LBJ’s Gettysburg Address

May 25, 2013

by David M. Shribman
[published May 24, 2013 in the New York Times]

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. read more

Read the speech in its entirety here.

Additional press:
LBJ forecast civil rights laws in '63 speech [USA Today]
Memorial Day 2013: LBJ's 1963 Speech is Still Applicable to Downtrodden Americans Today  [policymic.com]