LYNDON B. JOHNSON, "WE SHALL OVERCOME"(15 MARCH 1965)
by Garth E. Pauley, associate professor at Calvin College
President Lyndon Johnson's voting rights speech of March 15, 1965, is considered a landmark of U.S. oratory. It is reprinted or excerpted in nearly every anthology that chronicles the "great moments" or "great issues" of American history. Leading scholars of American oratory have ranked Johnson's speech as one of the top ten American speeches of the twentieth century. Even so, it is not unreasonable to ask, "Is the speech really that outstanding?" Johnson hardly can be counted among the nation's great orators. And some consider the civil rights campaign in Selma, Alabama, to have done more to ensure the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 than Johnson's speech.
While it is true that Johnson was not a gifted public speaker in general and that the Selma protests elicited support for voting rights legislation, the voting rights speech is indeed an exceptional instance of political oratory. In an uncharacteristically eloquent way, the president interpreted the meaning of the Selma demonstrations for a nation awakened to the problem of voter discrimination: His interpretation focused on the very meaning of the nation, what he called "the American Promise." Out of that interpretation, he crafted a compelling rationale for immediate passage of a strong federal voting rights law. His language effectively framed public and congressional deliberations. His appeals helped cement equal voting rights as a fundamental American principle. And at a moment marked by urgency and chaos, his message provided focus and clarity. In short, President Johnson's speech is remarkable because it made the principle of equal voting rights meaningful and compelling through a public vocabulary of shared interests, motives, and aspirations in order to secure quick passage of the country's most important civil rights law. Studying Johnson's address also yields insights beyond the speech itself. It calls attention to the fact that freedom and equality are rhetorical terms whose meanings change and are redefined throughout American history and to the challenges of building moral consensus through oratory.
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