Considered one of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s most eloquent speeches, his Voting Rights Act address was given one week after deadly racial violence erupted in Selma, Alabama. In it he uses the phrase “we shall overcome,” borrowed from the civil rights movement.
It was delivered March 15, 1965 before a joint session of Congress, and was part of Johnson’s efforts to persuade Congress to pass his Voting Rights Act. The Act prevented states from imposing restrictions on who could vote, such as literacy tests prevalent in the Deep South, which were primarily aimed at African Americans and other minority groups.
The Voting Rights Act passed with large majorities in both the United States House of Representatives (333 to 48) and the Senate (77 to 19). President Johnson signed it into law August 6, 1965.
After being provided some historical background, students can be directed to listen to a recording of this speech and to then work in small groups to identify the techniques President Johnson employs to capture the attention of his immediate audience in Congress, as well as to engage all Americans. Reading the speech closely, paragraph by paragraph, and identifying such techniques as connotative diction, imagery, syntax (including parallel structure + repetition), and allusion and discussing how those techniques create appeals to emotion, logic, and the credibility of the speaker can be very effective in an instructional setting.
The 1960’s were a turbulent time in America, for many different reasons and on many different fronts. This particular speech addresses the urgent need in this country to achieve equality and justice for all of its citizens, regardless of their ethnic heritage, race, or religion. The Right to Vote was and still is an emblem of that equality and justice for all.
Lyndon B. Johnson: Voting Rights Act Address
Delivered March 15, 1965, Washington, D.C.
*abridged for classroom use
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 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.”…
Those words are a promise to every citizen that he shall share in the dignity of man. This dignity cannot be found in 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….
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….
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….
To those who seek to avoid action by their National Government in their home 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….
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 is not just Negroes but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome….
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 are our enemies, not our fellow man, not our neighbor. And these enemies too—poverty, disease, and ignorance—we shall overcome.