Robert Carol: Johnson's Dream, Obama's Speech





[Robert A. Caro, who has won Pulitzer Prizes for his biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, is at work on the fourth and final volume of his Johnson biography.]

AS I watch Barack Obama’s speech to the Democratic convention tonight, I will be remembering another speech: the one that made Martin Luther King cry. And I will be thinking: Mr. Obama’s speech — and in a way his whole candidacy — might not have been possible had that other speech not been given.

That speech was President Lyndon Johnson’s address to Congress in 1965 announcing that he was about to introduce a voting rights act, and in some respects Mr. Obama’s candidacy is the climax — at least thus far — of a movement based not only on the sacrifices and heroism of the Rev. Dr. King and generations of black fighters for civil rights but also on the political genius of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who as it happens was born 100 years ago yesterday.

When, on the night of March 15, 1965, the long motorcade drove away from the White House, heading for Capitol Hill, where President Johnson would give his speech to a joint session of Congress, pickets were standing outside the gates, as they had been for weeks, and as the presidential limousine passed, they were singing the same song that was being sung that week in Selma, Ala.: “We Shall Overcome.” They were singing it in defiance of Johnson, because they didn’t trust him.

They had reasons not to trust him....

When Johnson stepped to the lectern on Capitol Hill that night, he adopted the great anthem of the civil rights movement as his own.

“Even if we pass this bill,” he said, “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.”

And, Lyndon Johnson said, “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.”

He paused, and then he said, “And we shall overcome.”

Martin Luther King was watching the speech at the home of a family in Selma with some of his aides, none of whom had ever, during all the hard years, seen Dr. King cry. But Lyndon Johnson said, “We shall overcome” — and they saw him cry then.

And there was another indication of the power of that speech. When the motorcade returned to the White House, the protesters were gone....



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