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 of them 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 crises. 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, and 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're 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."
And those are not just clever words, and 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 promised 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, 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 or his religion or the place of his birth is not only to do injustice,
it is to deny Americans 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. This 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 expansion of the 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 insure 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 insure 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
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. 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 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 insure that properly registered individuals are not prohibited
from voting. I will welcome the suggestions from all 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 home 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. 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 state's rights or national rights. There is
only the struggle for human rights. I have not the slightest doubt what
will be your answer. But 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 eight long
months of debate. And when that bill came to my desk from the Congress
for signature, the heart of the voting provision had been eliminated.
This time, on this issue, there must be no delay, or no hesitation,
or 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 eight
months before we get a bill. We have already waited 100 years and more
and the time for waiting is gone. So I ask you to join me in working long
hours and 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 from 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.
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's not just Negroes, but really it's 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 100
years--since the Negro was freed. And he is not fully free tonight. It
was more than 100 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 100 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, 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. 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 wasted energy and our substance to maintain
the barriers of hatred and terror?
And 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--all, black and white, North and South, sharecropper
and city dweller. These are the enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease. They
are our enemies, not our fellow man, not our neighbor.
And these enemies too--poverty, disease and ignorance--we shall overcome.
Now let none of us in any section look with prideful righteousness
on the troubles in another section or 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 Selma,
Americans are struggling for the fruits of freedom.
This is one nation. What happens in Selma and 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
the far corners of the world and who 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 Vietnam.
Men from every region fought for us across the world 20 years ago.
And now in these common dangers, in these common sacrifices, the South
made its contribution of honor and gallantry no less than any other region
in 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 now together 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.
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 been called upon 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 the battle for equality is a deep-seated belief
in the democratic process. Equality depends, not on the force of arms or
tear gas, but depends 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 to you tonight that we
intend to fight this battle where it should be fought--in the courts, and
in the Congress, and 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
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
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--and we had a good day there--as in every city we
are working for a just and peaceful settlement. We must all remember after
this speech I'm making tonight, after the police and the F.B.I. 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
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 and
The bill 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
But I would like to caution you and remind you that to exercise these
privileges takes much more than just legal rights. 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're also going
to give all our people, black and white, the help that they need to walk
through those gates. My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla,
Texas, 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 and hungry. And 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 I might help them against
the hardships that lay ahead. And somehow you never forget what poverty
and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young
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, most powerful country which ever occupied this
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
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 tax eaters. 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, 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. McCullock 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 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 fifty 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 future, 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 but believe that He truly understands and that He really favors
the undertaking that we begin here tonight.
President Lyndon B. Johnson - March 15, 1965