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Keeping the Overcome Promise (the “missing” Wednesday post) March 16, 2023

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in 19-Day Fast, Baha'i, Changing Perspectives, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Faith, Healing Stories, Hope, Lent, Life, Music, One Hoop, Pain, Peace, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Religion, Suffering, Tragedy, Twin Cities, Wisdom, Yoga.
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Peace and blessings to all, and especially to those observing Lent, Great Lent, and the Baháʼí 19-Day Fast during this “Season for Non-violence” and all other seasons!

This is the “missing” post for Wednesday, March 15th. NOTE: I have maintained the language of the quotes. You can request an audio recording of this practice via a comment below or (for a slightly faster reply) you can email me at myra (at) ajoyfulpractice.com.

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“Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, Members of the Congress:

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 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, long-suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many were brutally assaulted. One good man, a man of God, was killed.

There is no cause for pride in what has happened in Selma. There is no cause for self-satisfaction in the long denial of equal rights of millions of Americans. But there is cause for hope and for faith in our democracy in what is happening here tonight.”

– quoted from “Special Message to the Congress on Voting Rights and the American Promise,” original draft by Richard Goodwin; delivered by President Lyndon B. Johnson, March 15, 1965

Other than some legal action, Monday, March 8,1965, was a relatively peaceful day in Selma, Alabama. I say “relatively,” because the day before was what is now known as “Sunday Blood Sunday” – when non-violent protestors, like future Congressman John Lewis, Reverend Hosea Williams, and Amelia Boynton, were beaten as attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge – and the following day, March 9th, would become known as “Turnaround (or Turnback) Tuesday” – when the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led Civil Rights activists to the middle of the bridge for a moment of prayer. After the second march, three white Unitarian Universalist ministers, Reverends Clark Olsen, Orloff Miller, and James Reeb were attacked by members of the Ku Klux Klan, and Reverend James Reeb was killed.

Two days after Reverend Reeb was murdered, on Thursday, March 11th, students staged the first sit-in at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW. Six Black students and six white students entered the White House during regular visitor hours and sat down near the Library and Vermeil Room about 45 minutes before the White House was closed to visitors. Soon after they arrived, President Lyndon B. Johnson was notified of their presence and, around the same time, the Chief of the White House Police told them they would need to move or be arrested for unlawful entry. The students stated their position and most refused to leave.

The last few minutes of tours were cancelled and, about two hours after they arrived, the student protestors were moved to East Garden Room. Aware of the sensitivity of the situation, President Johnson waited several hours before instructing white and Black police officers (in street clothes) to remove the students to different police stations and charge them with “illegal entry.” As the president left and then, later, as the police officers removed the remaining 10 students, more protestors gathered at Lafayette Park. For days, Civil Rights activists would hold protest rallies and vigils in full view of the White House – and there is no doubt that the president was watching. In fact, on Monday, March 15, 1965, he told the world that he was watching and some of what he thought about what was happening all over the country.

“Our mission is at once the oldest and the most basic of this country: to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man.

In our time we have come to live with moments of great crisis. Our lives have been marked with debate about great issues; issues of war and peace, issues of prosperity and depression. But rarely in any time does an issue lay bare the secret heart of America itself. Rarely are we met with a challenge, not to our growth or abundance, our welfare or our security, but rather to the values and the purposes and the meaning of our beloved nation.

The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such an issue. And should we defeat every enemy, should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation.

For with a country as with a person, ‘What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?’”

– quoted from “Special Message to the Congress on Voting Rights and the American Promise,” original draft by Richard Goodwin; delivered by President Lyndon B. Johnson, March 15, 1965

In an effort to unify the country, President Johnson unequivocally said, “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 to solve that problem.” Yet, he knew he had to do more than point out what should have been obvious. He knew he had to break it down and spell it out. He also knew that the conflict in the country was a reflection of conflict in the capital and that some people did not want him to weigh in on the issue at all.

Some congressional leaders did not think it was appropriate for President Johnson to order Congress to pass legislation. Sure, President Abraham Lincoln did it (in person) with regards to the issue of slavery and President; President Dwight D. Eisenhower did it (in writing) with regard to funding the interstate highway system; and, on a certain level, presidents did it all the time. However, the president’s job is to approve or veto legislation passed by Congress and then to ensure the enforcement of said laws – and some people saw (and see) that in very limited terms. In 1965, Speaker of the House John McCormack thought it was important for the president to speak, publicly and unequivocally about the issue of civil rights and, so, President Johnson prepared to do so. Several people were initially tasked with writing the speech, but none of those people (or their speeches) were approved by the president. In fact, he was reportedly quite upset that his favorite speechwriter, Richard “Dick” Goodwin, wasn’t initially given the task.

On the morning of March 15, 1965, however, Dick Goodwin arrived at the White House to the news that he had a few hours to draft (and then revise) a speech that the president would deliver that same evening to the joint sessions of Congress. Mr. Goodwin drew from his own experiences of facing racism, in the form of anti-Semitism, and President Johnson made sure that his experiences as a teacher of young Mexican-American in Texas was included. The President and his aides reviewed the first draft and offered revisions. Bill Moyers and Harry McPherson suggested revisions that the president did not appreciate. Lady Bird Johnson made a note in her diary that the president, Mr. Goodwin, and the staff worked on the speech all the way up until 7 o’clock PM. The speech was at 9, which meant only half of the speech was loaded into the teleprompter. President Johnson had to read the last half of the speech from a notebook.

“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 are not just clever words. Those are not just empty theories. In their name Americans have fought and died for two centuries, and tonight around the world they stand there as guardians of our liberty, risking their lives.

Those words are a promise to every citizen that he shall share in the dignity of man. This dignity cannot be found in a man’s possessions; it cannot be found in his power, or in his position. It rests on his right to be treated as a man equal in opportunity to all others. It says that he shall share in freedom, choose his leaders, educate his children, and provide for his family according to his ability and his merits as a human being.

To apply any other test–to deny a man his hopes because of his color or race, his religion or the place of his birth–is not only to do injustice, it is to deny America and to dishonor the dead who gave their lives for American freedom.”

– quoted from “Special Message to the Congress on Voting Rights and the American Promise,” original draft by Richard Goodwin; delivered by President Lyndon B. Johnson, March 15, 1965

As a former teacher, and as a Southerner, President Johnson knew that some people might not understand the challenges and obstacles faced by African Americans. So he pointed out the importance of the right to vote and then said, “Every device of which human ingenuity is capable has been used to deny this right.” Then, he laid out the “systematic and ingenious discrimination” in explicit detail – pointing out that “[The] fact is that the only way to pass these barriers is to show a white skin.” – and stated that he was going to send a law to Congress (that Wednesday) “designed to eliminate illegal barriers to the right to vote.” He even spelled out line items he intended to be included.

Of course, being from the South, LBJ was very clear about the kind of reaction his words would bring up from his kinsmen. So, he spoke directly to people who would end up on the wrong side of history, people who believed that states rights’ include the right to disenfranchise American citizens and people legally within the country’s borders and/or to dehumanize anyone (regardless of the status of their citizenship).

“To those who seek to avoid action by their national government in their own communities; 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 to deny any of our fellow Americans the right to vote.

There is no issue of states rights or national rights. There is only the struggle for human rights.”

– quoted from “Special Message to the Congress on Voting Rights and the American Promise,” original draft by Richard Goodwin; delivered by President Lyndon B. Johnson, March 15, 1965

“This time, on this issue, there must be no delay, no hesitation and no compromise with out purpose.”

– quoted from “Special Message to the Congress on Voting Rights and the American Promise,” original draft by Richard Goodwin; delivered by President Lyndon B. Johnson, March 15, 1965

“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 the American Negro to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.

Their cause must be our cause too. it is not just Negroes, but it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.


And we shall overcome.”

– quoted from “Special Message to the Congress on Voting Rights and the American Promise,” original draft by Richard Goodwin; delivered by President Lyndon B. Johnson, March 15, 1965

While the speech is official known as “The American Promise” speech, four words forever changed the way people remember the speech: “And we shall overcome.”

When President Lyndon B. Johnson uttered what was essential the battle cry of the Civil Rights Movement, people were shocked. First there was silence; then there was cheering and applause. There were also tears and, at least from the Southern contingent, there were curses. Remember, though, that people all over the country (and all of the world) were watching – and were equally stunned. It was one thing for a president to indicate he supported the citizens he represented. It was another thing all together for a president to so closely align himself with a cause.

Some of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, including Dr. King and John Lewis, were at the home of Sullivan Jackson, the only Black dentist in Selma, Alabama. When they heard what followed President Johnson’s dramatic pause, they couldn’t believe it. Dr. King reportedly wept; knowing that LBJ’s words were a sign of things to come. The president had previously told the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement that they had to be patient; but, with this speech he made it clear (at least publicly) that the time for patience was over. It was time to get to work and solidify change.

Which brings me to the questions I asked at the beginning of today’s practice: Where does change begin? In particular, where does societal change begin? There are two obvious answers. Some people – mostly politicians – say that change begins with policy and legislation. But, time and time again, history has shown us that people break unjust laws and protest against inhuman policies. The other answer is that change begins in the hearts and minds of the people within the society. So, President Johnson appealed to the hearts and the minds of the people in the United States.

“As a man whose roots go deeply into Southern soil I know how agonizing racial feelings are. I know how difficult it is to reshape the attitudes and the structure of society.

But a century has passed, more than a hundred years, since the Negro was freed. And he is not fully free tonight.”

“A century has passed, more than a hundred years, since equality was promised. And yet the Negro is not equal.

A century has passed since the day of promise. And the promise is still unkept.

The time of justice has now come. I tell you I believe sincerely that no force can hold it back. It is right in the eyes of man and God that it should come. And when it does, I think that day will brighten the lives of every American.”

– quoted from “Special Message to the Congress on Voting Rights and the American Promise,” original draft by Richard Goodwin; delivered by President Lyndon B. Johnson, March 15, 1965

President Johnson spoke longer than planned or expected. He pointed out that all of the time, energy, and resources dedicated to “maintain the barriers of hatred and terror” could be put to better use; that not doing so actually hurt white children and families in poverty-stricken areas. He made the effort to put people in different situations on equal footing, noting that poverty, disease, and ignorance were the true enemies. Then, for anyone who missed it, he said, “And these enemies too, poverty, disease, and ignorance, we shall overcome.”

By the time he finished speaking, even some of the people who disagreed with him understood the need and urgency for change. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 would be a bipartisan bill that passed both houses of Congress and that the president would sign into law on August 6, 1965. But, there was a lot more that happened between March and August. For instance, two days later, on Wednesday, March 17th – the same day President Johnson planned to submit a bill to Congress – Judge Frank Minis Johnson (no known relation to the president) issued a judgement in Williams v. Wallace, 240 F. Supp. 100 (M.D. Ala. 1965).

On that relatively peaceful Monday, March 8th (as I described it before), plaintiffs Reverend Hosea Williams, John Lewis and Amelia Boynton, (“on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated”) were joined by the United States (s plaintiff-intervenor) in a suit filed against George C. Wallace, as Governor of the State of Alabama; Al Lingo, as Director of Public Safety for the State of Alabama; and James G. Clark, as Sheriff of Dallas County, Alabama, Defendants. The case was in direct response to violence of March 7, 1965 and was an appeal to the courts on the grounds of the First Amendment. Judge Johnson, who served as a judge for the U. S. District Court of the Middle District of Alabama from October 1955 until June 1979, ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. A few days later, President Lyndon B. Johnson issued a press release stating that he was ordering the Alabama National Guard to supervise and protect the protestors planning to march from Selma to Montgomery.

“The law is clear that the right to petition one’s government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups. Indeed, where, as here, minorities have been harassed, coerced and intimidated, group association may be the only realistic way of exercising such rights.”

“This Court recognizes, of course, that government authorities have the duty and responsibility of keeping their streets and highways open and available for their regular uses. Government authorities are authorized to impose regulations in order to assure the safety and convenience of the people in the use of public streets and highways provided these regulations are reasonable and designed to accomplish that end.”

“As has been demonstrated above, the law in this country constitutionally guarantees that a citizen or group of citizens may assemble and petition their government, or their governmental authorities, for redress of their grievances even by mass demonstrations as long as the exercise of these rights is peaceful. These rights may also be exercised by marching, even along public highways, as long as it is done in an orderly and peaceful manner; and these rights to assemble, demonstrate and march are not to be abridged by arrest or other interference so long as the rights are asserted within the limits of not unreasonably interfering with the exercise of the rights by other citizens to use the sidewalks, streets and highways, and where the protestors and demonstrators are conducting their activities in such a manner as not to deprive the other citizenry of their police protection.”

– quoted from Williams v. Wallace, 240 F. Supp. 100 (M.D. Ala. 1965),  March 17, 1965. Order March 19, 1965.

Four days after Judge Johnson’s ruling, on March 21, 1965, approximately 8,000 people gathered at Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Alabama, and began the march that would take them across the Edmund Pettus Bridge; through counties where there were no Black people registered to vote (even though the population was overwhelmingly Black); and all the way up to (but not on) the steps of the capital in Montgomery, Alabama. By the time the movement reached the City of St. Jude, on March 24th, approximately 25,000 people were participating in the protest. While most of the marchers were African American (and Protestant Christian), like Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, there were some notable exceptions. There were white Americans like Richard Quinn (from the Twin Cities); Asian Americans and Latino Americans; Greek Orthodox Archbishop Iakovos; Rabbis Maurice Davis and Abraham Joshua Heschel; and several Catholic nuns, including some from the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People (now known as Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament [SBS]). The Dutch priest Henri Nouwen joined the march on the the 24th.

There were also celebrities that joined at various points along the way. Harry Belafonte; Tony Bennett; Frankie Laine; Peter, Paul, & Mary; Sammy Davis Jr.; Joan Baez; Nina Simone; and the Chad Mitchell Trio all performed on the evening of Wednesday, March 24th, during the Stars of Freedom rally. The next morning, on March 24th, approximately 25,000 people marched from St. Jude to the capital in Montgomery. Once, there, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “How Long? Not Long” speech in front of (but not on) the steps of the capital.

While the national guard ensured the safety of the participants during the days of the march, this moment of nonviolent protest also ended in violence. Viola Fauver Liuzzo (née Gregg) was a white mother of five, from Detroit, who participated in the march and then volunteered to drive other protestors to the airport. During one of those shuttle trips, Mrs. Liuzzo was shot and killed by members of the Klan. Later, her character would be assassinated by the FBI, in an effort to distract from the fact that one of the four people involved in her murder was an FBI informant.

“Let none of us look with proudful righteousness on the trouble in another section, or on the problems of our neighbors. There is no part of America where the promise of equality has been fully kept. In Buffalo as well as in Birmingham, in Philadelphia as well as in Selma, Americans are struggling for the fruits of freedom.

This is one nation. What happens in Selma or in Cincinnati is a matter of legitimate concern to every American. But let each of us look within our own hearts and our own communities, and let each of us out our shoulder to the wheel to root out injustice wherever it exists.

– quoted from “Special Message to the Congress on Voting Rights and the American Promise,” original draft by Richard Goodwin; delivered by President Lyndon B. Johnson, March 15, 1965

Wednesday’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify. [Look for “03152022 The Overcome Promise”]

“In Selma as elsewhere we seek and pray for peace. We seek order. We seek unity. But we will not accept the peace of suppressed rights, or the order imposed by fear, or the unity that stifles protest. For peace cannot be purchased at the cost of liberty.

In Selma tonight, as in every city, we are working for just and peaceful settlement.

– quoted from “Special Message to the Congress on Voting Rights and the American Promise,” original draft by Richard Goodwin; delivered by President Lyndon B. Johnson, March 15, 1965

### Some Day ###