OTD in History… August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act into law

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OTD in History… August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act into law

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

On this day in history August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, the law would prevent the federal government, the states or local areas from imposing any restrictions, which would prevent anybody from voting. The Voting Rights Act combined with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, were meant to guarantee equal and voting rights to African-Americans, who were long relegated to segregation and denied the right to vote guaranteed to them in the fifteenth amendment ratified in 1870. The Fifteenth Amendment promised the guarantee to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” but the South’ Jim Crow laws found ways to circumvent the amendment for nearly a hundred years. Johnson signed the bill surrounded by Civil Rights leaders after an arduous journey imperiled by Southern Democrats, whose constituents long opposed equality for African Americans with racial prejudices alive from the post-Civil War period.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 aimed to reduce inequality for African Americans it did not address the problems with voting. In the South especially, restrictions were meant to prevent African Americans from being registered to vote including difficult literacy tests, poll taxes and grandfather clauses and other tricks and bureaucratic excuses, just to deny them the vote. Johnson and the Democrats’ landslide victory in the 1964 election gave him the mandate to create legislation dealing with the voting issue. Still, he was weary the public would not be supportive so soon after the Civil Rights Act and concerned Southern Democrats would block it and his Great Society social program.

On Sunday, March 7, Bloody Sunday would turn the tide. There Martin Luther King, Jr. and others were peacefully marching for voting rights in Selma, Alabama, ended up being brutally beaten by the police and state troopers, which led to one death. Despite it, all King believed and said at the march, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” The images on television were enough for Johnson to sway the public and Congress on legislation. The moment was now.

On March 15, President Johnson delivered one his best speeches the Voting Rights Address to Congress, where he spoke of the need for the legislation. Johnson used the moment to his favor, expressing “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.” Johnson ordered his Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach to draft “the goddamndest, toughest voting rights act that you can.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) and Minority Leader Everett McKinley Dirksen (R-Ill.) introduced the bill, 64 senators co-sponsored it, 44 Democrats and 20 Republican co-sponsors. In the Senate floor debate on April 22, Dirksen defended the bill saying “legislation is needed if the unequivocal mandate of the Fifteenth Amendment … is to be enforced and made effective and if the Declaration of Independence is to be made truly meaningful.” While Senator and segregationalist Strom Thurmond (R-SC) said, it would lead to “despotism and tyranny.”

The Voting Rights Act, known as the “Dirksenbach” bill for its primary authors first passed the Senate on May 26, with a vote of 77–19 (Democrats 47–16, Republicans 30–2), all Southern Democrats opposed the bill. The bill passed in the House of Representative on July 9 with a vote of 333–85, Democrats 221–61, and Republicans 112–24, again with Southern Democrats opposing. When the bill went to conference, the biggest difference was the House bill not outlawing poll taxes; a compromise in the bill outlawed them. The House approved the revised bill, on August 3 with a vote of 328–74 (Democrats 217–54, Republicans 111–20). The next day on August 4 the Senate approved the bill 79–18 vote (Democrats 49–17, Republicans 30–1).

On August 6, Johnson signed the bill into law at Statuary Hall in the Capitol building. In attendance were dignitaries including those that helped make landmarks in the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks, who refused to sit at the back of the bus starting the Montgomery bus boycott was there. Solicitor General Thurgood Marshall, whom Johnson had just appointed, and had successfully argued in 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was there. Charles Evers, brother of Medgar Evers killed in 1963 the NAACP’s field secretary, a position Charles later assumed attended. John Doar, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, who “helped shaped the act” attended. John Lewis, who was the face of the violence of the Selma March, he fought for voting rights in the state even before Martin Luther King, Jr., and he was badly injured on Bloody Sunday. King also attended, for the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, this was the second legislative victory. King said at the Lincoln Memorial in May 1957. “So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably have the right to vote I do not possess myself.”

Johnson chose the day because it was symbolic. As historian Gary May in his book Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy recounted, “On that day in 1861, President Lincoln had signed the Confiscation Act, freeing all slaves who were being used to aid the Confederacy; that act was a precursor to the Emancipation Proclamation, which liberated the rebel states’ remaining slaves.” (May 19) President Johnson ensured the visual was also there as he delivered a televised speech, with the backdrop of two busts of Lincoln, and was John Trumbull’s painting of George Washington, the Surrender of Cornwallis. (May 19)

In his speech, Johnson declared, “Today, we strike away the last major shackle of those fierce and ancient bonds. . . . The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.” The president, however, signed the bill in the President’s room, he gave the first pen to Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the second to Senator Everett M. Dirksen, and the third to Senator Robert Kennedy. Johnson also gave one to Rev. King, and told him “his work was now done, that the time for protest was over.” (May, 20) Afterward, Johnson hosted the Civil rights Leaders at the White House.

Historian Gary May indicates, “The Voting Rights Act transformed American democracy and in many ways was the last act of emancipation, a process Abraham Lincoln began in 1863.” President Johnson believed it was but the Voting Rights Act was a work in progress, opening the doors to voting, however, African Americans might still have to fight but now with the means in the courts. Through the years, the act would see provisions added evolving for the better. The Voting Rights Act’s greatest victory was Election Day 2008, where 65 percent of African American voters and an overwhelmingly 96 percent of them voted in the first African American President history, Barack Obama.

SOURCES

May, Gary. Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy. New York, N.Y: Basic Books, 2013.

Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.

Remarks in the Capitol Rotunda at the Signing of the Voting Rights Act.

August 6, 1965

Mr. Vice President, Mr. Speaker, Members of Congress, members of the Cabinet, distinguished guests, my fellow Americans:

Today is a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield. Yet to seize the meaning of this day, we must recall darker times.

Three and a half centuries ago the first Negroes arrived at Jamestown. They did not arrive in brave ships in search of a home for freedom. They did not mingle fear and joy, in expectation that in this New World anything would be possible to a man strong enough to reach for it.

They came in darkness and they came in chains.

And today we strike away the last major shackle of those fierce and ancient bonds. Today the Negro story and the American story fuse and blend.

And let us remember that it was not always so. The stories of our Nation and of the American Negro are like two great rivers. Welling up from that tiny Jamestown spring they flow through the centuries along divided channels.

When pioneers subdued a continent to the need of man, they did not tame it for the Negro. When the Liberty Bell rang out in Philadelphia, it did not toll for the Negro. When Andrew Jackson threw open the doors of democracy, they did not open for the Negro.

It was only at Appomattox, a century ago, that an American victory was also a Negro victory. And the two rivers–one shining with promise, the other dark-stained with oppression–began to move toward one another.

THE PROMISE KEPT

Yet, for almost a century the promise of that day was not fulfilled. Today is a towering and certain mark that, in this generation, that promise will be kept. In our time the two currents will finally mingle and rush as one great stream across the uncertain and the marvelous years of the America that is yet to come.

This act flows from a clear and simple wrong. Its only purpose is to right that wrong. Millions of Americans are denied the right to vote because of their color. This law will ensure them the right to vote. The wrong is one which no American, in his heart, can justify. The right is one which no American, true to our principles, can deny.

In 1957, as the leader of the majority in the United States Senate, speaking in support of legislation to guarantee the right of all men to vote, I said, “This right to vote is the basic right without which all others are meaningless. It gives people, people as individuals, control over their own destinies.”

Last year I said, “Until every qualified person regardless of . . . the color of his skin has the right, unquestioned and unrestrained, to go in and cast his ballot in every precinct in this great land of ours, I am not going to be satisfied.”

Immediately after the election I directed the Attorney General to explore, as rapidly as possible, the ways to ensure the right to vote.

And then last March, with the outrage of Selma still fresh, I came down to this Capitol one evening and asked the Congress and the people for swift and for sweeping action to guarantee to every man and woman the right to vote. In less than 48 hours I sent the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to the Congress. In little more than 4 months the Congress, with overwhelming majorities, enacted one of the most monumental laws in the entire history of American freedom.

THE WAITING IS GONE

The Members of the Congress, and the many private citizens, who worked to shape and pass this bill will share a place of honor in our history for this one act alone.

There were those who said this is an old injustice, and there is no need to hurry. But 95 years have passed since the 15th amendment gave all Negroes the right to vote.

And the time for waiting is gone.

There were those who said smaller and more gradual measures should be tried. But they had been tried. For years and years they had been tried, and tried, and tried, and they had failed, and failed, and failed.

And the time for failure is gone.

There were those who said that this is a many-sided and very complex problem. But however viewed, the denial of the right to vote is still a deadly wrong.

And the time for injustice has gone.

This law covers many pages. But the heart of the act is plain. Wherever, by clear and objective standards, States and counties are using regulations, or laws, or tests to deny the right to vote, then they will be struck down. If it is clear that State officials still intend to discriminate, then Federal examiners will be sent in to register all eligible voters. When the prospect of discrimination is gone, the examiners will be immediately withdrawn.

And, under this act, if any county anywhere in this Nation does not want Federal intervention it need only open its polling places to all of its people.

THE GOVERNMENT ACTS

This good Congress, the 89th Congress, acted swiftly in passing this act. I intend to act with equal dispatch in enforcing this act.

And tomorrow at 1 p.m., the Attorney General has been directed to file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the poll tax in the State of Mississippi. This will begin the legal process which, I confidently believe, will very soon prohibit any State from requiring the payment of money in order to exercise the right to vote.

And also by tomorrow the Justice Department, through publication in the Federal Register, will have officially certified the States where discrimination exists.

I have, in addition, requested the Department of Justice to work all through this weekend so that on Monday morning next, they can designate many counties where past experience clearly shows that Federal action is necessary and required. And by Tuesday morning, trained Federal examiners will be at work registering eligible men and women in 10 to 15 counties.

And on that same day, next Tuesday, additional poll tax suits will be filed in the States of Texas, Alabama, and Virginia.

And I pledge you that we will not delay, or we will not hesitate, or we will not turn aside until Americans of every race and color and origin in this country have the same right as all others to share in the process of democracy.

So, through this act, and its enforcement, an important instrument of freedom passes into the hands of millions of our citizens. But that instrument must be used. Presidents and Congresses, laws and lawsuits can open the doors to the polling places and open the doors to the wondrous rewards which await the wise use of the ballot.

THE VOTE BECOMES JUSTICE

But only the individual Negro, and all others who have been denied the right to vote, can really walk through those doors, and can use that right, and can transform the vote into an instrument of justice and fulfillment.

So, let me now say to every Negro in this country: You must register. You must vote. You must learn, so your choice advances your interest and the interest of our beloved Nation. Your future, and your children’s future, depend upon it, and I don’t believe that you are going to let them down.

This act is not only a victory for Negro leadership. This act is a great challenge to that leadership. It is a challenge which cannot be met simply by protests and demonstrations. It means that dedicated leaders must work around the clock to teach people their rights and their responsibilities and to lead them to exercise those rights and to fulfill those responsibilities and those duties to their country.

If you do this, then you will find, as others have found before you, that the vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.

THE LAST OF THE BARRIERS TUMBLE

Today what is perhaps the last of the legal barriers is tumbling. There will be many actions and many difficulties before the rights woven into law are also woven into the fabric of our Nation. But the struggle for equality must now move toward a different battlefield.

It is nothing less than granting every American Negro his freedom to enter the mainstream of American life: not the conformity that blurs enriching differences of culture and tradition, but rather the opportunity that gives each a chance to choose.

For centuries of oppression and hatred have already taken their painful toll. It can be seen throughout our land in men without skills, in children without fathers, in families that are imprisoned in slums and in poverty.

RIGHTS ARE NOT ENOUGH

For it is not enough just to give men rights. They must be able to use those rights in their personal pursuit of happiness. The wounds and the weaknesses, the outward walls and the inward scars which diminish achievement are the work of American society. We must all now help to end them–help to end them through expanding programs already devised and through new ones to search out and forever end the special handicaps of those who are black in a Nation that happens to be mostly white.

So, it is for this purpose–to fulfill the rights that we now secure–that I have already called a White House conference to meet here in the Nation’s Capital this fall.

So, we will move step by step–often painfully but, I think, with clear vision–along the path toward American freedom.

It is difficult to fight for freedom. But I also know how difficult it can be to bend long years of habit and custom to grant it. There is no room for injustice anywhere in the American mansion. But there is always room for understanding toward those who see the old ways crumbling. And to them today I say simply this: It must come. It is right that it should come. And when it has, you will find that a burden has been lifted from your shoulders, too.

It is not just a question of guilt, although there is that. It is that men cannot live with a lie and not be stained by it.

DIGNITY IS NOT JUST A WORD

The central fact of American civilization–one so hard for others to understand–is that freedom and justice and the dignity of man are not just words to us. We believe in them. Under all the growth and the tumult and abundance, we believe. And so, as long as some among us are oppressed–and we are part of that oppression–it must blunt our faith and sap the strength of our high purpose.

Thus, this is a victory for the freedom of the American Negro. But it is also a victory for the freedom of the American Nation. And every family across this great, entire, searching land will live stronger in liberty, will live more splendid in expectation, and will be prouder to be American because of the act that you have passed that I will sign today.

Thank you.


Note: The President spoke at 12:05 p.m. in the Rotunda at the Capitol, prior to signing the bill. In his opening words he referred to Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, President of the Senate, and Representative John W. McCormack of Massachusetts, Speaker of the House of Representatives.

As enacted, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is Public Law 89-110 (79 Stat. 437).

Reports to the President on the implementation of the act, prepared by the Attorney General and the Chairman of the Civil Service Commission, were made public by the White House on August 5, August 14, and August 21. They are printed in the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents (vol. 1, pp. 51, 92, 125).

The determinations of the Attorney General are printed in the Federal Register of August 7 and August 10, 1965 (30 F.R. 9897, 9970).

Lyndon B. Johnson: “Remarks in the Capitol Rotunda at the Signing of the Voting Rights Act.,” August 6, 1965. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=27140.

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Full Text Obama Presidency March 7, 2015: President Barack Obama’s Speech at the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches — Transcripts

POLITICAL TRANSCRIPTS

OBAMA PRESIDENCY & THE 114TH CONGRESS:

Remarks by the President at the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches

Source: WH,  3-7-15

Edmund Pettus Bridge

Selma, Alabama

2:17 P.M. CST

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  We love you, President Obama!

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, you know I love you back.  (Applause.)

It is a rare honor in this life to follow one of your heroes.  And John Lewis is one of my heroes.

Now, I have to imagine that when a younger John Lewis woke up that morning 50 years ago and made his way to Brown Chapel, heroics were not on his mind.  A day like this was not on his mind.  Young folks with bedrolls and backpacks were milling about.  Veterans of the movement trained newcomers in the tactics of non-violence; the right way to protect yourself when attacked.  A doctor described what tear gas does to the body, while marchers scribbled down instructions for contacting their loved ones.  The air was thick with doubt, anticipation and fear.  And they comforted themselves with the final verse of the final hymn they sung:

“No matter what may be the test, God will take care of you;
Lean, weary one, upon His breast, God will take care of you.”

And then, his knapsack stocked with an apple, a toothbrush, and a book on government — all you need for a night behind bars — John Lewis led them out of the church on a mission to change America.

President and Mrs. Bush, Governor Bentley, Mayor Evans, Sewell, Reverend Strong, members of Congress, elected officials, foot soldiers, friends, fellow Americans:

As John noted, there are places and moments in America where this nation’s destiny has been decided.  Many are sites of war — Concord and Lexington, Appomattox, Gettysburg.  Others are sites that symbolize the daring of America’s character — Independence Hall and Seneca Falls, Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral.

Selma is such a place.  In one afternoon 50 years ago, so much of our turbulent history — the stain of slavery and anguish of civil war; the yoke of segregation and tyranny of Jim Crow; the death of four little girls in Birmingham; and the dream of a Baptist preacher — all that history met on this bridge.

It was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills; a contest to determine the true meaning of America.  And because of men and women like John Lewis, Joseph Lowery, Hosea Williams, Amelia Boynton, Diane Nash, Ralph Abernathy, C.T. Vivian, Andrew Young, Fred Shuttlesworth, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and so many others, the idea of a just America and a fair America, an inclusive America, and a generous America — that idea ultimately triumphed.

As is true across the landscape of American history, we cannot examine this moment in isolation.  The march on Selma was part of a broader campaign that spanned generations; the leaders that day part of a long line of heroes.

We gather here to celebrate them.  We gather here to honor the courage of ordinary Americans willing to endure billy clubs and the chastening rod; tear gas and the trampling hoof; men and women who despite the gush of blood and splintered bone would stay true to their North Star and keep marching towards justice.

They did as Scripture instructed:  “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.”  And in the days to come, they went back again and again.  When the trumpet call sounded for more to join, the people came –- black and white, young and old, Christian and Jew, waving the American flag and singing the same anthems full of faith and hope.  A white newsman, Bill Plante, who covered the marches then and who is with us here today, quipped that the growing number of white people lowered the quality of the singing.  (Laughter.)  To those who marched, though, those old gospel songs must have never sounded so sweet.

In time, their chorus would well up and reach President Johnson.  And he would send them protection, and speak to the nation, echoing their call for America and the world to hear:  “We shall overcome.”  (Applause.)  What enormous faith these men and women had.  Faith in God, but also faith in America.

The Americans who crossed this bridge, they were not physically imposing.  But they gave courage to millions.  They held no elected office.  But they led a nation.  They marched as Americans who had endured hundreds of years of brutal violence, countless daily indignities –- but they didn’t seek special treatment, just the equal treatment promised to them almost a century before.  (Applause.)

What they did here will reverberate through the ages.  Not because the change they won was preordained; not because their victory was complete; but because they proved that nonviolent change is possible, that love and hope can conquer hate.

As we commemorate their achievement, we are well-served to remember that at the time of the marches, many in power condemned rather than praised them.  Back then, they were called Communists, or half-breeds, or outside agitators, sexual and moral degenerates, and worse –- they were called everything but the name their parents gave them.  Their faith was questioned.  Their lives were threatened.  Their patriotism challenged.

And yet, what could be more American than what happened in this place?  (Applause.)  What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people –- unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many, coming together to shape their country’s course?

What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?  (Applause.)

That’s why Selma is not some outlier in the American experience.  That’s why it’s not a museum or a static monument to behold from a distance.  It is instead the manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents:  “We the People…in order to form a more perfect union.”  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”  (Applause.)

These are not just words.  They’re a living thing, a call to action, a roadmap for citizenship and an insistence in the capacity of free men and women to shape our own destiny.  For founders like Franklin and Jefferson, for leaders like Lincoln and FDR, the success of our experiment in self-government rested on engaging all of our citizens in this work.  And that’s what we celebrate here in Selma.  That’s what this movement was all about, one leg in our long journey toward freedom.  (Applause.)

The American instinct that led these young men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge, that’s the same instinct that moved patriots to choose revolution over tyranny.  It’s the same instinct that drew immigrants from across oceans and the Rio Grande; the same instinct that led women to reach for the ballot, workers to organize against an unjust status quo; the same instinct that led us to plant a flag at Iwo Jima and on the surface of the Moon.  (Applause.)

It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths.  It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo.  That’s America.  (Applause.)

That’s what makes us unique.  That’s what cements our reputation as a beacon of opportunity.  Young people behind the Iron Curtain would see Selma and eventually tear down that wall.  Young people in Soweto would hear Bobby Kennedy talk about ripples of hope and eventually banish the scourge of apartheid.  Young people in Burma went to prison rather than submit to military rule.  They saw what John Lewis had done.  From the streets of Tunis to the Maidan in Ukraine, this generation of young people can draw strength from this place, where the powerless could change the world’s greatest power and push their leaders to expand the boundaries of freedom.

They saw that idea made real right here in Selma, Alabama.  They saw that idea manifest itself here in America.

Because of campaigns like this, a Voting Rights Act was passed.  Political and economic and social barriers came down.  And the change these men and women wrought is visible here today in the presence of African Americans who run boardrooms, who sit on the bench, who serve in elected office from small towns to big cities; from the Congressional Black Caucus all the way to the Oval Office.  (Applause.)

Because of what they did, the doors of opportunity swung open not just for black folks, but for every American.  Women marched through those doors.  Latinos marched through those doors.  Asian Americans, gay Americans, Americans with disabilities — they all came through those doors.  (Applause.)  Their endeavors gave the entire South the chance to rise again, not by reasserting the past, but by transcending the past.

What a glorious thing, Dr. King might say.  And what a solemn debt we owe.  Which leads us to ask, just how might we repay that debt?

First and foremost, we have to recognize that one day’s commemoration, no matter how special, is not enough.  If Selma taught us anything, it’s that our work is never done.  (Applause.)  The American experiment in self-government gives work and purpose to each generation.

Selma teaches us, as well, that action requires that we shed our cynicism.  For when it comes to the pursuit of justice, we can afford neither complacency nor despair.

Just this week, I was asked whether I thought the Department of Justice’s Ferguson report shows that, with respect to race, little has changed in this country.  And I understood the question; the report’s narrative was sadly familiar.  It evoked the kind of abuse and disregard for citizens that spawned the Civil Rights Movement.  But I rejected the notion that nothing’s changed.  What happened in Ferguson may not be unique, but it’s no longer endemic.  It’s no longer sanctioned by law or by custom.  And before the Civil Rights Movement, it most surely was.  (Applause.)

We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, that racial division is inherent to America.  If you think nothing’s changed in the past 50 years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or Los Angeles of the 1950s.  Ask the female CEO who once might have been assigned to the secretarial pool if nothing’s changed.  Ask your gay friend if it’s easier to be out and proud in America now than it was thirty years ago.  To deny this progress, this hard-won progress -– our progress –- would be to rob us of our own agency, our own capacity, our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.

Of course, a more common mistake is to suggest that Ferguson is an isolated incident; that racism is banished; that the work that drew men and women to Selma is now complete, and that whatever racial tensions remain are a consequence of those seeking to play the “race card” for their own purposes.  We don’t need the Ferguson report to know that’s not true.  We just need to open our eyes, and our ears, and our hearts to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us.

We know the march is not yet over.  We know the race is not yet won.  We know that reaching that blessed destination where we are judged, all of us, by the content of our character requires admitting as much, facing up to the truth.  “We are capable of bearing a great burden,” James Baldwin once wrote, “once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is.”

There’s nothing America can’t handle if we actually look squarely at the problem.  And this is work for all Americans, not just some.  Not just whites.  Not just blacks.  If we want to honor the courage of those who marched that day, then all of us are called to possess their moral imagination.  All of us will need to feel as they did the fierce urgency of now.  All of us need to recognize as they did that change depends on our actions, on our attitudes, the things we teach our children.  And if we make such an effort, no matter how hard it may sometimes seem, laws can be passed, and consciences can be stirred, and consensus can be built.  (Applause.)

With such an effort, we can make sure our criminal justice system serves all and not just some.  Together, we can raise the level of mutual trust that policing is built on –- the idea that police officers are members of the community they risk their lives to protect, and citizens in Ferguson and New York and Cleveland, they just want the same thing young people here marched for 50 years ago -– the protection of the law.  (Applause.)  Together, we can address unfair sentencing and overcrowded prisons, and the stunted circumstances that rob too many boys of the chance to become men, and rob the nation of too many men who could be good dads, and good workers, and good neighbors.  (Applause.)

With effort, we can roll back poverty and the roadblocks to opportunity.  Americans don’t accept a free ride for anybody, nor do we believe in equality of outcomes.  But we do expect equal opportunity.  And if we really mean it, if we’re not just giving lip service to it, but if we really mean it and are willing to sacrifice for it, then, yes, we can make sure every child gets an education suitable to this new century, one that expands imaginations and lifts sights and gives those children the skills they need.  We can make sure every person willing to work has the dignity of a job, and a fair wage, and a real voice, and sturdier rungs on that ladder into the middle class.

And with effort, we can protect the foundation stone of our democracy for which so many marched across this bridge –- and that is the right to vote.  (Applause.)  Right now, in 2015, 50 years after Selma, there are laws across this country designed to make it harder for people to vote.  As we speak, more of such laws are being proposed.  Meanwhile, the Voting Rights Act, the culmination of so much blood, so much sweat and tears, the product of so much sacrifice in the face of wanton violence, the Voting Rights Act stands weakened, its future subject to political rancor.

How can that be?  The Voting Rights Act was one of the crowning achievements of our democracy, the result of Republican and Democratic efforts.  (Applause.)  President Reagan signed its renewal when he was in office.  President George W. Bush signed its renewal when he was in office.  (Applause.)  One hundred members of Congress have come here today to honor people who were willing to die for the right to protect it.  If we want to honor this day, let that hundred go back to Washington and gather four hundred more, and together, pledge to make it their mission to restore that law this year.  That’s how we honor those on this bridge.  (Applause.)

Of course, our democracy is not the task of Congress alone, or the courts alone, or even the President alone.  If every new voter-suppression law was struck down today, we would still have, here in America, one of the lowest voting rates among free peoples.  Fifty years ago, registering to vote here in Selma and much of the South meant guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar, the number of bubbles on a bar of soap.  It meant risking your dignity, and sometimes, your life.

What’s our excuse today for not voting?  How do we so casually discard the right for which so many fought?  (Applause.)  How do we so fully give away our power, our voice, in shaping America’s future?  Why are we pointing to somebody else when we could take the time just to go to the polling places?  (Applause.)  We give away our power.

Fellow marchers, so much has changed in 50 years.  We have endured war and we’ve fashioned peace.  We’ve seen technological wonders that touch every aspect of our lives.  We take for granted conveniences that our parents could have scarcely imagined.  But what has not changed is the imperative of citizenship; that willingness of a 26-year-old deacon, or a Unitarian minister, or a young mother of five to decide they loved this country so much that they’d risk everything to realize its promise.

That’s what it means to love America.  That’s what it means to believe in America.  That’s what it means when we say America is exceptional.

For we were born of change.  We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.  We secure our rights and responsibilities through a system of self-government, of and by and for the people.  That’s why we argue and fight with so much passion and conviction — because we know our efforts matter.  We know America is what we make of it.

Look at our history.  We are Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea, pioneers who braved the unfamiliar, followed by a stampede of farmers and miners, and entrepreneurs and hucksters.  That’s our spirit.  That’s who we are.

We are Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer, women who could do as much as any man and then some.  And we’re Susan B. Anthony, who shook the system until the law reflected that truth.  That is our character.

We’re the immigrants who stowed away on ships to reach these shores, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free –- Holocaust survivors, Soviet defectors, the Lost Boys of Sudan.  We’re the hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande because we want our kids to know a better life.  That’s how we came to be.  (Applause.)

We’re the slaves who built the White House and the economy of the South.  (Applause.)  We’re the ranch hands and cowboys who opened up the West, and countless laborers who laid rail, and raised skyscrapers, and organized for workers’ rights.

We’re the fresh-faced GIs who fought to liberate a continent.  And we’re the Tuskeegee Airmen, and the Navajo code-talkers, and the Japanese Americans who fought for this country even as their own liberty had been denied.

We’re the firefighters who rushed into those buildings on 9/11, the volunteers who signed up to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.  We’re the gay Americans whose blood ran in the streets of San Francisco and New York, just as blood ran down this bridge. (Applause.)

We are storytellers, writers, poets, artists who abhor unfairness, and despise hypocrisy, and give voice to the voiceless, and tell truths that need to be told.

We’re the inventors of gospel and jazz and blues, bluegrass and country, and hip-hop and rock and roll, and our very own sound with all the sweet sorrow and reckless joy of freedom.

We are Jackie Robinson, enduring scorn and spiked cleats and pitches coming straight to his head, and stealing home in the World Series anyway.  (Applause.)

We are the people Langston Hughes wrote of who “build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how.”  We are the people Emerson wrote of, “who for truth and honor’s sake stand fast and suffer long;” who are “never tired, so long as we can see far enough.”

That’s what America is.  Not stock photos or airbrushed history, or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others.  (Applause.)  We respect the past, but we don’t pine for the past.  We don’t fear the future; we grab for it.  America is not some fragile thing.  We are large, in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes.  We are boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit.  That’s why someone like John Lewis at the ripe old age of 25 could lead a mighty march.

And that’s what the young people here today and listening all across the country must take away from this day.  You are America.  Unconstrained by habit and convention.  Unencumbered by what is, because you’re ready to seize what ought to be.

For everywhere in this country, there are first steps to be taken, there’s new ground to cover, there are more bridges to be crossed.  And it is you, the young and fearless at heart, the most diverse and educated generation in our history, who the nation is waiting to follow.

Because Selma shows us that America is not the project of any one person.  Because the single-most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.”  “We The People.”  “We Shall Overcome.”  “Yes We Can.”  (Applause.)  That word is owned by no one.  It belongs to everyone.  Oh, what a glorious task we are given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.

Fifty years from Bloody Sunday, our march is not yet finished, but we’re getting closer.  Two hundred and thirty-nine years after this nation’s founding our union is not yet perfect, but we are getting closer.  Our job’s easier because somebody already got us through that first mile.  Somebody already got us over that bridge.  When it feels the road is too hard, when the torch we’ve been passed feels too heavy, we will remember these early travelers, and draw strength from their example, and hold firmly the words of the prophet Isaiah:  “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.  They will soar on [the] wings like eagles.  They will run and not grow weary.  They will walk and not be faint.”  (Applause.)

We honor those who walked so we could run.  We must run so our children soar.  And we will not grow weary.  For we believe in the power of an awesome God, and we believe in this country’s sacred promise.

May He bless those warriors of justice no longer with us, and bless the United States of America.  Thank you, everybody.  (Applause.)

END
2:50 P.M. CST

History Buzz August 22, 2011: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Memorial Opens in Washington’s National Mall

HISTORY BUZZ: HISTORY NEWS RECAP

History Buzz

By Bonnie K. Goodman

Ms. Goodman is the Editor of History Musings. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies from McGill University, and has done graduate work in history at Concordia University.

HISTORY BUZZ: HISTORY NEWS RECAP

Philip Scott Andrews/The New York Times

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. memorial will officially be dedicated on Sunday. More Photos »

IN FOCUS: MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.’S MEMORIAL OPENS IN WASHINGTON’S NATIONAL MALL

“With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”

“Why you don’t see a lot of race … is because we hope that in the next 100 years, we hope that in the next 50 or 20 years, that won’t be important. It’s important that you have food in your belly, that you have clothes on your back, that you have education.” — Harry Johnson, CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Foundation.

“Martin Luther King is not only a hero of Americans, he also is a hero of the world, and he pursued the universal dream of the people of the world.” — Master sculptor Lei Yixin of Changsha, China

dedicatethedream.org

Martin Luther King’s Speech: ‘I Have a Dream’ – The Full TextABC News

A USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds that seven in 10 Americans are very or somewhat interested in visiting the memorial.
Yet there’s a gap between races: 68% of black Americans are very interested, compared with 22% of whites.

Poll: MLK’s dream realized, but a gulf between races remains: Just over half of Americans polled say Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of racial equality has been fulfilled, and another one in four of those surveyed say major progress has been made toward it.
A USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds both pride and division on race relations. Nearly everyone — 90% of whites and 85% of blacks — says civil rights for blacks have improved in the USA during their lifetime, although whites are more likely to see the progress as far-reaching…. – USA Today, 8-17-11

  • Photos: Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Is Unveiled in Washington: Washingtonians and visitors are now able to see the memorial dedicated to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which will sit in the nation’s capital, flanked by memorials to Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Hundreds of people came early Monday … – TIME, 8-22-11
  • Images: MLK Jr. Memorial: The statue of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is seen unveiled from scaffolding during the soft opening of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, Monday, Aug. 22, 2011. The memorial will be dedicated Sunday, Aug. 28. … – Chicago Daily Herald, 8-22-11
  • Why MLK Memorial is one of the last new structures on the National Mall: The MLK Memorial, which the public gets a glimpse of Monday, is between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials. Its centerpiece is a 30-foot statue of Martin Luther King Jr…. – CS Monitor, 8-22-11
  • For March on Washington participants, memories linger decades later: Graphic: Multimedia: Civil rights leaders, including John Lewis, Juanita Abernathy and Jesse Jackson, remember Martin Luther King Jr. and the March on Washington…. – WaPo, 8-24-11Rep. Hastings: The struggle continues for King’s dreamThe HillRep. Meeks: Making the dream a realityThe Hill

    Rep. Rangel: The dream lives onThe Hill

    Rep. Clay: A memorial is not enoughThe Hill

    Rep. Clarke: Continuing to build the dreamThe Hill

    Rep. Conyers: Dr. King’s dream of jobs, justice and peaceThe Hill

    Rep. Carson: A renewed call to positive actionThe Hill

    Rep. Bishop: Reflections on Dr. King’s memorialThe Hill

  • MLK Jr. Memorial Dedication Events: Monday’s debut kicks off a week of black-tie, white-tie and informal events all geared toward raising money for and drawing attention to the memorial and Sunday’s dedication. During that event, President Obama will bury a time capsule that will include items from him, the memorial foundation and the King family, said Harry Johnson, CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Foundation.
    The dedication will take place on the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, during which King delivered his seminal “I Have a Dream” speech. The week will bring together civil rights luminaries, including Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the last surviving organizer of the March on Washington; Joseph Lowery, who helped launch the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; and former United Nations ambassador and King confidante Andrew Young…. – USA Today, 8-22-11
  • National Mall adds Martin Luther King tribute: There will an anticipated crowd of more than 250,000 spectators Sunday for the dedication of the King memorial – a tranquil monument of stone, greenery and trees along the northwest edge of Washington’s Tidal Basin that will honor the slain civil rights leader.
    Sunday’s ceremony, which coincides with the 48th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, will officially open the first monument on the National Mall honoring an African-American.
    The $120 million memorial is part of a burgeoning number of monuments in the nation’s capital recognizing African-American contributions to American life and culture.
    On Washington’s busy U Street corridor, the African American Civil War Museum recently reopened in a new, 5,000-square-foot home to better tell the story of the 200,000 slaves and freed African-Americans who fought in the conflict…. – Nashua Telegraph, 8-23-11
  • A Dream Both Realized and Deferred: If one were to look up “tenacity” in a dictionary, one might well simply search for logo of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, or a photograph of the MLK Memorial Foundation’s Executive Director Harry Johnson, Sr…. – Chicago Defender, 8-22-11
  • Martin Luther King Jr.’s children grapple with his legacy: The children of the iconic civil rights leader have been burdened with his legacy, and have weathered their share of family turmoil since his death…. – WaPo, 8-24-11
  • Memorial Review A Mirror of Greatness, Blurred: It is a momentous occasion. Into an honored array of presidents and soldiers — the founders and protectors of the nation — has come a minister, a man without epaulets or civilian authority, who was not a creator of laws, but someone who, for a time, was a deliberate violator of them; not a wager of war but someone who, throughout his short life, was pretty much a pacifist; not an associate of the nation’s ruling elite but someone who, in many cases, would have been prevented from joining it.
    That figure is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and this Sunday, when his four-acre, $120 million memorial on the edge of the Tidal Basin is to be officially dedicated, it will be adjacent to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s, across the water from Thomas Jefferson’s, and along an axis leading from that founding father directly to Abraham Lincoln’s. There are few figures in American history with similar credentials who would have even a remotely comparable claim for national remembrance on the Washington Mall…. – NYT, 8-25-11
  • Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream returns to Mall 6 of 9: Years in the making, a memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. opened to the public Monday…. – CBS News, 8-22-11
  • Martin Luther King Memorial details in one spot: The new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial opened Monday to smaller crowds than we’ll probably see later this week and on Sunday, when the official dedication takes place. The memorial opens at 8 am Tuesday and Wednesday and 9 am … – WaPo, 8-22-11
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial unveiled: The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is revealed to members of the press before opening to the public today. The design is derived from part of King’s famous “I have a dream” speech when he said, “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the … – WaPo, 8-22-11
  • King memorial opens to the public today: The Martin Luther King Jr. memorial was 25 years in the making. The first members of the public to see the official opening of Washington’s new $120 million memorial to the … – WaPo, 8-22-11
  • Exploring the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial: The Martin Luther King Jr. memorial will be dedicated on Aug. 28, the 48th anniversary of the day King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. plug-in now — it only takes a minute. The sculpture, called the “Stone of Hope,” gets its name from…. – WaPo, 8-22-11
  • Martin Luther King Jr. Monument Opens In DC: The much-anticipated memorial to civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. opened today on the National Mall. Hundreds gathered for the first look at the towering 30-foot-tall granite sculpture of King, located in between the monuments … – New York Daily News, 8-22-11
  • Martin Luther King Jr. memorial opens in Washington: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took a permanent place today on the National Mall, as a federal memorial to the civil rights leader opened to the public…. – Atlanta Journal Constitution, 8-22-11
  • What Obama Can Learn at the Martin Luther King Memorial: While the president is hanging out—or hiding out—on Martha’s Vineyard sands and greens, he’s missing a chance for spiritual solace right here in Washington, where he could commune with the spirits and memorial spaces of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and—yes!—the new sculptural arrival on the National Mall: Martin Luther King, Jr…. – US News, 8-23-11
  • Martin Luther King Jr. memorial opens on National Mall: Some were locals who have watched for years as the memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. took shape on the National Mall. Some were tourists who happened to be in Washington the day it opened. … – Fort Worth Star Telegram, 8-22-11
  • King’s monument to unfinished work: The memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King opened Monday on the Mall in Washington. Dr. King will take his place with Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington and FDR. The monument features a 30-foot figure of Dr. King, hewn from granite, looking forward…. – Chicago Sun-Times, 8-22-11
  • Off The Ground: Creating The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial: The new Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial is scheduled to be dedicated on Aug. 28 — the anniversary of the civil rights leader’s “I Have A Dream” speech. The memorial, located on the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC, was several decades in the making…. – NPR, 8-22-11
  • Washington eyes tourism from MLK monument: Hundreds of thousands of people will gather later this month on the National Mall to witness the unveiling of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the first new monument to debut in Washington, DC, since 2004. But if history repeats itself…. – Atlanta Business Chronicle, 8-19-11
  • MLK memorial ‘holy ground’ for many: The official unveiling of the latest memorial on the National Mall is scheduled for Sunday, August 28…. – WaPo, 8-23-11
  • MLK organizers monitoring Hurricane Irene: The National Park Service and organizers of the dedication of the new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial are closely monitoring Hurricane Irene, which is currently forecast to be moving up the East Coast and into the Mid-Atlantic … – WaPo, 8-23-11
  • CIGNA Honored to Sponsor Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial: Company donated $1 million to Memorial celebrating life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. American history will be made Sunday as the first memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC is dedicated to a private citizen — Dr. Martin Luther King … – MarketWatch, 8-24-11
  • Having a black sculptor for King would have been nice: Let’s face it: There really is something peculiar about having an artist from communist China sculpt the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial statue. And, yes, it would have been fantastic had an African American sculptor been chosen…. – WaPo, 8-24-11
  • Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. in libraries, books: By Janice D’Arcy The unveiling of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is more than a celebration of history. It’s a claim to the future. The memory of MLK and the civil rights movement will not fade if this granite tribute has anything to do with it. … – WaPo, 8-22-11
  • Richard Lischer: King’s statue a national challenge: Forty-eight years ago on a sweltering August day in Washington, D.C., the Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the defining speech of the 20th century. Writing in The New York Times the next day, James Reston predicted, “It will be a long time before [America] forgets the melodious and melancholy voice of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. crying out his dreams to the multitude.”
    Reston was right. King has become only the fourth nonpresident and the first African-American to be honored with a monument on or near the National Mall. His memorial all but proclaims him our first black president, the father of a country so utterly transformed that his neighbors — Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and, yes, even Lincoln — would not have recognized it…. – AJC, 8-25-11
  • Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King Honored with Memorial: US President Barack Obama leads the nation this Sunday in honoring civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. – with the dedication of a new memorial…. – Voice of America, 8-25-11
  • Remembering Martin Luther King and the March for Jobs and Freedom: With the formal unveiling of the statue of Dr. Martin Luther King on August 28 – the anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom – the National Mall will house a memorial to a man who never held the nation’s highest office but brought it closer to its highest ideals.
    Together with the national celebration of his birthday, the commemoration of the march and the quotation of his speeches, the new memorial ensures that Dr. King will be remembered. But will he be remembered rightly, not only as the subject of a monument but also as the leader of a movement for “jobs and freedom”?…. – The Hill, 8-25-11
  • Memorial to civil rights hero to be dedicated in DC: Despite a threat from Hurricane Irene, hundreds of thousands of people are headed to the nation’s capital for the dedication of the Dr. Martin King, Jr., Memorial. Washington, D.C., officials predicted crowds of up to a million for the week-long festivities that culminate Sunday in the unveiling of a monument in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. which opened to the public Monday….. – The South Florida Times, 8-25-11
  • Earthquake alters MLK plans: The official Wednesday night opening event of the five-day dedication celebration of the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial has been moved from the National Building Museum to the Washington Convention Center, officials announced.
    The event, a gala dinner entitled “Honoring Global Leaders for Peace,” had to be moved because the museum suffered damage in Tuesday’s earthquake, according to Harry E. Johnson Sr., the president of the foundation that built the memorial, located on the northwest shore of the Tidal Basin…. – WaPo, 8-24-11
  • Houston civil rights icon Lawson honored in DC: The Rev. Bill Lawson and other early civil rights activists were celebrated Thursday at a luncheon in the Washington Convention Center. Houston Chronicle, 8-25-11
  • Houston civil rights leader William Lawson honored by officials gathered for memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr.: A civil rights icon from Houston — the Rev. William Alexander Lawson – was honored with other pioneers of the nationwide movement on Thursday by political and civil rights leaders gathered in the nation’s capital for the dedication of the memorial to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr…. – Houston Chronicle, 8-25-11
  • Jesse Jackson slams Tea Party at MLK event: Jesse Jackson said Thursday that the Tea Party’s tenets are reminiscent of state’s rights philosophies used in decades past to oppose federally mandated integration…. – USA Today, 8-25-11
  • A memorial to Martin Luther King Jr.: By Editorial, OVER THE YEARS, an army of statues has been deployed in the parks, circles and squares of the nation’s capital, many of them commemorating men who played a role in what should have been the liberation of the African people in America. … – WaPo, 8-25-11
  • Eugene Robinson: A dream still out of reach: As the nation honors the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with a stirring new memorial on the National Mall, let’s not obscure one of his most important messages in a fog of sentiment. Justice, he told us, is not just a legal or moral question but a matter of economics as well.
    In this sense, we’re not advancing toward the fulfillment of King’s dream. We’re heading in the opposite direction.
    Aug. 28 is the anniversary of the 1963 march and rally at which King delivered the indelible “I Have a Dream” speech. That event — one of the watershed moments of 20th-century America — was officially called the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Meaningful employment was a front-and-center demand…. – WaPo, 8-25-11
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