We Shall Overcome
We Shall Overcome
Date: March 15, 1965
Source: Johnson, Lyndon Baines. "We Shall Overcome." Address on voting legislation to the Joint Session of Congress, Washington, D.C., March 15, 1965.
About the Author: Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908–1973) was the thirty-sixth president of the United States. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate before becoming John F. Kennedy's vice president in 1960. When Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, Johnson became president and held that office for six years.
During the summer of 1964, the U.S. Congress passed a landmark law, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that had been initiated by President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) and supported by his successor, President Lyndon Baines Johnson. With its prohibition of racial discrimination in public places and on public transportation, the Civil Rights Act marked the end of Jim Crow segregationist laws in the South.
While the Civil Rights Act brought about significant changes, it failed to guarantee the right of all citizens to vote, a fundamental goal of the civil rights movement. The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passed after the Civil War (1861–1865), secured the right of black men to vote, but southern states had erected a number of obstacles that effectively barred African Americans from the polls. For example, in some southern states voters had to pass a complicated literacy test, while in others they had to pay a poll tax, which many blacks could not afford. Throughout the South, blacks were intimidated, threatened, and sometimes attacked when they attempted to register to vote.
In early 1965, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) traveled to the deeply segregated city of Selma, Alabama, with other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) as well as members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). They staged a series of demonstrations to draw attention to the need for voting rights legislation. Civil rights leaders organized a fifty-four-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama's capital, to present a list of complaints to Governor George Wallace. On March 7, hundreds of peaceful marchers started for Montgomery, only to be attacked by Selma police and state troopers wielding batons, cattle prods, and tear gas. Many marchers were injured, and the day came to be known as "Bloody Sunday." The police violence was captured by news photographers and made the front pages of newspapers across the country, arousing tremendous sympathy for the civil rights workers. After another repelled attempt to march out of Selma on March 9, three white ministers who supported the civil rights movement were attacked by white segregationists in Selma. One of the ministers, James Reeb, was beaten with a club and later died of his injuries.
In the months prior to the attempted march from Selma to Montgomery, President Johnson had expressed his view that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as judgments by the courts, would be sufficient to secure the right to vote for African Americans. He and others in his administration had stated that Congress might not pass a voting rights law, which would be strongly opposed by southern lawmakers. However, the events in early March, particularly on "Bloody Sunday," persuaded Johnson that the time was right to send a voting rights bill to Congress. Rather than simply send the proposed legislation to Congress, he decided to personally address the law-makers and the nation, using the authority of his office to convey the historical and moral importance of this law. On March 15, 1965, President Johnson appeared before Congress to urge lawmakers to pass the Voting Rights Act, a law that would guarantee African Americans the right to vote.
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 the 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, 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 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, 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 America 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. 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.
Wednesday, I will send to Congress a law designed to eliminate illegal barriers to the right to vote.…
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.…
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.
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.…
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 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 un-kept.
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've wasted our 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, all North and South, sharecropper and city dweller. These are the enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease. They're 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's 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 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.…
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 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 depends upon the force of moral right; not on recourse to violence but on respect for law and order.
And 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.…
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 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're also going to give all our people, black and white, the help that they need to walk through those gates.…
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 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.
The title of President Johnson's address, "We Shall Overcome," refers to the song that had become the anthem of the civil rights movement. Johnson's use of the phrase in his speech emphasized his point that the quest for social justice should not simply be a goal of the African American community, but of the entire nation. According to Robert Dallek in his book Flawed Giant, after Johnson uttered those words, numerous lawmakers stood up and cheered: "Tears rolled down the cheeks of senators, congressmen, and observers in the gallery, moved by joy, elation, a sense that the victor, for a change, was human decency.…" Dallek goes on to describe the address as "Johnson's greatest speech."
A few days after Johnson's speech, on March 21, 1965, more than 3,000 marchers headed once again from Selma to Montgomery. Governor Wallace had refused to grant the marchers police protection against angry mobs, so President Johnson placed the Alabama National Guard under federal control, ordering the troops to protect the marchers. He also called in 2,000 soldiers from the U.S. Army and hundreds of other federal agents. Five days later, on March 25, the marchers reached Montgomery, their numbers having swelled to approximately 25,000. The Selma-to-Montgomery march became one of the most significant events of the civil rights movement. A few months later, on August 6, President Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The impact of this law was felt within a short period: registration of black voters increased rapidly over the next few years, and the number of African Americans elected to public office began a steady climb not just in the South but throughout the United States.
Wexler, Sanford. The Civil Rights Movement. New York: Facts on File, 1999.
Williams, Juan. Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954–1965. New York: Viking, 1987.
We Shall Overcome: Historic Places of the Civil Rights Movement. "Selma-to-Montgomery March." <http://www.cr.nps.gov/nr/travel/civilrights/sitelist1.htm> (accessed June 3, 2006).