Reconsidering President Johnson on Memorial Day

When we arrived in Wilcox County, Alabama in June 1965 to join a team of local leaders, SCLC and SNCC workers in a massive voter registration drive, I had a very low opinion of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Our SCOPE project, planned by Hosea Williams of SCLC, had counted on the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act to protect us and the community while we walked together to the courthouse to register the 79% disenfranchised voters of the county. All over the South, similar teams of civil rights workers and local leaders were facing the same challenge. My opinion was that President Johnson and Congress were dragging their feet, athough my new boyfriend Bob told me that he saw Johnson on television pushing for the proposed Act in May.  He and Major Johns, one of our project directors, watched the speech together at Rev & Mrs Frank Smith’s home in Lower Peachtree. Bob told me, “I can’t believe that cracker actually said We shall overcome!” So I had to reconsider. Neither of us were aware that Johnson had been pushing for civil rights legislation for two years before we noticed him. This article from the Sunday NY Times is well worth reading in its entirety. [See link below]

L.B.J.’s Gettysburg Address

Excerpted from an article By DAVID M. SHRIBMAN

New York Times – Analysis News

MAY 24, 2013

Fifty years ago, on Memorial Day in 1963, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson gave a speech in Gettysburg, Pa., that foreshadowed profound changes that would be achieved in only 13 months and that mark us still.

“One hundred years ago, the slave was freed,” Johnson said at the cemetery in a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. “One hundred years later, the Negro remains in bondage to the color of his skin.”

With those two sentences, Johnson accomplished two things. He answered King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” And he signaled where the later Johnson administration might lead, which was to the legislation now known as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Six months later, after Kennedy was assassinated, Johnson became president and vowed to press ahead on civil rights, saying that was what the presidency was for — even though he was a Southern Democrat and many of his Congressional allies were devout segregationists.

Johnson’s speech directly addressed King: “The Negro today asks justice. We do not answer him — we do not answer those who lie beneath this soil — when we reply to the Negro by asking, ‘Patience.’ It is empty to plead that the solution to the dilemmas of the present rests on the hands of the clock.”…The speech was given on Memorial Day, May 30, 1963, not on the anniversary of a battle now regarded as a turning point in the Civil War. Johnson’s visit to Gettysburg was a helicopter trip that took but 2 hours and 34 minutes, start to finish, but it was indicative of the bigger journey he would take as president.

Pres Johnson Memorial Day 1963

Pres Johnson Memorial Day 1963

The speech was given on Memorial Day, May 30, 1963, not on the anniversary of a battle now regarded as a turning point in the Civil War. Johnson’s visit to Gettysburg was a helicopter trip that took but 2 hours and 34 minutes, start to finish, but it was indicative of the bigger journey he would take as president.

For full text and audio recording: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/26/sunday-review/at-gettysburg-johnson-marked-memorial-day-and-the-future.html?hpw

Photo copyright Batteson/Corbis

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