–by Ronald M. Johnson
Fifty years ago, as they had for nearly a century, Americans celebrated Memorial Day. Then as now, it was a time of remembering those who had died defending the nation. Originating as Decoration Day and first held in 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery, the remembrance of the Civil War dead had long served as a powerful statement of national memory. Over the years, however, Memorial Day had become a national holiday that, for many, had lost much of the feeling associated with its founding. After nearly a century, many Americans responded to event by traveling to visit family and celebrating the coming of warmer weather.
In that context, Vice President Lyndon Johnson chose to restate the familiar phrases of remembrance in terms, and language, that would link Memorial Day to an issue that was very much on the mind of contemporary Americans. To do this, he traveled to the Gettysburg Battlefield to deliver an address on the occasion. The location and timing was designed to honor both the men who died there a century earlier and the unforgettable comments that Abraham Lincoln had spoken there in the aftermath of that great battle.
He chose this place and moment, however, for another reason. Increasingly concerned by the growing racial and civil strife of the time, he sought to broaden the significance of honoring Memorial Day to focus on the unfolding struggle by African Americans for full civil rights. In the decade after the 1954-55 Supreme Court decisions ending segregation in public education, the movement to achieve those rights had deepened but had yet to develop new federal legislation that could undo the effects of racial segregation still in place throughout the nation.
The Vice President began with comments that recalled the Civil War and the Gettysburg Address: “On this hallowed ground, heroic deeds were performed and eloquent words were spoken a century ago. We, the living, have not forgotten–and the world will never forget–the deeds or the words of Gettysburg. We honor them now as we join on this Memorial Day of 1963 in a prayer for permanent peace of the world and fulfillment of our hopes for universal freedom and justice.” He connected the past to the present: “Our nation found its soul in honor on these fields of Gettysburg one hundred years ago. We must not lose that soul in dishonor now on the fields of hate.”
Then, he shifted the focus from remembrance to unfulfilled promises: “One hundred years ago, the slave was freed. One hundred years later, the Negro remains in bondage to the color of his skin. The Negro today asks justice.” In the remainder of his comments, he reminded Americans that for African Americans, this special moment often rang hollow. In place of justice, the Vice President noted that black Americans had been told over and again to be patient. The time for patience, however, was passing and a time for action had arrived. He spoke directly to that point: “It is empty to plead that the solution to the dilemmas of the present rests on the hands of the clock. The solution is in our hands. Unless we are willing to yield up our destiny of greatness among the civilizations of history, Americans–white and Negro together–must be about the business of resolving the challenge which confronts us now.”
In concluding his address, he sought to clarify a way forward: “The Negro says, ‘Now.’ Others say, ‘Never.’ The voice of responsible Americans–the voice of those who died here and the great man who spoke here–their voices say, ‘Together'” There is no other way. . . . Until justice is blind to color, until education is unaware of race, until opportunity is unconcerned with the color of men’s skins, emancipation will be a proclamation but not a fact. To the extent that the proclamation of emancipation is not fulfilled in fact, to that extent we shall have fallen short of assuring freedom to the free.”
In these few words, Vice President Johnson had both expanded the meaning of Memorial Day and connected the event to the unfulfilled promise of the Emancipation Proclamation. Still, these comments remained only words of lament, not a plan for action. However, after the tragic death of John Kennedy and with becoming President, Lyndon Johnson resolved to transform these sentiments expressed in May of 1963 into new federal legislation. In what many historians see as a direct extension of the Emancipation Proclamation, he would sign the 1965 Civil Rights Law, one of five new civil rights laws passed by Congress between 1964 and 1968. Thus, after a century of unfulfilled promises, the words of equality had become laws that would, in the coming years, begin to restore the future for millions of Americans previously denied their most basic rights as citizens.
1. A copy of Lyndon Johnson’s 1963 Memorial Day Address is maintained at the LBJ Presidential Library, University of Texas, Austin, Texas. It is available online.
2. The historical work on the life of Lyndon Johnson and his impact on American life and culture is extensive and impressive. Two works are particularly relevant to this blog: John L. Bullion, Lydon B. Johnson and the Transformation of American Politics (Pearson, 2007) and Robert Mann When Freedom Would Triumph: The Civil Rights Struggle in Congress, 1954-1968 (Louisiana State University, 2007).