Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

The Other Gettysburg Address Lyndon Johnson Set His Course on Civil Rights on Memorial Day 50 Years Ago

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

The Other Gettysburg Address Lyndon Johnson Set His Course on Civil Rights on Memorial Day 50 Years Ago

Article excerpt

It was the year President John F. Kennedy traveled to Berlin to proclaim "Ich bin ein Berliner" and the year he gave his famous American University speech arguing that peace was "the necessary rational end of rational men." It was the year the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke from the Lincoln Memorial of a "dream deeply rooted in the American dream."

In American history, 1963 was a year rich in speeches. But of all the signature speeches that year, it's the one that has been all but forgotten that might have transformed the country the most.

Fifty years ago, on Memorial Day in 1963, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson gave a speech in Gettysburg, Pa., that foreshadowed profound changes that would be achieved in only 13 months and that mark us still.

The occasion was a speech that almost wasn't given at all, for an anniversary that was still a month off, delivered by a man who had grown weary of his apparent uselessness in an office that neither interested him nor engaged his capacious gifts. It is a reminder that the titanic events of history sometimes occur away from the main stage -- and proof of the power of a great idea, even if it is delivered ahead of its time.

"One hundred years ago, the slave was freed," Johnson said at the cemetery in a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. "One hundred years later, the Negro remains in bondage to the color of his skin."

With those two sentences, Johnson accomplished two things. He answered King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail." And he signaled where the later Johnson administration might lead, which was to the legislation now known as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Six months later, after Kennedy was assassinated, Johnson became president and vowed to press ahead on civil rights, even though he was a Southern Democrat and many of his congressional allies were devout segregationists.

Yet Johnson nearly didn't give his Gettysburg speech at all. He dismissed the invitation with a shrug when it arrived in the vice president's office. He was distracted, distressed and depressed. Almost nothing interested him.

He was moping too much, "and it was becoming obvious," George E. Reedy, a Johnson press secretary, said in an oral history recorded for the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas. "He just looked lugubrious. He reminded me of one of those Tennessee bloodhounds, you know, with the drooping ears."

His closest aides never sent Johnson's regrets to the Gettysburg invitation, leaving the option open, hoping to lure the vice president to use the occasion to break out of his funk. Juanita Roberts, Johnson's personal secretary, saw special appeal in the opportunity, and she dashed off a note to Horace Busby, who was Johnson's head speechwriter. …

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