all of us. 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.

GUARANTEEING THE RIGHT TO VOTE

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

The broad principles of that bill will be in the hands of the Democratic
and Republican leaders tomorrow. After they have reviewed it, it will come
here formally as a bill. I am grateful for this opportunity to come here
tonight at the invitation of the leadership to reason with my friends, to give
them my views, and to visit with my former colleagues.

I have had prepared a more comprehensive analysis of the legislation which
I had intended to transmit to the clerk tomorrow but which I will submit to
the clerks tonight. But I want to really discuss with you now briefly the main
proposals of this legislation,

This bill will strike down restrictions to voting in all
elections—Federal, State, and local—which have been used to deny Negroes the
right to vote.

This bill will establish a simple, uniform standard which cannot be used,
however ingenious the effort, to flout our Constitution.

It will provide for citizens to be registered by officials of the United
States Government if the State officials refuse to register them.

It will eliminate tedious, unnecessary lawsuits which delay the right to
vote.

Finally, this legislation will ensure that properly registered individuals
are not prohibited from voting.

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.

To those who seek to avoid action by their National Government in their own
communities; who want to and who seek to maintain purely local control over
elections, the answer is simple:

Open your polling places to all your people.

Allow men and women to register and vote whatever the color of their
skin.

Extend the rights of citizenship to every citizen of this land.

THE NEED FOR ACTION

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.

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

The last time a President sent a civil rights bill to the Congress it
contained a provision to protect voting rights in Federal elections. That
civil rights bill was passed after 8 long months of debate. And when that bill
came to my desk from the Congress for my signature, the heart of the voting
provision had been eliminated.

This time, on this issue, there must be no delay, no hesitation and no
compromise with our purpose.

We cannot, we must not, refuse to protect the right of every American to
vote in every election that he may desire to participate in. And we ought not
and we cannot and we must not wait another 8 months before we get a bill. We
have already waited a hundred years and more, and the time for waiting is
gone.

So I ask you to join me in working long hours—nights and weekends, if
necessary—to pass this bill. And I don't make that request lightly. For from
the window where I sit with the problems of our country I recognize that
outside this chamber is the outraged conscience of a nation, the grave concern
of many nations, and the harsh judgment of history on our acts.

WE SHALL OVERCOME

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.

As a man whose roots go deeply into Southern soil I know how agonizing
racial feelings are. I know how difficult it is to reshape the attitudes and
the structure of our society.

But a century has passed, more than a hundred years, since the Negro was
freed. And he is not fully free tonight.

It was more than a hundred years ago that Abraham Lincoln, a great
President of another party, signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but
emancipation is a proclamation and not a fact.

A century has passed, more than a hundred years, since equality was
promised. And yet the Negro is not equal.

A century has passed since the day of promise. And the promise is
unkept.

The time of justice has now come. 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.

For Negroes are not the only victims. How many white children have gone
uneducated, how many white families have lived in stark poverty, how many
white lives have been scarred by fear, because we have wasted our energy and
our substance to maintain the barriers of hatred and terror?

So I say to all of you here, and to all in the Nation tonight, that those
who appeal to you to hold on to the past do so at the cost of denying you your
future.

This great, rich, restless country can offer opportunity and education and
hope to all: black and white, North and South, sharecropper and city dweller.
These are the enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease. They are the enemies and
not our fellow man, not our neighbor. And these enemies too, poverty, disease
and ignorance, we shall overcome.

AN AMERICAN PROBLEM

Now let none of us in any sections look with prideful righteousness on the
troubles in another section, or on the problems of our neighbors. There is
really no part of America where the promise of equality has been fully kept.
In Buffalo as well as in Birmingham, in Philadelphia as well as in Selma,
Americans are struggling for the fruits of freedom.

This is one Nation. What happens in Selma or in Cincinnati is a matter of
legitimate concern to every American. But let each of us look within our own
hearts and our own communities, and let each of us put our shoulder to the
wheel to root out injustice wherever it exists.

As we meet here in this peaceful, historic chamber tonight, men from the
South, some of whom were at Iwo Jima, men from the North who have carried Old
Glory to far corners of the world and brought it back without a stain on it,
men from the East and from the West, are all fighting together without regard
to religion, or color, or region, in Viet-Nam. Men from every region fought
for us across the world 20 years ago.

And in these common dangers and these common sacrifices the South made its
contribution of honor and gallantry no less than any other region of the great
Republic—and in some instances, a great many of them, more.

And I have not the slightest doubt that good men from everywhere in this
country, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Golden Gate to
the harbors along the Atlantic, will rally together now in this cause to
vindicate the freedom of all Americans. For all of us owe this duty; and I
believe that all of us will respond to it.

Your President makes that request of every American.

PROGRESS THROUGH THE DEMOCRATIC PROCESS

The real hero of this struggle is the American Negro. His actions and
protests, his courage to risk safety and even to risk his life, have awakened
the conscience of this Nation. His demonstrations have been designed to call
attention to injustice, designed to provoke change, designed to stir
reform.

He has called upon us to make good the promise of America. And who among us
can say that we would have made the same progress were it not for his
persistent bravery, and his faith in American democracy.

For at the real heart of battle for equality is a deep-seated belief in the
democratic process. Equality depends not on the force of arms or tear gas but
upon the force of moral right; not on recourse to violence but on respect for
law and order.

There have been many pressures upon your President and there will be others
as the days come and go. But I pledge you tonight that we intend to fight this
battle where it should be fought: in the courts, and in the Congress, and in
the hearts of men.

We must preserve the right of free speech and the right of free assembly.
But the right of free speech does not carry with it, as has been said, the
right to holler fire in a crowded theater. We must preserve the right to free
assembly, but free assembly does not carry with it the right to block public
thoroughfares to traffic.

We do have a right to protest, and a right to march under conditions that
do not infringe the constitutional rights of our neighbors. And I intend to
protect all those rights as long as I am permitted to serve in this
office.

We will guard against violence, knowing it strikes from our hands the very
weapons which we seek—progress, obedience to law, and belief in American
values.

In Selma as elsewhere we seek and pray for peace. We seek order. We seek
unity. But we will not accept the peace of stifled rights, or the order
imposed by fear, or the unity that stifles protest. For peace cannot be
purchased at the cost of liberty.

In Selma tonight, as in every—and we had a good day there—as in every
city, we are working for just and peaceful settlement. We must all remember
that after this speech I am making tonight, after the police and the FBI and
the Marshals have all gone, and after you have promptly passed this bill, the
people of Selma and the other cities of the Nation must still live and work
together. And when the attention of the Nation has gone elsewhere they must
try to heal the wounds and to build a new community.

This cannot be easily done on a battleground of violence, as the history of
the South itself shows. It is in recognition of this that men of both races
have shown such an outstandingly impressive responsibility in recent
days—last Tuesday, again today,

RIGHTS MUST BE OPPORTUNITIES

The bill that I am presenting to you will be known as a civil rights bill.
But, in a larger sense, most of the program I am recommending is a civil
rights program. Its object is to open the city of hope to all people of all
races.

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.

THE PURPOSE OF THIS GOVERNMENT

My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Tex., 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 taxeaters.

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.

And so at the request of your beloved Speaker and the Senator from Montana;
the majority leader, the Senator from Illinois; the minority leader, Mr.
McCulloch, and other Members of both parties, I came here tonight—not as
President Roosevelt came down one time in person to veto a bonus bill, not as
President Truman came down one time to urge the passage of a railroad
bill—but I came down here to ask you to share this task with me and to share
it with the people that we both work for. I want this to be the Congress,
Republicans and Democrats alike, which did all these things for all these
people.

Beyond this great chamber, out yonder in 50 States, are the people that we
serve. Who can tell what deep and unspoken hopes are in their hearts tonight
as they sit there and listen. We all can guess, from our own lives, how
difficult they often find their own pursuit of happiness, how many problems
each little family has. They look most of all to themselves for their futures.
But I think that they also look to each of us.

Above the pyramid on the great seal of the United States it says—in
Latin—"God has favored our undertaking."

God will not favor everything that we do. It is rather our duty to divine
His will. But I cannot help believing that He truly understands and that He
really favors the undertaking that we begin here tonight.

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Joseph A. Califano, Jr.

is president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. He was Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare from 1977 to 1979, and is the author of a memoir, Inside: A Public and Private Life.