The only time I ever saw Martin Luther King Jr. shed tears was when President Lyndon B. Johnson stood before Congress on March 15, 1965, and declared, “We shall overcome.” But these tears were tears of joy and hope.
In that speech, Johnson began the legislative push for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The landmark bill, signed shortly thereafter on Aug. 6, never would have happened without compromise from all sides. The bill was jointly sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, a Democrat from Montana, and Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, a Republican from Illinois.
The summit is a celebration of 50 years since the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but its subtitle draws its name from that fateful night in 1965 when Johnson stood up in front of Congress for everyone’s right to vote.
In that speech, just one week after “Bloody Sunday,” when 600 marchers protesting their exclusion from the electoral process were either beaten or killed by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Johnson said, “I want to be the president who helped the poor to find their own way and who protected the right of every citizen to vote in every election.”
Unfortunately, 49 years later, his legacy was been trampled by a Supreme Court decision dismantling the Voting Rights Act, as well as the failure of Congress to work together to form a new one. It seems that today more time is spent fighting efforts to make it harder for some people to vote than finding solutions to make it easier to vote.
This is where the spirit of compromise must come in. The night King wept as he watched Johnson’s speech from a home in Selma, Ala., is the night he knew for sure he had a partner in what would be the most important fight for civil rights. He knew that he would not always see eye-to-eye with the president, and that there would be an uphill battle to secure the support of Dirksen. But that night he was struck with the emotion that they could find the common ground necessary to finally give everyone the sacred right to vote.
Johnson and King’s partnership was founded on compromise. They both embraced the teachings of Edmund Burke, who famously said, “All government — indeed, every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue and every prudent act — is founded on compromise and barter.”
Simply put, for Johnson and King, compromise was not a dirty word. Sadly it has become just that in Washington today. Hence, as I journey this week to the LBJ Library to join in the 50th anniversary celebration of Johnson’s courageous crusade, I am determined to remind everyone of King’s warning that, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
Indeed, the utter dysfunction in our nation’s capital, which has created large-scale disillusionment across the country, especially among our youth, is putting our great democracy at risk.
The ultimate example of what is wrong in our democracy is our broken voting system. This week in Austin, as a number of U.S. presidents gather to honor Johnson and his legacy, we must keep at the forefront of our minds that Johnson stands in stark contrast to the realities of our voting system today. His legacy is one that helped America overcome 200 years of the stains of slavery and racism. And yet, the president warned us the very night he addressed Congress, saying, “Even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over.” And here we are, almost five decades later, in desperate need of continuing the battle.
I pray that Congress and the president will once again take up the fight for equality at the voting booth. The ultimate honor to Johnson would be the swift passage of VRA 2.0, making sure once again that every eligible voter can easily take that short step into the voting booth, a step King called the longest stride for democracy.
It will take courage. The type of courage it took Johnson to give that speech almost five decades ago. The type of courage it took for so many men and women to march for their right to vote on Bloody Sunday, and then show up again two days later, and then to finally make the march beginning on March 21 with 3,200 nonviolent soldiers, finishing in Montgomery a few days later as an army of 25,000, never once casting a stone. The type of courage that saw Dirksen co-sponsor the bill. The courage of 47 Democratic senators, 30 Republican senators, 221 Democratic House members and 112 Republican House members to vote for it. The courage to stand up and say “compromise” is not a dirty word. In point of fact, it is required of us to do our job and uphold the constitution.
The silence today on the need to fix our voting system is deafening. The courage of compromise has seemingly disappeared behind party rhetoric. Sure, when asked if they want to fix the voting system everyone says “yes.” When asked if we are proud of the fact that our country ranks 138 out of 172 countries in voter turnout, the answer is a resounding “no.” Yet no one has done anything to fix it. All that has been done is a Supreme Court decision that ripped apart the fabric of Johnson’s courageous words as he declared “we shall overcome.”
Johnson helped my dear friend Martin Luther King Jr. to realize a central part of his dream: the right for all men and women to vote. For that I am, and we should all be, eternally grateful. So please join me now in preserving his legacy and protecting our sacred right to vote. To members of Congress who will take up this calling, your courage and conviction will not be forgotten. Your heroism will be forever heralded. You will be remembered, as you so richly deserve.
God bless you, Lyndon B. Johnson, may your truth go marching on.
Young served as congressman from Georgia, mayor of Atlanta, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and president of the National Council of Churches, and as an activist during the Civil Rights Movement and a friend and confidant of Martin Luther King Jr.