Yesterday, LGBT activist David Mixner wrote about the letdown that was President Obama's East Room event to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots. A "carefully worded warm, fuzzy speech that failed to answer many questions," Mixner called it, writing that he wanted something more. Jonathan Martin said it seemed like Mixner is hoping for a moment like the one Lyndon Johnson created in March of 1965, when he declared "We Shall Overcome" to a special joint session of Congress.
Sadly, that will not happen.
For two reasons. First, the "We Shall Overcome" moment was one of remarkable circumstance. "Bloody Sunday" had occurred in Selma just a week prior, when gas-masked Alabama state troopers set upon voting rights marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. What followed was a hellish kaleidoscope of nightsticks and shrieks... blood and teargas... horses and sirens... all captured on film to interrupt your regularly scheduled programming for fifteen minutes that night. Two days later, a group of white Unitarian ministers in town for the demonstrations were attacked on the street. The first one they clubbed, Rev. James Reeb, suffered a while before dying from his collapsed skull. The White House was besieged with pickets. Protests and vigils were popping up around the country. People demanded action.
Thus Johnson hastily called up a joint session of Congress, which he would address. He told his speechwriter, Dick Goodwin (who strolled in that morning at his "customary gentleman's hour of 9:30") what he wanted to say. He asked that it mention the dirt-poor Mex-American kids he taught as a young man in a little town halfway between San Antonio and Laredo. He wanted to say how he could see -- feel -- "the pain of prejudice" in their eyes.... Johnson knew what he was getting himself into.
Which leads to the second reason: President Johnson believed in voting rights for people of color much more than President Obama believes in civil rights for the LGBT community. Mixner notes how the words 'marriage' and 'civil unions' went unspoken in the President's remarks on Monday. He opposes marriage equality, has backstopped for DOMA and continues the ban on gays in the military via inaction.
And while the Obama administration blames their dallying on the press or the political situation, they should be reminded that that didn't stop Johnson. Repeatedly in early 1965, the press said that a voting rights bill simply wasn't in the cards for this session of the 89th Congress. Too much else was going on, and besides, they just passed some civil rights legislation in '64. What's your rush?... But Johnson was resolute. In February, he met with Dr. King in the White House and promised that a voting rights law would get through, one way or another. And so he did. While Selma burned that week, he maneuvered... leading to that special joint session.
Goodwin wrote the address in a few frantic hours with no time for it to be edited or posted to the TelePrompTers. The President, never a great orator, read from typed pages on the dais as he said, "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 at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama."
From there, he traced the history of race problems in our country and reached back to distinctly American language to rebut hatred: "All men are created equal -- Government by consent of the governed -- Give me liberty or give me death." Some paragraphs later, the President added another, more recent phrase: "And we... shall... overcome." An instant of silence in the chamber before a flood of jubilee, applause, cheering, tears. Dr. King wept when he heard those words.
Lyndon Johnson was always more of a manipulator than a charmer. And yet it's hard to imagine President Obama, with all of his grace, recreating a moment so beautifully done.