Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
I am about to finish Historian John Meacham’s inspiring history United States politics and the leadership of different Presidents, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. I have to say that in light of Meacham’s remarks at the Funeral of the late President George H.W. Bush, Meacham’s book has inspired me and encouraged me in the dark era of President Trump and his supporting cast of Angels of Darkness, men and women who, to paraphrase historian Timothy Snyder tell us we are the best while encouraging us to be our worst.
While reading Meacham’s book over the weekend I read about the Civil Rights crusade of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who had he not gone into Vietnam would probably be considered one of the greatest President’s who ever lived. Johnson would have been considered by many to be an unlikely champion of Civil Rights, though he supported Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal would not have been considered a pioneering Civil Rights advocate.
Those who read this blog know my attachment to Gettysburg, the Battle Of Gettysburg, and President Abraham Lincoln and his Gettysburg Address. Until I read Meacham’s book I had never known that as Vice President, Lyndon Johnson also spoke at Gettysburg. His words came on Memorial Day 1963, and in part they were an answer to Dr Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It was an incredible and courageous speech. Johnson was a Southerner, a Democrat, and many Southern Democrats were fighting President Kennedy on Civil Rights issues. Kennedy was much too understanding and polite to hold their ball to the fire, but Johnson for all of his other flaws wasn’t and he used his Gettysburg speech to remind the nation of the unfinished legacy of Gettysburg and the still unfulfilled “new birth of freedom” that Lincoln so eloquently spoke in his few remarks at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Military Cemetery.
Johnson spoke these words:
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.
We are called to honor our own words of reverent prayer with resolution in the deeds we must perform to preserve peace and the hope of freedom. We keep a vigil of peace around the world. Until the world knows no aggressors, until the arms of tyranny have been laid down, until freedom has risen up in every land, we shall maintain our vigil to make sure our sons who died on foreign fields shall not have died in vain.
As we maintain the vigil of peace, we must remember that justice is a vigil, too–a vigil we must keep in our own streets and schools and among the lives of all our people–so that those who died here on their native soil shall not have died in vain.
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. We do not answer him–we do not answer those who lie beneath this soil–when we reply to the Negro by asking, “Patience.”
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.
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. To ask for patience from the Negro is to ask him to give more of what he has already given enough. But to fail to ask of him–and of all Americans–perseverance within the processes of a free and responsible society would be to fail to ask what the national interest requires of all its citizens.
The law cannot save those who deny it but neither can the law serve any who do not use it. The history of injustice and inequality is a history of disuse of the law. Law has not failed–and is not failing. We as a nation have failed ourselves by not trusting the law and by not using the law to gain sooner the ends of justice which law alone serves.
If the white over-estimates what he has done for the Negro without the law, the Negro may under-estimate what he is doing and can do for himself with the law. If it is empty to ask Negro or white for patience, it is not empty–it is merely honest–to ask perseverance. Men may build barricades–and others may hurl themselves against those barricades–but what would happen at the barricades would yield no answers. The answers will only be wrought by our perseverance together. It is deceit to promise more as it would be cowardice to demand less.
In this hour, it is not our respective races which are at stake–it is our nation. Let those who care for their country come forward, North and South, white and Negro, to lead the way through this moment of challenge and decision. 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.
If Johnson was alive today in the age of Trump, and in the fighting form that enabled him to go against fellow Southerners to get the Civil Rights Act Of 1964 and the since emasculated Voting Rights Act Of 1965 passed by overwhelming bi-partisan majorities, and to pass other bills that benefited all Americans, he would not be silent. He would be adding his voice to those of Blacks, Latinos, Arab Americans, Asians, Women, LGBTQ people, and non-Christian Religious minorities whose constitutional rights are under threat by a President whose despises those rights, and a Party which was reborn when the segregationists Democrats Of Johnson’s time became Republicans in 1964 under the white supremacist campaign of Barry Goldwater and the 1968 Southern Strategy Of Richard Nixon. In those years the Democratic Party became the true successors of Lincoln, Grant and the early Republican Party Vision of freedom, while the Republicans under the direction of men like Goldwater, Nixon, Pat Buchanan, Roger Ailes, and a host of others including former Democrats and Dixiecrats like Strong Thurman became the Party of the Lost Cause, the Noble Confederacy, and Jim Crow. Under President Trump the pathetic rump of that once great party, predominantly made of Conservative Christians and a growing violent White Supremacist movement attempt to claim to be the Party of Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, but are the Party of Jefferson Davis and the later Dixiecrats.
If he were alive today Lyndon Johnson would be using his legislative expertise to push forward responsible but unpopular policies.
I can only ask, who among today’s Democrats will do that? I honestly don’t know, but I believe that such a man or woman much come forth to challenge Trump and his Cult for the Presidency in 2020. To quote Johnson:
“In this hour, it is not our respective races which are at stake–it is our nation. Let those who care for their country come forward, North and South, white and Negro, to lead the way through this moment of challenge and decision.
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.”