There have been only ten national election cycles since Lyndon Johnson stood before a special joint session of congress on March 15, 1965 and gave the greatest presidential speech of my lifetime. And LBJ has had only seven successors in the office soon to be occupied by the first African-American president. The history is so near, and the voices of that era still echo.
The other night, I walked over to the Paley Center and listened to some of those voices - civil rights leaders Diane Nash, John Lewis, and Andy Young along with veteran newsmen Dan Rather, Richard Valeriani and Haynes Johnson - discuss the events that led to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The audience included LBJ's daughter Luci Baines Johnson and the voices on the stage paid tribute to her father for his leadership on civil rights - colorful tribute, to be sure. Video from the Paley's incomparable collection punctuated the discussion, which was ably facilitated by Pat Mitchell; the footage from the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma police riot was particularly compelling, no matter how many times you may have seen it.
It was a night to consider the passing of four decades and just how much change we've witnessed - in 1965, blacks were routinely turned away from the offices of poll registrars across the south. Now those same states and cities and towns generally welcome an army of grassroots volunteers for a black presidential candidate.
No matter who wins in two weeks - and I think I know who will - that is change. Throw in the final sputtering death throes of the over-used southern strategy of American conservatism, and LBJ's political promise looks more like a prophecy. We have overcome.
What struck me in listening to Diane Nash, Congressman Lewis and Ambassador Young was their simple matter-of-fact tone. We did this. They did that. I went to jail. Their lack of anger, and the absence of any bitterness in their tone was incredibly moving. Like most Americans, I've heard the closing coda to LBJ's famed '65 speech - but the whole thing is worth reading (I haven't found a full video file - the clip above has the first five minutes). The video shows how deeply Johnson believed in his words, and how strongly he sold them in the House chamber. The contained anger, the singularity of purpose, the sheer all-in wagering of ever bit of his political capital remains compelling. But the words were elegant, and the speech brilliantly composed - like in this middle section:
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. For the cries of pain and the hymns and protests of oppressed people have summoned into convocation all the majesty of this great government--the government of the greatest nation on earth.
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 the moments of great crises. 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, or 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, and 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?"
There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.
So often, we tend to throw around the word "leadership" with the same alacrity for dumbing down linguistic superlatives that we reserve for "legendary" and "star." On that night in 1965 when Johnson called the Congress into a rare joint session, he laid it all on the line without knowing the political outcome.