Video clip - Here is an excerpt
of Johnson's speech. See text transcript below.
It follows the full text transcript of
Lyndon B. Johnson's We Shall Overcome speech, delivered at
Washington D.C. - March 15, 1965.
Mr. Speaker, Mr.
President, Members of the Congress:
I speak tonight
for the dignity of man and the destiny of
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
I have not the slightest doubt what will be your
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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.