Over 44 years ago, a President delivered a speech to a joint session of Congress about his proposed legislation. Not known for eloquence, this President spoke to the hearts and minds of Republicans, Dixiecrats, Democrats and the American people. The sheer power of his words and his determination to right a wrong which dated back to the drafting of the U.S. Constitution moved enough in the House and Senate to pass the Voting Act of 1965.
The violence in Selma, Alabama in response to the first attempt to march to Montgomery had occurred just one week before. The 3,000 strong successful march occurred one week later. Five months later, he signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
On the eve of President Obama's speech to Congress on health care, I'd like to take a moment to revisit Johnson's "We Shall Overcome" speech.
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.
For me, his opening sentence is stunning in its simplicity. By the dignity of man he meant all men and women, not just African Americans who were being brutalized and systematically denied basic rights as American citizens. Dignity for white Americans lay in their willingness to work for social justice, common decency. The destiny of Democracy is linked to how we conduct ourselves as citizens with different viewpoints, ethnic and racial backgrounds. We are at that moment again.
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.
We can cringe over his assessment of the government and the nation. That is a minor distraction from his ability to cut to the heart of the issue. We have ugly Americans, but most of us are not. Most of us abhor violence and hatred. Most of us want to answer the call to participate in bettering our society.
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.
And there you have it. Direct confrontation. Crystal clear demand. Deadline. I hope this type of language is in President Obama's speech tomorrow night and he looks Baucus and the rest of the hooligans right in the eye when he delivers it.
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.
Yes, there continue to be means of depriving African Americans, immigrants and the poor of their fundamental rights. How many States rammed through voter ID laws? How many times have we read about disinformation being disseminated in targeted areas regarding voting times and polling places? How often have there been blatant violations of the Voting Rights Act on the State and local government level?
The insurance industry is already busy figuring out how to circumvent whatever might pass the legislature. They are already counting on zero to pitiful enforcement. The battle for true health care reform will not be over for decades.
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.
Johnson had to look at the squirming Dixiecrats and many Republicans who were not going to heed his call. The big difference between him and Obama is that Republican Everett Dirksen had his back and rallied the needed votes for passage. President Obama has zero Rebublican support and the odious Blue Dogs.
President Johnson gave the speech of his lifetime. He got what he wanted -- what he outlined. He didn't rely on just words; he arm-twisted, threatened and formed an alliance with a Republican Statesman. President Obama must give the speech of his lifetime -- not for the Republicans, maybe for the Blue Dogs, but mostly for the American people. And then I want him to pull out all of the stops to get the first round of HCR passed with a public option. And it is up to us to continue the fight.