Posted by: JanF | June 15, 2011

“This most basic right”

Voting rights issues are in the news again. As Republicans continue their assault on our democracy with new restrictions on voting, this seems like a good time to revisit the Voting Rights Act and the man who promoted it and later signed it into law.

President Lyndon B. Johnson introduced his outline for a voting rights act to Congress on March 15, 1965 following violence in Selma Alabama as protesters marched for voting rights.

Speeches can contain words to live by, words that call us to action for an important cause and words that connect to our deepest feelings about fairness and compassion.

President Lyndon Johnson clearly made the case for new laws to end discrimination:

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 of all 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 of them were brutally assaulted. One good man–a man of God–was killed.

He reminded us of our founding documents and their words:

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.” And those are not just clever words, and 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 promised 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 really rests on his right to be treated as a man equal in opportunity to all others. It says that he shall share in freedom. He shall choose his leaders, educate his children, 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 or his religion or the place of his birth is not only to do injustice, it is to deny Americans and to dishonor the dead who gave their lives for American freedom. Our fathers believed that if this noble view of the rights of man was to flourish it must be rooted in democracy. This most basic right of all was the right to choose your own leaders. The history of this country in large measure is the history of expansion of the right to all of our people.

President Johnson was known as a blunt man. And nothing can be blunter than this:

Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex and most difficult. But about this there can and should be no argument: every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to insure that right.

He describes the local rules put in place to deny that right to vote to African Americans in even more blunt terms:

And even a college degree cannot be used to prove that he can read and write. For the fact is that the only way to pass these barriers is to show a white skin. Experience has clearly shown that the existing process of law cannot overcome systematic and ingenious discrimination. No law that we now have on the books, and I have helped to put three of them there, can insure the right to vote when local officials are determined to deny it. In such a case, our duty must be clear to all of us. The Constitution says that no person shall be kept from voting because of his race or his color.

The remedy was laid out in simple terms:

To those who seek to avoid action by their national government in their home communities, who want to and 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–deadly wrong–to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country.

The Voting Rights Act was signed into law on August 6th, 1965. In many parts of the country, many of it’s provisions are still in force because bigotry and racism will take more than a few generations to overcome.

Voting rights are under attack again in America as demographics have shifted to the point where Republicans realize that their only path to victory is to disenfranchise larger and larger swaths of traditionally Democratic voters. From Maine to Wisconsin, laws are being changed to make it more difficult for We The People to choose who will represent us in our government.

Lyndon Johnson said “every American citizen must have an equal right to vote” and that “the history of this country in large measure is the history of expansion of the right to all of our people.”

It is a most basic right and one that we need to pull out all stops to fight to keep.

It is simply our democracy that is at stake.

Great Speeches is a series on speeches by American politicians.

(A version of this was originally posted on 06/15/2011 at BPI Campus)

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