Fifty years ago on Sunday, President Lyndon Johnson stood before a joint session of Congress and offered his response to the moral atrocity that occurred a week earlier, when civil rights marchers were savagely beaten by Alabama police on the road from Selma to Montgomery. “I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of Democracy,” Johnson began in the speech that proposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to Congress. In a rhetorical flourish that moved Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to tears, Johnson invoked the anthem of the civil rights movement itself — twice speaking the words “We Shall Overcome.”
The movie Selma, which documents the Alabama state troopers’ terrorist attack on the voting rights marchers and the events that surrounded this attack, inspired a vigorous debate over whether Johnson was an eager ally of the marchers or, as the film depicts him, a much more reluctant supporter. Regardless of whether President Johnson leaped into the battle for voting rights or whether he was pushed, however, his speech firmly established him as American apartheid’s most powerful enemy. It also stands out as one of the most radical — if not the most radical — speeches ever delivered by a president.
Johnson’s speech described the sheer creativity of Jim Crow officials seeking to keep African Americans from casting a ballot. “Every device of which human ingenuity is capable, has been used to deny this right,” Johnson explains, before laying out the impossible maze of hostile registrars, strategically closed offices and voting tests a black citizen must navigate to register to vote. “[T]he only way to pass these barriers,” Johnson explained, was “to show a white skin.”
Yet LBJ did far more than simply lay out his case for a Voting Rights Act. He presented the cause of the men and women who were beaten at Selma as part of a moral failing that indicts America’s very soul. “[S]hould we defeat every enemy, and should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal” to the issue of equal rights for African Americans, “then we will have failed as a people and as a nation.”
Read that last line over again, then imagine what would have happened to President Obama if he’d ever claimed that Congress must enact health reform or “we will have failed as a people and as a nation.”
Moreover, to understand how deeply radical Johnson’s sentiment was, it’s important to understand exactly when Johnson spoke these words. As I lay out in my book, Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted, Johnson spoke at the apex of American optimism and American triumph. The nation’s gross domestic product grew an astounding 5.8 percent the year before Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech — allowing the president to ride a wave of prosperity into a landslide election victory. After World War II, we’d emerged as the wealthiest and most powerful on the planet. Children who grew up in abject poverty during the Great Depression now enjoyed a degree of affluence that would have been unimaginable to their parents. Three years earlier, John Glenn, an American astronaut, became the first human being to orbit the Earth.
So, when LBJ proclaimed that America would be a failed nation if it did not solve the problem of unequal rights, it was as if Caesar himself had stood up at the height of the Roman Empire, and declared that empire worthless because it did not afford full citizenship to the conquered peoples at the edges of its borders. No American — indeed, quite possibly no human — had ever lived in a society as affluent as the United States in the mid-1960s.
And yet, even in the midst of what was otherwise a golden age, the President of the United States warned that the essential promise of our nation was stillborn unless we rose to the cause of the Selma marchers. “[R]arely 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. . . . 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?’”
Johnson’s speech was, in many ways, a test of just how completely he had vanquished his opponent in the 1964 presidential elections, Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, and whether the ideology that drove Goldwater’s campaign could finally be cast aside in America’s golden age.
Goldwater, for reasons that I explain in more detail in Injustices, was a somewhat unlikely champion for white supremacists. He’d supported weaker civil rights bills in 1957 and 1960. And he supported integrating the Arizona Air National Guard when he served as its chief of staff. Ultimately, however, the Barry Goldwater of 1964 cared more about a narrow, philosophical objection to government intervention than he did about the rights of African Americans struggling to break free from Jim Crow.
Less than a year before Selma, LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, among other things, banned race discrimination by employers and many businesses. Goldwater, however, denounced this law as a supposed violation of business owners’ “freedom not to associate.” He also criticized the ban on whites-only lunch counters as a threat to states rights. In a speech on the Senate floor, Goldwater announced that he could find “no constitutional basis for the exercise of Federal regulatory authority in either of these areas; and I believe the attempted usurpation of such power to be a grave threat to the very essence of our basic system of government.”
Yet, while Goldwater feared governmental action, especially against private business, as an inherent threat to freedom, Johnson saw government as the agent of justice — and it was the mission of the United States government to achieve this justice. To LBJ, the “cries of pain and the hymns and protests of oppressed people” that reached their climax at Selma were almost like a kind of prayer, and that prayer had “summoned into convocation all the majesty of this great government.” Once summoned, its mission was “at once the oldest and the most basic of this country — to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man.”
Five months later, Johnson would sign the Voting Rights Act into law, and America would soon see concrete proof of how effectively its national government could serve the cause of justice. Within just two years, black voter registration in the white supremacist stronghold of Mississippi increased nearly ninefold.
Yet, despite this unambiguous demonstration of the federal government’s power to make America a more just nation, the philosophical battle between Johnson and Goldwater has been refought over and over again in the last half century. The two constitutional advisers who helped convince Goldwater to oppose the Civil Rights Act were William Rehnquist and Robert Bork. President Ronald Reagan, of course, made Rehnquist Chief Justice of the United States, and he tried and failed to place Bork on the Supreme Court.
Rehnquist’s successor and former law clerk, Chief Justice John Roberts, would go on to gut much of the Voting Rights Act, based on the notion that it authorized an “extraordinary” level of federal intrusion into state election law that could only be justified by extraordinary circumstances. Goldwater’s case against the Civil Rights Act continues to inspire lawmakers, most famously Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), who proclaimed in 2010 that permitting whites-only lunch counters is the “hard part about believing in freedom.”
Johnson’s radicalism, in other words, carried the day in 1965, but it is constantly under threat by another, even more radical vision of what America should be.