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.That letter and Johnson's speech were, in fact, a remarkable public dialogue between a man with immense political power and one with ever-growing moral power discussing the nation's original sin and the equality that had been promised in the post-Civil War amendments but never delivered.
The occasion was a speech that almost wasn’t given at all, for an anniversary that was still a month off, delivered by a man who had grown weary of his apparent uselessness in an office that neither interested him nor engaged his capacious gifts. It is a reminder that the titanic events of history sometimes occur away from the main stage — and proof of the power of a great idea, even if it is delivered ahead of its time.
“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.
In the letter King had written during his 11 days in jail, he had much to say. But one comment stood out above the others. It rang loud in the nation's sleeping conscience as Americans watched on television when Police Commissioner Bull Connor turned the dogs and firehoses on Birmingham's anti-segregation demonstrators, whose ranks included children. King was replying to the complaints of eight white clergyman who objected to protest tactics because they didn't object to racism. Wrote King:
“For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’ ”In his Memorial Day speech, Johnson directly addressed King's comment without naming him:
“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 entire text is below the fold.
Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson on Memorial Day, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
May 30, 1963
|On this hallowed ground, heroic deeds were performed and eloquent words were spoken a century ago.
We, the living, have not forgotten--and the world will never forget--the deeds or the words of Gettysburg. We honor them now as we join on this Memorial Day of 1963 in a prayer for permanent peace of the world and fulfillment of our hopes for universal freedom and justice.
We are called to honor our own words of reverent prayer with resolution in the deeds we must perform to preserve peace and the hope of freedom.
We keep a vigil of peace around the world.
Until the world knows no aggressors, until the arms of tyranny have been laid down, until freedom has risen up in every land, we shall maintain our vigil to make sure our sons who died on foreign fields shall not have died in vain.
As we maintain the vigil of peace, we must remember that justice is a vigil, too--a vigil we must keep in our own streets and schools and among the lives of all our people--so that those who died here on their native soil shall not have died in vain.
One hundred years ago, the slave was freed.
One hundred years later, the Negro remains in bondage to the color of his skin.
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 solution is in our hands. Unless we are willing to yield up our destiny of greatness among the civilizations of history, Americans--white and Negro together--must be about the business of resolving the challenge which confronts us now.
Our nation found its soul in honor on these fields of Gettysburg one hundred years ago. We must not lose that soul in dishonor now on the fields of hate.
To ask for patience from the Negro is to ask him to give more of what he has already given enough. But to fail to ask of him--and of all Americans--perseverance within the processes of a free and responsible society would be to fail to ask what the national interest requires of all its citizens.
The law cannot save those who deny it but neither can the law serve any who do not use it. The history of injustice and inequality is a history of disuse of the law. Law has not failed--and is not failing. We as a nation have failed ourselves by not trusting the law and by not using the law to gain sooner the ends of justice which law alone serves.
If the white over-estimates what he has done for the Negro without the law, the Negro may under-estimate what he is doing and can do for himself with the law.
If it is empty to ask Negro or white for patience, it is not empty--it is merely honest--to ask perseverance. Men may build barricades--and others may hurl themselves against those barricades--but what would happen at the barricades would yield no answers. The answers will only be wrought by our perseverance together. It is deceit to promise more as it would be cowardice to demand less.
In this hour, it is not our respective races which are at stake--it is our nation. Let those who care for their country come forward, North and South, white and Negro, to lead the way through this moment of challenge and decision.
The Negro says, "Now." Others say, "Never." The voice of responsible Americans--the voice of those who died here and the great man who spoke here--their voices say, "Together." There is no other way.
Until justice is blind to color, until education is unaware of race, until opportunity is unconcerned with the color of men's skins, emancipation will be a proclamation but not a fact. To the extent that the proclamation of emancipation is not fulfilled in fact, to that extent we shall have fallen short of assuring freedom to the free.