The most important single thing I've seen written, spoken or pictured today -- prior to Barack Obama's acceptance speech, or possibly even including it -- appears on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times. It's a column by Robert Caro, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, who's been struggling for years to complete the fourth and final volume of his monumental biography of President Lyndon Johnson.
The op-ed is entitled "Johnson's Dream, Obama's Speech," and it's the most powerful affirmation and explanation I've seen of how this great nation somehow struggles dramatically forward, at least in some ways, even in its worst of times. That dramatic drive is enabling a black man to be chosen tonight as one of the two major party candidates for president, something unthinkable less than half a century ago. As Caro reminds us, before President Johnson pulled out all the stops to force passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, black people could hardly vote in the south, much less run for national office:
In March 1965, black Americans in the 11 Southern states were still largely unable to vote. When they tried to register, they faced not only questions impossible to answer -- like the infamous "how many bubbles in a bar of soap?" -- but also the humiliation of trying to answer them in front of registrars who didn't bother to conceal their scorn. Out of six million blacks old enough to vote in those 11 states in 1965, only a small percentage -- 27 percent in Georgia, 19 percent in Alabama, 6 percent in Mississippi -- were registered.
What's more, those who were registered faced not only beatings and worse but economic retaliation as well if they tried to actually cast a ballot. Black men who registered might be told by their employer that they no longer had a job; black farmers who went to the bank to renew their annual "crop loan" were turned down, and lost their farms... So the number of black men and women in the South who actually cast a vote was far smaller than the number registered; in no way were black Americans realizing their political potential...
For decades, Johnson had been anything but a promoter of black voting rights. In his first 20 years in Congress, the man from the former Confederate state of Texas had voted against every single civil rights bill -- even those against lynching. In 1957, as Senate majority leader, he had managed to push through a weak bill that critics complained did next to nothing to protect the rights of blacks. Still, it was the first civil rights law passed by Congress in 87 years.
After the nation was aroused by television pictures of black demonstrators in Birmingham blasted by fire hoses and attacked by dogs, and further brutalized elsewhere in the south, combined with the shock of John F. Kennedy's assassination, President Johnson was able to gain passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which banned segregation in public accommodations. But southern blacks still couldn't vote.
On March 7, 1965, Bloody Sunday, police and mob violence broke up a planned march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama to demand black voting rights (of 15,000 blacks in and around Selma, only 130 were registered). Six days later, LBJ announced to Congress that he was introducing his voting rights bill:
When Johnson stepped to the lectern on Capitol Hill that night, he adopted the great anthem of the civil rights movement as his own.
"Even if we pass this bill," he said, "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."
And, Lyndon 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."
He paused, and then he said, "And we shall overcome."
Martin Luther King was watching the speech at the home of a family in Selma with some of his aides, none of whom had ever, during all the hard years, seen Dr. King cry. But Lyndon Johnson said, "We shall overcome" -- and they saw him cry then.
As Caro tells us, immediately after uttering those words, Lyndon Johnson's mood turned from softness to steel. Even as he was being congratulated on his speech, he pressed the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee to promptly begin night-and-day hearings on the bill. Despite furious southern opposition, LBJ signed it into law on Aug. 6, less than five months later. Caro writes that "Abraham Lincoln struck off the chains of black Americans,
but it was Lyndon Johnson who led them into voting booths, closed democracy's sacred curtain behind them, placed their hands upon the lever that gave them a hold on their own destiny, made them, at last and forever, a true part of American political life.
LOOK what has been wrought! Forty-three years ago, a mere blink in history's eye, many black Americans were unable to vote. Tonight, a black American ascends a stage as nominee for president.
Whether you're for or against Obama, and whether he wins or loses in November, that is what tonight is all about, as Caro so eloquently reminds us. In these dark days, it gives me new hope for my country.