On March 15, 1965, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed an unusual joint session of Congress, as he introduced his proposal for a law to guarantee African Americans their voting rights, something often denied them in Southern states.
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As a rule, names of the authors of presidential speeches are not made public. But the Voting Rights Act speech was so powerful, and the circumstances surrounding it so dramatic, that it became known as the work of Richard N. Goodwin, a then 33-year-old White House assistant.
Goodwin, born in 1931, to Jewish parents (his father was a Vilna-born engineer originally named Naradof), grew up in Boston and Maryland, before attending Tufts University and Harvard Law School. After clerking for Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, he served as a lawyer to a congressional subcommittee that investigated the scandal of rigged television quiz shows.
That’s when he was offered a job as speechwriter by Sen. John F. Kennedy, who was about to enter the race for president.
Goodwin then served in the Kennedy White House and later in the State Department. After Kennedy’s assassination, in November 1963, he became a special assistant to Johnson, JFK’s successor.
A hasty decision to speak out
Johnson’s decision to deliver a civil-rights speech was made hastily, just several days after the brutal assault on marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma, Alabama.
That march, organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and led by Martin Luther King, Jr., had been intended to pressure the administration to advance national legislation on voting rights.
Even though the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1870, guaranteed the right of all citizens to vote, individual jurisdictions at both state and county levels had devised a wide array of tests and other forms of intimidation that made it almost impossible on the practical level for African Americans to register.
Johnson, though in favor of federal action, did not believe the time was right for bringing it to a vote. But after the March 7 violence in Selma, the president’s hand was forced.
On March 14, he accepted the invitation of Speaker of the House John McCormack to pay a rare visit to Capitol Hill the next evening to make a proposal for quick legislative action on the issue.
Wanted: A liberal Jew
According to the popular legend, Johnson exploded the next morning when his aide and confidant Jack Valenti told him he had assigned the drafting of the address to speechwriter Horace Busby.
“The hell you did,” LBJ supposedly barked. “Don’t you know a liberal Jew has his hands on the pulse of America? And you assign the most important speech of my life to a Texas public relations man? Get Dick to do it. And now!”
The source of that popular legend, it must be said, is Goodwin himself, in his memoir, “Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties.” His source for the tale was LBJ press secretary Bill Moyers, Goodwin said. Scholar Garth Pauley, author of “LBJ’s American Promise: The 1965 Voting Rights Address,” counters that Moyers claimed “no knowledge” of that version of events.
There’s no argument, however, that Goodwin wrote the bulk of Johnson’s speech, which was viewed by an estimated 70 million Americans live on TV, and ended up being one of the most influential speeches ever given by a U.S. president.
Johnson, who opened by declaring that, “I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy,” went on to outline some of the outrageous measures that were then employed to keep African Americans from voting, before arguing that their case was really the cause of all Americans: “There is no Negro problem. There is a no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.”
Thus, argued the president, “really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.
“And we shall overcome.”
Johnson had adopted the slogan of the civil rights movement, an extraordinary rhetorical step in 1965 America.
Five months later, on August 6, in the presence of King and other representatives of the movement, Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965.