On Memorial Day in 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson, then-vice president to John F. Kennedy, delivered a speech in Gettysburg, PA, which contained themes that ultimately led to Johnson’s historic effort to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Johnson’s words have not received appropriate historical recognition because 1963 was a year rich in important comments by other great Americans. President John F. Kennedy delivered two famous speeches, “Ich bin ein Berliner” and another at American University in which he argued that peace was “the necessary rational end of rational men.” It was also the year that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told us of his “dream deeply rooted in the American dream.”
Johnson said, “One hundred years ago, the slave was freed. One hundred years later, the Negro remains in bondage to the color of his skin.” With these words, he responded directly to MLK’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” in which King spoke of his frustration with the pace of change in America for his people.
Johnson further stated, “The Negro today asks justice. We do not answer him — we do not answer those who lie beneath this soil [at Gettysburg] — 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 power of Johnson’s words deserves more credit for what has happened in the 50 years since his speech. Yet, it is a reminder that the job is not complete. A half-century has passed; African Americans still cry out for more justice and equality, and they continue to wait.
Perhaps an even greater theme, which I am sure was not on Johnson’s mind in 1963, is the plight of so many other social groups who experience inequality such as gays and lesbians, undocumented immigrants, etc. Johnson’s words and hopes for blacks are applicable to all downtrodden people who are asked to be patient.
Johnson’s speech is eloquent and applicable. Check here to access it.