On the voyages that are our lives, the poet Tennyson wrote, “I am a part of all that I have met.” And, indeed, each of us, whether a private citizen or elected official, takes lessons from our pasts.
In one of the greatest speeches of the twentieth century, by the president who did the most for civil rights, this chief executive spoke about the place of that great struggle as part of America’s history — and his own.
The president was Lyndon Johnson and the year 1965. Johnson became president after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and in 1964 won passage of the Civil Rights Act and a landslide presidential victory. In 1965, Johnson was to sign into law bills establishing Medicare and Medicaid, along with the Voting Rights Act.
What became known as Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech was, as biographer Robert Caro recalled, a speech “that made Martin Luther King cry.” Speaking one week after “Bloody Sunday,” when civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama had been brutally beaten, Johnson hearkened back nearly four decades when, as a young man, he worked as a teacher in the segregated south.
Said Johnson, “My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas, in a small Mexican-American school. Few of them could speak English, and I couldn’t speak much Spanish. My students were poor and they often came to class without breakfast, hungry. … Somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child.”
Johnson’s experiences touched him — and they touched the lives of his students. Caro noted what was said by, “the Mexican-American children of impoverished migrant workers he had taught as a 21-year-old schoolteacher in the little town of Cotulla, Texas; to the ends of their lives they would talk about how hard he had worked to teach and inspire them. Some remembered what the story about the “little baby in the cradle.” As one student recalled, “He would tell us that one day we might say the baby would be a teacher. Maybe the next day we’d say the baby would be a doctor. And one day we might say the baby — any baby — might grow up to be president of the United States.”
Moving into the corridors of power, Johnson held onto his memories. Recalled one senator’s wife, “I remember at this dinner party, Johnson talking about teaching the Mexican-American kids in Cotulla, and his frustration that they had no books.”
That 1965 night speaking before Congress, Johnson said, “I want to be the president who helped the poor to find their own way and who protected the right of every citizen to vote in every election.” For these to be real possibilities, America would need to change policies of injustice and embrace policies of empowerment and opportunity.
What made King cry? It was, Caro says, when Johnson said, “Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.” With this, Johnson staked his own – and the nation’s — commitment to grapple with the past.
But each person takes particular lessons from experiences. Johnson believed people’s life chances depended both on individual’s actions and on structures of power and opportunity. For Gov. LePage, each person can determine his own fate. And while the governor’s motto, “If it is to be, it is up to me,” is inspiring, it overlooks how his own success was helped by his health, strength, intelligence — and sheer fortune. Without someone such as Peter Snowe, who luckily came along to help the young Paul LePage stabilize his life and get into college, where would he be?
Individual achievement requires hard work. Yet effort is necessary but not sufficient. Where individuals start in life matters. Not everyone is lucky.
“A trained mind and a healthy body” depends, Johnson proclaimed, on opening the “gates of opportunity.” But government must act “to give all our people, black and white, the help that they need to walk through those gates.”
Amy Fried is a professor of political science at the University of Maine. You can follow her on Twitter at ASFried and at her blog, www.pollways.com.