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.Lyndon Johnson is well-known as one of the great political wheeler-dealers. There are any number of colorful stories about his exploits in that realm. But when push came to shove, his interests were for his country and for what was morally right.
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?"
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." Well, those are not just clever words, or 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.
That's quite a contrast to far too much of what we see in Congress today. And those guys (yes, mostly guys) can't even claim Johnson's wheeler-dealer chops. They've made a lot of money for themselves, but they haven't moved politics. And far too many of them are still fighting the same battles Johnson was trying to end. Read the section of his speech on voting rights, for example.
We owe great thanks to Martin Luther King and the others who fought for civil rights back in the sixties. But the fight isn't over, and now it's up to us.
H/T to Tom Levenson at Balloon Juice.