Civil Rights

Gay marriage in Alaska v. tyranny of the majority

Posted on October 17, 2014. Filed under: Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , |

Round 10 for this post, which we run each time the issue of gay marriage is resolved by a state court in its favor. The first time was back on May 21, 2008, when California’s Supreme Court decided that banning gay marriage was unconstitutional. The original point was that whenever a court overturns a law, there are always those who squawk—incorrectly—that it has overstepped its authority. The judiciary in the U.S. is meant to overturn laws, even laws with great popular support, that are unconstitutional because they restrict peoples’ liberty for no good reason.

Overturning bans on gay marriage started out as an example of thwarting this “tyranny of the majority”, as de Tocqueville called it, but now that the majority of Americans support or do not care to ban gay marriage, this type of legislation is becoming a rebuke to tyranny of the minority. That’s heartening.

Here is the original post, resurfacing now as Alaska’s ban on gay marriage is revoked:

The California Supreme Court’s decision that banning gay marriage is unconstitutional has been met with the by-now common complaint that the Court overstepped its bounds, trampled the wishes of the voters, and got into the legislation business without a permit.

A review of the constitutionally described role of the judiciary is in order.

The famous commentator on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, talked a great deal in his books Democracy in America about the tyranny of the majority. This is when majority rule—the basis of democracy—ends up perverting democracy by forcing injustice on the minority of the public.

For example, slavery was an example of the tyranny of the majority. Most Americans in the slave era were white and free. White and free people were the majority, and they used their majority power to keep slavery from being abolished by the minority of Americans who wanted to abolish it. The rights of black Americans were trampled by the tyranny of the majority.

Before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the majority of Americans were fine with segregated schools. They used their majority power to oppress the minority of Americans who were black, or who were white and wanted desegregation.

In each example, the majority is imposing and enforcing injustice which is incompatible with democracy. They are tyrannizing rather than governing.

The judiciary was created to break this grip of majority tyranny. The legislature—Congress—cannot usually break majority tyranny because it is made up of people popularly elected by the majority. But the appointed judiciary can break majority tyranny because its sole job is not to reflect the wishes of the people but to interpret the Constitution.

If the judiciary finds that a law made by the legislature perverts democracy and imposes the tyranny of the majority, it can and must strike that law down. This is what happened in California. The court found that although the majority of Californians (as evidenced by a previous referendum) had voted to ban gay marriage, that majority was enforcing and imposing injustice on the minority. So the court found the ban unconstitutional.

This is not beyond the scope of the judiciary, it’s exactly what it is meant to do.

We heard a commentator yesterday saying the California court should have left the issue to “the prerogative of the voters”. But if the voters’ prerogative is to oppress someone else, then the court does not simply step aside and let this happen.

The same people who rage against the partial and biased justices who lifted this ban are generally the same people who would celebrate justices who imposed a ban on abortion. People who cry out for impartiality are generally only applying it to cases they oppose.

So that’s what the judiciary does: it prevents the tyranny of the majority from enforcing injustice in a democracy. Like it or not, the “will of the people” is not always sacred, and sometimes must be opposed in the name of equality.

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The Washington Redskins–no more?

Posted on June 19, 2014. Filed under: Civil Rights, Economics, Politics | Tags: , , , |

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has ruled (we think that’s the word) that Washington, DC’s NFL team, the Redskins, can no longer trademark that name, saying: “the term ‘Redskins’ was disparaging of Native Americans, when used in relation to professional football services”. Five Native Americans brought the case to the Patent Office saying the name is disparaging. The upshot is that the team can no longer control who uses the name or profit from its use. (The image of the “redskin” that goes along with the name is still, somehow, protected.)

The team’s owners are contesting this, and will appeal; in fact, this decision seems to have been made before and overturned by a federal district court. So there is a chance that the name will go on, and continue making money for the team.

The list of team names, from professional sports to high school, that use Native American references is very long. “Indians” is a name used by hundreds of school teams; “Chiefs” and “Braves” are second in popularity. In most cases, it seems clear that the name was chosen to represent the team’s strength and fearlessness, and was considered a shout-out to the Native Americans who possessed those qualities. Usually the image that represented the team was a chieftain in full feather headdress, or a “brave” with one feather. On the high school level, the image was usually neutral; it’s at the college and professional level that they are uniformly racist (one notes the Cleveland Indians image and the (now defunct) Philadelphia Warriors image in particular).

In the case of the Washington team, its owners have leaned heavily on the historical defense: any name that’s 80 years old must be innocent. This is an oft-used argument that we cannot make sense of. There are many words that have been around a long time that are slurs. In 1890, Webster’s dictionary listed “redskin” as a “contemptuous” term for Native Americans. That predates the team choosing it as its name. But the league is standing by it: Adolpho Birch, the NFL’s senior vice president of labor policy and government affairs, said the name is not a slur:

“The team name is the team name as it has been for 80-plus years. And what we need to do is get beyond sort of understanding this as a point-blank situation and understand it more as a variety of perspectives that all need to be addressed, that all need to be given some weight, so that at the end of it we can come to some understanding that is appropriate and reflects the opinions of all. I think that is part of the issue with the question is that it is constantly being sort of put into a point-blank, yes-or-no, yes-or-no kind of context when that’s not the reality of the situation that we’re dealing with.”

Often here at the HP we present a block quote and break it down through analysis. We’ve done it for George Washington and William Jennings Bryan. Now we will attempt to do it for Adolpho Birch:

“The team name is the team name as it has been for 80-plus years.”

—If something is old, it can’t be racist. People in olden times were not racist.

“And what we need to do is get beyond sort of understanding this as a point-blank situation and understand it more as a variety of perspectives that all need to be addressed, that all need to be given some weight, so that at the end of it we can come to some understanding that is appropriate and reflects the opinions of all.”

—Instead of the name being… black and white, as it were, it is a complex issue where everyone’s opinion has equal weight and a solution exists that will please and reflect the wishes of everyone, even if they are diametrically opposed.

“I think that is part of the issue with the question is that it is constantly being sort of put into a point-blank, yes-or-no, yes-or-no kind of context when that’s not the reality of the situation that we’re dealing with.”

—The question of the name is an issue that is usually described as dichotomous, dichotomous, dichotomous when that’s not realistic.

We can see that our analysis makes good sense of Birch’s sputtering and panicky nonsense. The answer to “is that name racist” cannot be “yes” or “no”. That’s too point-blank. Reality is that nothing is ever clear, even to people who are clear that the name offends them. In “reality”, the only virtue of Birch’s “argument” is that it puts the onus of the racism on us, the public who have sat back and accepted the racist team name for so long. For 80 years, the team was allowed to perpetrate racism, and that’s not just the team’s fault.

So it can only be hoped that a district court does not overturn this latest ruling, and that a point-blank rebuke to the league’s and the team’s “complex” defense of a “contextual” racial slur is taken down.

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on Lincoln (on Real Time)

Posted on May 7, 2014. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Civil War, Lincoln, Racism, and Slavery, The Founders | Tags: , , , |

The HP was delighted to hear basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar skillfully counter Bill Maher’s leading negative question about President Lincoln on Maher’s show Real Time last week.

The two were having a discussion about Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who had just been heavily censured by the NBA commissioner for his racist screed on the phone a week or two earlier. They ventured into many different issues of racism in America society and history,  including the question of, as Maher put it, whether to cut the Founders slack for their slaveholding because they were “of their era”—i.e., they grew up with slavery and didn’t know any better. Kareem said no, no slack is allowable, because there was never a time when people did not know that racially based slavery was a tool for destroying the enslaved race (our paraphrasing). Kareem mentioned Alexander Hamilton’s abolitionist views, and Bill Maher proffered Ben Franklin as well, but then fell into the usual trap about Lincoln: that he was an unrepentant racist and proslavery president with an unjust reputation for ending black slavery in the U.S.:

Maher: But you know Lincoln had some harsh words about the black people…

Kareem: Yes he did, but you have to say that Lincoln evolved. In 1858 he had some harsh things to say, [but] by the time the middle of the war had come around he realized what needed to be done, so you have to give him his credit for evolving quickly and understanding what really was at stake.

Kareem must be reading the HP! For this is the point we make in the first post of our series on Lincoln, Slavery, and Racism. Everyone is of their time in that they imbibe certain attitudes, beliefs, and social/political systems as children, but when they grow up, they inevitably re-evaluate those attitudes, beliefs, and systems. Most people decide to uphold them, for various reasons (tradition, the desire to avoid trouble, real support, no new ideas to offer). But some, like Lincoln, decide to reject them. They decide to be better than their society, and to forge a new attitude, belief, or system to bring more justice to the world.

We appreciate Kareem’s easy yet firm rebuff of the anti-Lincoln myth, and hope it does a lot of Americans and others a lot of good.

(P.S.: The tags for this post group together what are surely the strangest bedfellows in the world: “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Maher, Abraham Lincoln, Donald Sterling”.)

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The American Promise of Johnson’s We Shall Overcome speech

Posted on May 1, 2014. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , |

As we enter part 6, the last post in our series on President Lyndon Johnson’s March 1965 “We Shall Overcome” speech, we look at the context of the speech—how it was made, delivered, and received.

President Johnson had not planned to give the speech at all; he was sending his Voting Rights Act bill to Congress and usually when presidents send a bill to Congress they attach a brief message to it and that’s all. Few presidents will make a public speech to Congress urging the passage of a pending bill because a) members of Congress don’t like being pressured publicly to pass things, and b) if the bill is not passed, then the president loses some clout. But at the last moment—the day before the speech was given—Johnson decided this particular bill needed more than a note. We have applauded speechwriter Richard Goodwin for drafting the We Shall Overcome speech in record time, working overnight on the 14th/15th, with Johnson’s direct order to use “every ounce of moral persuasion the Presidency had… with no hedging, no equivocation”. Goodwin delivered on that request. The actual title of the speech was “The American Promise”, but like so many things in U.S. history and culture it became known by a different name—Johnson’s use of the dynamic civil rights promise “We Shall Overcome” destined the speech to be known by that name.

The genius of the speech, and of Johnson’s delivery, lies in its ability to make voting rights for black Americans personal for all Americans. As Americans, they inherited a mission, and if they refused to carry out that mission, they were betraying their country. This was at the very start of some public doubt about the nation’s involvement in Vietnam, when calling on people to fight for their country was beginning to ring hollow, but here was a forum where everyone could be on board—or, at least refusing to get on board was much more difficult. If Americans weren’t sure they were fighting for liberty and justice in Vietnam, they could be very sure they were fighting for it at home, in the form of voting equality. This was a goal that suited both the radical agenda of social revolutionaries and the more square patriotic agenda of their elders. It even made “summoning into convocation all the majesty of this great government” (not something many average Americans, let alone hippies, could have said without blushing) seem not only necessary, but just and commendable and faith-inspiring.

By calling on the nation to fulfill its covenant with God and man, Johnson made passive acceptance of racial discrimination impossible and a kind of passive action to end it possible: that is, Southern Congressmen who did not want to vote for civil rights legislation could do it with the excuse to their constituents that the president had made it impossible not to, that the tide had turned, and that everyone was going to have to find a new way of getting around. No one likes it, they might say, but that’s how it has to be now. Appealing to the ideal of America itself, rather than existing constitutional amendments that some might say should be overturned, forced opponents of civil rights into the untenable position of arguing against America itself, of betraying the nation’s identity, of being un-American.

Reaction to the speech was very positive and action was swift. As Garth Pauley puts it in his book LBJ’s America: the 1965 Voting Rights Address:

In their coverage of his speech, many journalists lauded the president for invoking and affirming “the most sacred and deeply held convictions of a nation,” which brought “the present chapter of the struggle for human rights into proper perspective.” Citizens echoed these sentiments in their letters and telegrams to the White House. And when editorialists urged swift passage of the president’s bill, their appeals employed the language of Johnson’s narrative: The New York Times even suggested passage was a foregone conclusion because a “people that has responded unflinchingly to every trial of national purpose . . . will not fail this test.” Moreover, following President Johnson’s speech, members of Congress deliberated voting rights legislation using the language of America’s destiny, promise, and purpose. Senators and congressmen claimed that the nation must “make good on its promise… [to] fulfill the revolutionary dream of freedom and equality for all Americans” by “passing a bill which [sic] fully insures that every American… has the right to vote”—which will represent a step “along this nation’s honored march toward further fulfillment of our traditional goals of equal opportunity and equal treatment.” Congress indeed passed the final voting rights bill less than five months after Johnson’s speech. The president signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law on August 6, emphasizing at the signing ceremony that America had righted a historical wrong, enacted its sacred principles, confirmed its promise, and now would endeavor to “fulfill the rights that we now secure.”

Pauley goes on to speculate about the ability of a president today to refer to and rely on a shared moral high ground in America to gather support for a bill, and it’s a thoughtful note to end this series on:

Finding a shared moral language out of which a president can fashion a persuasive appeal is difficult. President Johnson effectively grounded his appeals in a potent narrative that focused on public morality–his listeners’ civic duty to keep and fulfill the sacred American Promise. But as the citizenry continues to become more religiously and culturally diverse, less schooled in the narratives of the nation’s history, more aware of how such narratives can be used to justify depraved causes as well as honorable ones, and perhaps less influenced by the moral authority of the presidency, presidents may find it especially tricky to build moral consensus through oratory. Consider this problem from a perspective afforded by studying Johnson’s speech. He used oratory to help secure the significant public good of equal voting rights, primarily by appealing to the American Promise–of which the Constitution is one expression–rather than the Constitution itself. But could Johnson have crafted such a stirring, persuasive appeal on the basis of constitutional guarantees alone? Would his listeners have found it as moving, meaningful, and motivational? Would we find it as eloquent today?

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“You never forget what poverty and hatred can do”: Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech

Posted on April 23, 2014. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

Hello and welcome to part 5 of our series on President Lyndon Johnson’s March 1965 “We Shall Overcome” speech, a clarion call for voting equality in the U.S. We wrap up the speech itself here, which embraces the general and the very personally specific in its range:

[UNDER THE HEADING "RIGHTS MUST BE RESPONSIBILITIES"]

“The bill that I am presenting to you will be known as a civil rights bill. But, in a larger sense, most of the program I am recommending is a civil rights program. Its object is to open the city of hope to all people of all races.

Because all Americans just must have the right to vote. And we are going to give them that right.”

—The return to simple language here after the impressive rhetoric of the midpoint of the speech is in itself powerful, because it is the gateway to President Johnson speaking about his personal experience with race. It also makes a simple point simply: All Americans just must have the right to vote. It’s hard to argue with an idea so simple and so just.

“All Americans must have the privileges of citizenship regardless of race. And they are going to have those privileges of citizenship regardless of race. But I would like to caution you and remind you that to exercise these privileges takes much more than just legal right. It requires a trained mind and a healthy body. It requires a decent home, and the chance to find a job, and the opportunity to escape from the clutches of poverty. Of course, people cannot contribute to the Nation if they are never taught to read or write, if their bodies are stunted from hunger, if their sickness goes untended, if their life is spent in hopeless poverty just drawing a welfare check.

So we want to open the gates to opportunity. But we are also going to give all our people, black and white, the help that they need to walk through those gates.”

—Johnson had just won a landslide election in November 1964, and in January 1965 (two months before the We Shall Overcome speech), Johnson gave his State of the Union address outlining his Great Society program, which would comprehensively reform civil rights in this nation. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was the first plank in the Great Society, the “program I am recommending”, and so we see Johnson not only pushing hard on voting rights, but saying it is only the first part of a huge, long-term, thoroughgoing, exhaustive process of national change. It’s unusual to end a major speech with a major add-on to the topic you have been speaking on, but Johnson wanted the nation to be prepared for the other changes he would be introducing in 1965.

[UNDER THE HEADING "THE PURPOSE OF THIS GOVERNMENT"]

“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. They knew even in their youth the pain of prejudice. They never seemed to know why people disliked them. But they knew it was so, because I saw it in their eyes. I often walked home late in the afternoon, after the classes were finished, wishing there was more that I could do. But all I knew was to teach them the little that I knew, hoping that it might help them against the hardships that lay ahead.

Somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child.”

—Johnson would always claim that in his crusade for the Great Society, he was only fulfilling the late President Kennedy’s dream of civil rights legislation. He did this because Kennedy was popular in life and untouchable, at that point, in death. But it is hard to picture John Kennedy ever telling the story Johnson tells here. It’s not only because it’s hard to imagine Kennedy being pierced by an encounter with racism. Had any president to that time ever told a story of witnessing racism at work in his home town? Of feeling like a helpless bystander or witness to the poison of racism as administered to children? Of watching children accept their place as despised minorities in their society? One gets the real feeling that Johnson was pierced by this experience, and that he did not ever forget it, and he could not rest easy with this facet of American society. Just as Abraham Lincoln witnessed racism in his youth but did nothing to intervene—did not believe intervention would ever be possible–but then underwent a powerful change that led him to commit himself to a political solution to slavery, so Johnson has now changed and is committing himself, in this speech, to a political solution to racism.

“I never thought then, in 1928, that I would be standing here in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country.

But now I do have that chance—and I’ll let you in on a secret—I mean to use it. And I hope that you will use it with me.”

—Those who knew him knew that when Johnson meant to do something, he did it. So the president was going ahead with civil rights reform, whether the rest of the nation is on board or not, but he believes we will take our chance to end racism and inequality, as he does.

“This is the richest and most powerful country which ever occupied the globe. The might of past empires is little compared to ours. But I do not want to be the President who built empires, or sought grandeur, or extended dominion. I want to be the President who educated young children to the wonders of their world. I want to be the President who helped to feed the hungry and to prepare them to be taxpayers instead of tax eaters. 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. I want to be the President who helped to end hatred among his fellow men and who promoted love among the people of all races and all regions and all parties. I want to be the President who helped to end war among the brothers of this earth.”

—Johnson would be haunted by claims like this as Vietnam grew and grew, and the American drive to fight Communism began to seem like just another imperial compulsion. But no matter how his foreign policy soured, Johnson would always believe in his domestic policy, the Great Society, that he outlines here. It was one of his deepest frustrations that the Great Society seemed to fade into oblivion as opposition to the war grew, and took center stage in the American mind.

“And so at the request of your beloved Speaker and the Senator from Montana; the majority leader, the Senator from Illinois; the minority leader, Mr. McCulloch, and other Members of both parties, I came here tonight—not as President Roosevelt came down one time in person to veto a bonus bill, not as President Truman came down one time to urge the passage of a railroad bill—but I came down here to ask you to share this task with me and to share it with the people that we both work for. I want this to be the Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, which did all these things for all these people.”

—This is not just another example of pork, of a president pushing or killing a particular piece of legislation for short-term gain. This is about the heart and soul of the nation. Johnson ropes in many other political leaders to stand with him, to emphasize his intention to get everyone on board with the program.

“Beyond this great chamber, out yonder in 50 States, are the people that we serve. Who can tell what deep and unspoken hopes are in their hearts tonight as they sit there and listen. We all can guess, from our own lives, how difficult they often find their own pursuit of happiness, how many problems each little family has. They look most of all to themselves for their futures. But I think that they also look to each of us.”

—Johnson reminds the Congressional leaders he has just named that they are supposed to be helping people. They sit there in the Capitol building not for their own power and reputation, but to accomplish things for the people, to help people lead better lives. And one can see that Johnson may be referring to black Americans watching out yonder in the 50 States, with deep and unspoken hopes in their hearts that maybe, at last, finally, something is really going to change.

“Above the pyramid on the great seal of the United States it says—in Latin—“God has favored our undertaking.” God will not favor everything that we do. It is rather our duty to divine His will. But I cannot help believing that He truly understands and that He really favors the undertaking that we begin here tonight.”

With an invocation of both God and John Kennedy, Johnson may have wrangled enough of a blessing to win over the American people. If the American people do not or will not understand the need for civil rights reform, Johnson hopefully states that God does, and God approves. At any rate, regardless of who approves and who doesn’t, the work begins now: the undertaking begins tonight, it’s already in motion, it’s on. With these words, Johnson closed his speech.

Next time, we’ll look at the reaction it provoked.

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“This is one Nation”: Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech

Posted on April 17, 2014. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

Hello and welcome to part 4 of our series on President Lyndon Johnson’s March 1965 “We Shall Overcome” speech demanding not only equal voting rights for black Americans, but an overhaul of American society to embrace justice. Last time, we were asking whether any voting rights law passed by Congress could really be enforced. Many pieces of legislation guaranteeing voting equality were already on the books, and gathering dust there as states went their own way and continued to deny black citizens their rights, loudly claiming that they had state sovereignty and a “special” way of life to protect.

Johnson addresses this concern as we go forward, so let’s pick that up:

[under the heading "WE SHALL OVERCOME"]

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

—Here, listeners would have wondered if they had really just heard their uptight-looking, cantankerous white Southern president quote the famous rallying cry of the civil rights movement. And had he really just said that all Americans inherit the burden and shame of racism and injustice? Again, we see Johnson’s insistence that racism was not a “negro problem”, an issue that trouble-making radicals kept bringing up or making up, but part of the fabric of American life and the part that needed to be ripped out and replaced, not honored and enshrined as “tradition”.

“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 our society. But a century has passed, more than a hundred years, since the Negro was freed. And he is not fully free tonight. It was more than a hundred years ago that Abraham Lincoln, a great President of another party, signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but emancipation is a proclamation and not a fact. 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 unkept.”

—That first sentence is enormous. It says that Johnson is proud of being from the South. That he has seen racism in the South, and the damage it does. Between the lines, but not invisible, is the idea that racism causes “agony” for its victims and its perpetrators, which may well include Johnson who, growing up in the South, likely perpetrated racism in his youth. Racism causes agony in a few ways: it forces white people to be dissatisfied with society, and to long for a whites-only world where they are unchallenged; it leads white people to believe they must commit crimes and terrible acts to bring that whites-only world into being; it forces black people to live apart from and in fear of white people; it exposes black people to the agony of death, injury, rape, and terror at the hands of racists; and finally, it eats away at the nation and our founding beliefs. It is time, 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, to exit this horrible trap of racism and the endless churn, murder, anguish, and rage it produces.

“The time of justice has now come. I tell you that 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. For Negroes are not the only victims. How many white children have gone uneducated, how many white families have lived in stark poverty, how many white lives have been scarred by fear, because we have wasted our energy and our substance to maintain the barriers of hatred and terror?

So I say to all of you here, and to all in the Nation tonight, that those who appeal to you to hold on to the past do so at the cost of denying you your future. This great, rich, restless country can offer opportunity and education and hope to all: black and white, North and South, sharecropper and city dweller. These are the enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease. They are the enemies and not our fellow man, not our neighbor. And these enemies too, poverty, disease and ignorance, we shall overcome.”

—Again Johnson invokes God, and firmly re-settles him on the side of equality rather than racism, which was a significant change of address for the Lord for many Americans. Then he goes deeper into the “agony” of entrenched racism, describing how it divides whites and uses terror on those who don’t live up to their perceived duty to keep black people down, and describing the poverty of white people in states where so much time and money and resources are devoted to keeping black people down that there is nothing left to raise poor whites up—they are told that their membership in the white race is enough for them. It was daring of Johnson to address this directly, as so many poor whites clung on to that trade-off of racial superiority in place of real security, comfort, and achievement. To blame white Southern society for this situation rather than fall back on the old yarn that the North victimized the South so cruelly after the Civil War that the South could never fully recover was a step in a new direction. Even addressing this issue was a step in a new direction: name the president who had dared to talk openly about white poverty in the South and describe its real cause.

[under the heading "AN AMERICAN PROBLEM"]

“Now let none of us in any sections look with prideful righteousness on the troubles in another section, or on the problems of our neighbors. There is really 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 put our shoulder to the wheel to root out injustice wherever it exists. As we meet here in this peaceful, historic chamber tonight, men from the South, some of whom were at Iwo Jima, men from the North who have carried Old Glory to far corners of the world and brought it back without a stain on it, men from the East and from the West, are all fighting together without regard to religion, or color, or region, in Viet-Nam. Men from every region fought for us across the world 20 years ago. And in these common dangers and these common sacrifices the South made its contribution of honor and gallantry no less than any other region of the great Republic—and in some instances, a great many of them, more. And I have not the slightest doubt that good men from everywhere in this country, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Golden Gate to the harbors along the Atlantic, will rally together now in this cause to vindicate the freedom of all Americans. For all of us owe this duty; and I believe that all of us will respond to it. Your President makes that request of every American.”

—How is it that Americans, Southern and Northern, will fight around the world for peace and justice, and enter without fear the worst maelstrom of war in human history, World War II, without a look back, and fight even now in Vietnam for freedom from Communism, but find fighting in the war against racism too hard, too doomed, too unconvincing? Is it because they don’t feel they have a mandate? Let the president offer one now.

[under the heading "PROGRESS THROUGH THE DEMOCRATIC PROCESS"]

“The real hero of this struggle is the American Negro. His actions and protests, his courage to risk safety and even to risk his life, have awakened the conscience of this Nation. His demonstrations have been designed to call attention to injustice, designed to provoke change, designed to stir reform. He has called upon us to make good the promise of America. And who among us can say that we would have made the same progress were it not for his persistent bravery, and his faith in American democracy.”

—As we saw in part 2, Johnson is again saying black Americans are the true Americans. As he did earlier in the speech, Johnson says black Americans are the heroes of justice and liberty, the Minutemen of the national conscience, the lonely supporters of American ideals.  Black Americans have been carrying white dead weight for 200 years, dragging whites along the road to freedom, dealing with white crimes, lies, and selfishness along the way in hopes of achieving real democracy for all. It’s time for white Americans to get down off black Americans’ backs and do their part.

“For at the real heart of battle for equality is a deep-seated belief in the democratic process. Equality depends not on the force of arms or tear gas but upon the force of moral right; not on recourse to violence but on respect for law and order. There have been many pressures upon your President and there will be others as the days come and go. But I pledge you tonight that we intend to fight this battle where it should be fought: in the courts, and in the Congress, and in the hearts of men. We must preserve the right of free speech and the right of free assembly. But the right of free speech does not carry with it, as has been said, the right to holler fire in a crowded theater. We must preserve the right to free assembly, but free assembly does not carry with it the right to block public thoroughfares to traffic. We do have a right to protest, and a right to march under conditions that do not infringe the constitutional rights of our neighbors. And I intend to protect all those rights as long as I am permitted to serve in this office. We will guard against violence, knowing it strikes from our hands the very weapons which we seek—progress, obedience to law, and belief in American values.”

—The courts, the Congress, and the hearts of men: that’s a pretty expansive theater of war. But Johnson knows that just passing more laws that aren’t enforced in the courts, or never reach the courts because they are never put into effect on the local level, won’t help, and will even set back the cause of civil rights. In the immediate term, Johnson will uphold the rights of black and white Americans to march in civil rights protests. Remember that he is giving this speech in response to Alabama state troopers viciously attacking peaceful marchers in Selma, Alabama. Those police officers had no justification for doing that—they were breaking the law, preventing citizens from upholding the Constitution, and fostering crime. Johnson is ready to take on the entrenched force for racism that was “law enforcement” in the South and the rest of the nation.

“In Selma as elsewhere we seek and pray for peace. We seek order. We seek unity. But we will not accept the peace of stifled 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—and we had a good day there—as in every city, we are working for just and peaceful settlement. We must all remember that after this speech I am making tonight, after the police and the FBI and the Marshals have all gone, and after you have promptly passed this bill, the people of Selma and the other cities of the Nation must still live and work together. And when the attention of the Nation has gone elsewhere they must try to heal the wounds and to build a new community. This cannot be easily done on a battleground of violence, as the history of the South itself shows. It is in recognition of this that men of both races have shown such an outstandingly impressive responsibility in recent days—last Tuesday, again today.”

—Saying that the president will uphold the rights of citizens is easier than making it happen. How can Johnson really guarantee the safety of black people in Selma once federal forces are gone, and the white establishment is left alone to deal with black people as it will (as it always has)? Johnson holds out hope that people on both sides, black and white, are ready to start something new which, crucially, means that at least some white people are willing to opt out of the predictable, socially mandated retribution that would leave more black men lynched, more black houses burned, more black women raped, more black families intimidated. Maybe, at last, some people are tired of living in a perpetual “battleground of violence”, and that, combined with federal scrutiny and TV cameras, will make change possible.

In this section of the speech, Johnson spoke as an insider pulling back a thick, heavy curtain to show the world the workings of the society he grew up in. He minced no words about the necessity of racism to the Southern status quo. He intimated that he too necessarily participated in that racism growing up in the South. Next time, he will do more than intimate about his own past, and he will conclude his speech with a personal call to the nation.

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“The command of the Constitution is plain”: Johnson’s We Shall Overcome Speech

Posted on April 10, 2014. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , |

Hello and welcome to part 3 of our series on President Lyndon Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech, delivered on live TV on March 15, 1965. Today we jump right back in where we left off in this groundbreaking speech in part 1, as Johnson moves on from his powerful re-definition of the “Negro Problem” as the “American Problem”.

[under the heading "THE RIGHT TO VOTE"]

“Our fathers believed that if this noble view of the rights of man was to flourish, it must be rooted in democracy. The 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 the expansion of that right to all of our people. 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 ensure that right.

Yet the harsh fact is that in many places in this country men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes.”

—Again, Johnson is direct. (We have already shouted out to the man who wrote this speech, presidential speechwriter Richard Goodwin. He put into powerful, unafraid, and unapologetic words what Johnson believed.) Democracy exists to protect and promote individual rights, primarily the right to be governed by free consent. There is absolutely no justification for denying any citizen of a democracy their civil rights, including the right to vote. Race, the ultimate justification for discrimination, is shut down and ignored.

“Every device of which human ingenuity is capable has been used to deny this right. The Negro citizen may go to register only to be told that the day is wrong, or the hour is late, or the official in charge is absent. And if he persists, and if he manages to present himself to the registrar, he may be disqualified because he did not spell out his middle name or because he abbreviated a word on the application. And if he manages to fill out an application he is given a test. The registrar is the sole judge of whether he passes this test. He may be asked to recite the entire Constitution, or explain the most complex provisions of State law. 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.”

—Johnson would have seen all of these barriers to black voting in action growing up in Texas. They would have been accepted as necessary to the democratic process: if black Americans voted, they would vote in liberals who would change national law to get rid of Jim Crow (legal racial segregation and discrimination). You couldn’t let black citizens vote because they would vote to destroy the Southern way of life. Everyone was better off in their place, whites on top, blacks on the bottom, and so all the tricks Johnson describes were played to maintain the status quo.  But Johnson strips away this social justification, this threat of political and social anarchy, to leave racial discrimination exposed for the world to see and to judge as the primitive, tyrannical beast that it is.

“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 ensure 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. We have all sworn an oath before God to support and to defend that Constitution. We must now act in obedience to that oath.”

—”What can I do about it? I’m just one person against a whole system”: this is the easy stand that Johnson assails next. If you see something, you have to do something. If you see injustice, you have to end that injustice. Americans have a duty not only to justice but to God himself to defend the Constitution that grants civil rights to all. God is decisively moved from the side of racism (“God made the races unequal”) to the side of equality. It’s also noteworthy that Johnson mentions his own legislation as part of the impotent failure of law to address injustice thus far: Johnson was not a man who brooked failure, and he would move heaven and earth, as most people knew, to accomplish something he wanted to see accomplished. This was the type of man who was now dedicating himself to real equality in America.

[Under the heading "GUARANTEEING THE RIGHT TO VOTE"]

“Wednesday I will send to Congress a law designed to eliminate illegal barriers to the right to vote. The broad principles of that bill will be in the hands of the Democratic and Republican leaders tomorrow. After they have reviewed it, it will come here formally as a bill. I am grateful for this opportunity to come here tonight at the invitation of the leadership to reason with my friends, to give them my views, and to visit with my former colleagues. I have had prepared a more comprehensive analysis of the legislation which I had intended to transmit to the clerk tomorrow but which I will submit to the clerks tonight. But I want to really discuss with you now briefly the main proposals of this legislation.”

—We are in real time here: there’s no misty and ill-defined future date at which Johnson will begin unspecified efforts to make sure black Americans can vote. Johnson was speaking on Monday the 15th. On Wednesday the 17th, he will have a draft law before Congress, and they will have been prepped for that by the analysis he is giving the Congressional clerk that very evening, once he’s done speaking to the nation.

Where does Johnson get the confidence to move so quickly? He had been the master of Congress during his many years there. He was a man who knew every member of Congress: knew them personally, sought them out, knew their families, their constituents, what they wanted, what they hated, who they needed to be introduced to, what they would and would not be willing to trade to achieve their goals. Johnson was renowned for turning a handshake into an intimate encounter, putting his face just millimeters from the other man’s face, gripping his arm, telling him what he had to do for Johnson, and asking him what he needed in return. When he comes now as president to “visit with his former colleagues”, they know he will drill right down to their souls from the word go.

“This bill will strike down restrictions to voting in all elections—Federal, State, and local—which have been used to deny Negroes the right to vote. This bill will establish a simple, uniform standard which cannot be used, however ingenious the effort, to flout our Constitution. It will provide for citizens to be registered by officials of the United States Government if the State officials refuse to register them. It will eliminate tedious, unnecessary lawsuits which delay the right to vote. Finally, this legislation will ensure that properly registered individuals are not prohibited from voting.”

—That’s one powerful piece of legislation. Is it really possible to create a law or a standard that cannot be perverted or denied? The only way to ensure that the law Johnson gets passed is upheld is for every American to take up its banner and get out on the streets and uphold it. See something, say something. Johnson believes we will do this.

“I will welcome the suggestions from all of the Members of Congress—I have no doubt that I will get some—on ways and means to strengthen this law and to make it effective. But experience has plainly shown that this is the only path to carry out the command of the Constitution. To those who seek to avoid action by their National Government in their own 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.”

—The understatement of the clause in the first sentence is classic. Johnson goes on to address the heart of the refusal to let black Americans vote (that they will elect national leaders who will force state governments to remove their racist laws) here: “those who seek to avoid action by their National Government in their own communities; who want to and who seek to maintain purely local control over elections”. Johnson does not offer these people a safety net. He flatly says there is no way forward but to give up that control over local elections.

[Under the heading "THE NEED FOR ACTION"]

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

—Once more our hats are off to Richard Goodwin for writing this, and Johnson for delivering it. There is absolutely no legal justification for denying black citizens the vote. None. The old arguments about the Constitution guaranteeing states the right to conduct their own elections, about black people threatening our democracy with an ignorant vote, about some people being qualified intellectually to vote and others not being qualified—all are put into the bonfire. Nothing in the American founding principles justifies or calls for or condones racial discrimination in voting. The end.

“I have not the slightest doubt what will be your answer. The last time a President sent a civil rights bill to the Congress it contained a provision to protect voting rights in Federal elections. That civil rights bill was passed after 8 long months of debate. And when that bill came to my desk from the Congress for my signature, the heart of the voting provision had been eliminated. This time, on this issue, there must be no delay, no hesitation and no compromise with our purpose. We cannot, we must not, refuse to protect the right of every American to vote in every election that he may desire to participate in. And we ought not and we cannot and we must not wait another 8 months before we get a bill. We have already waited a hundred years and more, and the time for waiting is gone.’

—You think Johnson is going to say, “I know your answer will be Yes! Yes, I’ll get on board! I support you, President Johnson!” But we are thrown for a loop as he basically says, I know you don’t want to do this. Southerners don’t want this because it wrecks up their system; Northerners don’t want it because they are sick of racial violence in the South and want to forget about it. Johnson references Kennedy, saying if this popular president couldn’t inspire you to do this work, I know I can’t. But he doesn’t give up. He takes the nation in close, puts his face close to ours, and says into our ears, “You have to do this for me. This has to be done.”

“So I ask you to join me in working long hours—nights and weekends, if necessary—to pass this bill. And I don’t make that request lightly. For from the window where I sit with the problems of our country I recognize that outside this chamber is the outraged conscience of a nation, the grave concern of many nations, and the harsh judgment of history on our acts.”

—Again, Johnson tells us we now have a full-time job: upholding and extending the right to vote. We all just signed an employment agreement, and now we’re on the clock, no breaks, no vacations. Why? Because U.S. failure to live up to its founding ideals has torn this country apart, and inspired the disdain and contempt of the world, and while it’s too late to prevent history books from displaying our past failures, we can provide a date on which racial prejudice in the U.S. ended and a new era began: March 1965.

So we see the definition, the existence, the quality of the nation itself is in the balance here. What is more important than swinging that balance toward the good, the admirable, the American? What is more important than America being American by living up to its defining ideals? Nothing.

Next time, we will pick up with Johnson as he embraces the logic and the passion of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? – Johnson’s We shall overcome speech

Posted on April 3, 2014. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Politics | Tags: , , , , |

Welcome to part 2 of our series on President Lyndon Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech, delivered on live TV to the nation on March 15, 1965. In this post, we will begin our close reading of this pivotal declaration that America was founded on the promise of civil rights for all—if not immediately, then inexorably, as time passed, and we grew wiser and more powerful in our commitment to natural rights, human freedom, and an American ideal of liberty and justice for all.

Let’s get right into it, as Johnson did that evening:

“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 of all colors, from every section of this country, to join me in that cause.”

—Somehow the phrase “Members of the Congress” leaps out at us as more than a description of the House and Senate. We are all, as Americans, members of a congress that was and to a large extent still is unique in the world. We are a congress of nations and peoples joined together in a perpetual union as Americans. This is reiterated by Johnson’s description of us as being from “all religions and all colors, from every section”. To this Congress of Americans, Johnson speaks “for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy”; the two are inseparable, one can’t live without the other. This is a message that some Americans have always and are still trying to shut down, but Johnson is putting it in the spotlight.

“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.”

Connecting—equating—the white policemen in Selma with the British regulars at Lexington and Concord and with the Confederate leadership at Appomattox was daring. Johnson is very clear here: the white police of Selma fought and killed Americans trying to exercise their rights and freedoms as Americans. There is no other way to define it. They were not protecting Southern society, or Southern womanhood, or keeping down violent blacks, or maintaining law and order, or upholding the law of the land, or any of the other justifications racial violence was so constantly wrapped in by its perpetrators.

“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.”

—The U.S. federal government has heard the cries of its people, and is about to come to their aid. Again, the idea of an American Congress made up not of a few hundred elected officials but of all American citizens, a “convocation of this great Government” is powerfully presented. Our great Government can be summoned into action by any of its people—not just whites. And that is because its mission is to take action to ensure justice, for all. When Johnson says that the mission of the U.S. federal government is the mission of the nation itself, the founding principle and demand placed on that government and on all Americans, he, like Martin Luther King, Jr., is making a powerful argument: it is not an attack on the U.S. to criticize it for failures to provide justice for all. It is a course correction. Equal rights for all races is not some foreign idea that a few people are trying to force into American government and society, it is the original basis for that government and society. The Founders intended that rights be extended to all, over time if not immediately. The history of America is one of extending rights: the right of black men to vote, then of women to vote, then of all people over 18 regardless of race, sex, or origin; the right of interracial couples to marry, then of gay couples to marry; the right of black children to attend schools with white children, and then of mentally challenged children to attend mainstream schools, and eventually of all children to attend public schools without being hampered—the list goes on. In the U.S., we extend rights, through trial and error and argument and sometimes ferocious antagonism, to more and more people. Because that is what this nation was founded to do. That is its mission.

So to demand equal civil rights for black Americans is not some disruptive, un-American demand that the nation abandon its identity and heritage and tradition. It is the usual, necessary texture of America itself. It is what Americans do, and only those who fight to restrict rights are un-American.

“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?”

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.”

—It is Johnson speaking the words, Johnson who believed in them; Johnson who would dedicate himself to the civil rights movement, and Johnson who was willing to “betray” his southern identity by standing up for black Americans, but we must take a moment to express our thanks and gratitude to the man who wrote these magnificent words that gave Johnson a platform to stand on: presidential speech writer Richard Goodwin (husband of historian Doris Kearns Goodwin; she also worked for President Johnson). Here, through Goodwin’s words, Johnson is saying that Cold War America may think its biggest problem or threat is Communism, especially in the growing war in Vietnam, but in reality, that threat is external. It does not “lay bare the secret heart of America itself”. Fighting Communism is just a way to stand up for stated American values of freedom. Fighting for civil rights, however, runs the risk of exposing our internal conflicts, our failures to live up to our ideals, our values of freedom, our inability to fully guarantee freedom at home even as we try to export it to the rest of the world. Fighting for civil rights takes the case off the watch so everyone can see the mechanisms inside that can become stuck or loose or rusty.

Civil rights is not about external threats, from Communism or an economic downturn, but about our internal health as a nation: are we who we are supposed to be? Because in the long-term, that internal health dictates our success and our national future. The greatest threat to our national security during the Cold War does not come from outside but from within. If we do not fight for civil rights, then we have no democracy to oppose Communism with. Fail to provide civil rights, and “we will have failed as a people and as a nation”, no matter what happens in Vietnam. We could, in fact, “gain the whole world” for democracy, winning the Cold War and stamping out Communism, and be in more danger than we were before, because we lost our own American soul by denying our own people their freedom. For a Cold War American president to say that fighting Communism was not the  most important thing Americans could do was astounding.

And then the magnificent, unequivocal statement: “There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.” For centuries, black Americans had been treated as aliens by people and by our laws; they were not full citizens, not “real” Americans, and in demanding equal rights, black Americans were traitors who wanted to destroy the good society white Americans had built, one which gave black people a “place” in service to the superior race. Here Johnson, through the words of Goodwin, demolishes this lie. Blacks were not wrong to ask for equality, the problem is not some regional issue the rest of us don’t have to worry or care about, Northerners who journey South to join the fight are not traitorous instigators of a new civil war. There was murder in Selma a week earlier because Americans had yet to fully live up to their national mandate of freedom. Americans had failed, and Americans would find a solution—now.

“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.”

—Just as the white police of Selma are comparable to British regulars during the Revolution, so the black Americans they attacked and killed are comparable with every white American who ever fought and died in the name of his country. Black Americans are guardians of American liberty—this is an astoundingly bold and honest statement of fact that no previous president had made since Lincoln. Even Truman and Eisenhower, the only presidents we could say made a real effort to end segregation, and men who were personally repulsed by racism, did not go this far. Black Americans had been treated as people we should pity and do favors for, out of the kindness of our hearts. Now they were the Minutemen who rode out to risk all to protect the rest of us who stayed home. They were the men in the statues erected in memory of heroes who gave their lives for liberty. Black Americans held the torch that white Americans had tried to blow out, and, failing that, had tried to hide away.

“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 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, 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.”

—Again, we are getting a radical revision of America, in which black Americans are the heroes whose memories we dare not dishonor, and the un-American way is to discriminate, the true Americans are black, and they are leading the way for the rest of us to follow.

Lyndon Johnson was not an attractive man. He was, in 1965, still seen by many Americans as a pale substitute for the man he replaced in office. His voice was a little grating, and he did not modulate his rather hectoring tone or his Texas accent. (And this at a time when wealthy Americans still faked a semi-English accent as a sign of their sophistication–watch any movie from the 1940s or 50s.) He couldn’t stand in front of the nation and assume its good will. He couldn’t assume they would be won over by his charm or his popularity. He could, on the other hand, assume that his Southern allies in Congress and in state governments would be infuriated by this speech and feel personally betrayed and attacked by an erstwhile comrade. Whatever popularity Johnson did have was in the South, and that was potentially evaporating by the sentence as he spoke on March 15.

Yet Johnson forged ahead, and we will too, continuing our close reading in the next post.

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Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech

Posted on March 27, 2014. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , |

March 2014 marks the anniversary of a crucially important milestone in U.S. history: President Johnson’s 1965 speech calling on Americans—white Americans—to commit themselves to voting equality for black Americans.

The Fifteenth Amendment had guaranteed all U.S. citizens the right to vote regardless of race. But the concerted efforts of whites, particularly in the South, to prevent at first black American men, and then women, from exercising that right, meant that by 1965 only about 20% of black Americans qualified to vote (that is, at least 18 years of age and a U.S. citizen) were voting. Intimidation, torture, and murder were regularly used to keep black Americans from voting. Southern states passed laws requiring black Americans to pay poll taxes and pass literacy tests to be able to vote.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which Johnson pushed through Congress with all his considerable energy and powers of persuasion, outlawed discrimination in hiring and housing, but it had little impact on the number of black Americans being registered to vote. On March 7, 1965, nonviolent, unarmed marchers protesting repression of the vote in Selma, Alabama were brutally attacked by state police armed with clubs, bull whips, and tear gas. The attack was filmed by national television crews and broadcast to the nation. It was one thing to hear about police brutality, and to speculate that it must have been justified somehow; it was another thing entirely to see young people being beaten to the ground and then kicked and beaten further, all for asking that they be allowed to exercise a right they had been granted by the U.S. government almost exactly a century before.

President Johnson was one of those Americans who watched the footage from Selma and was infuriated and repelled by what he saw. Johnson was a sincere proponent of civil rights, and he had staked a lifetime of political clout on passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Everyone expected him to back down after that, and not “push” the Southern Democrats for anything more on the race front. Instead, Johnson went on TV himself, and spoke to the nation, one week after the attack at Selma, and asked the American people to live up to their creed and ensure the voting rights of black Americans.

We’ll go through his powerful address in the next few posts, and then talk about the reaction it provoked and the legislation it enabled.

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Gay marriage in New Jersey–continuing to overturn tyranny of the majority

Posted on October 22, 2013. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

We’re happy to announce appearance #8 of this post, which we run each time the issue of gay marriage is resolved by a state court in its favor. The first time was back on May 21, 2008, when California’s Supreme Court decided that banning gay marriage was unconstitutional. The original point was that whenever a court overturns a law, there are always those who squawk—incorrectly—that it has overstepped its authority. The judiciary in the U.S. is meant to overturn laws, even laws with great popular support, that are unconstitutional because they restrict peoples’ liberty for no good reason.

Overturning bans on gay marriage started out as an example of thwarting this “tyranny of the majority”, as de Tocqueville called it, but now that the majority of Americans support or do not care to ban gay marriage, this type of legislation is becoming a rebuke to tyranny of the minority. That’s heartening.

Here is the original post, resurfacing now as New Jersey Governor Christie drops his attempt to stop gay marriage and the first couples are wed in that state:

The California Supreme Court’s decision that banning gay marriage is unconstitutional has been met with the by-now common complaint that the Court overstepped its bounds, trampled the wishes of the voters, and got into the legislation business without a permit.

A review of the constitutionally described role of the judiciary is in order.

The famous commentator on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, talked a great deal in his books Democracy in America about the tyranny of the majority. This is when majority rule—the basis of democracy—ends up perverting democracy by forcing injustice on the minority of the public.

For example, slavery was an example of the tyranny of the majority. Most Americans in the slave era were white and free. White and free people were the majority, and they used their majority power to keep slavery from being abolished by the minority of Americans who wanted to abolish it. The rights of black Americans were trampled by the tyranny of the majority.

Before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the majority of Americans were fine with segregated schools. They used their majority power to oppress the minority of Americans who were black, or who were white and wanted desegregation.

In each example, the majority is imposing and enforcing injustice which is incompatible with democracy. They are tyrannizing rather than governing.

The judiciary was created to break this grip of majority tyranny. The legislature—Congress—cannot usually break majority tyranny because it is made up of people popularly elected by the majority. But the appointed judiciary can break majority tyranny because its sole job is not to reflect the wishes of the people but to interpret the Constitution.

If the judiciary finds that a law made by the legislature perverts democracy and imposes the tyranny of the majority, it can and must strike that law down. This is what happened in California. The court found that although the majority of Californians (as evidenced by a previous referendum) had voted to ban gay marriage, that majority was enforcing and imposing injustice on the minority. So the court found the ban unconstitutional.

This is not beyond the scope of the judiciary, it’s exactly what it is meant to do.

I heard a commentator yesterday saying the California court should have left the issue to “the prerogative of the voters”. But if the voters’ prerogative is to oppress someone else, then the court does not simply step aside and let this happen.

The same people who rage against the partial and biased justices who lifted this ban are generally the same people who would celebrate justices who imposed a ban on abortion. People who cry out for impartiality are generally only applying it to cases they oppose.

So that’s what the judiciary does: it prevents the tyranny of the majority from enforcing injustice in a democracy. Like it or not, the “will of the people” is not always sacred, and sometimes must be opposed in the name of equality.

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