Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of what Think Progress's Ian Millhiser called "the most perfectly radical presidential speech in American history." It was the "we shall overcome" speech Lyndon Johnson gave before a joint session of congress in 1965, in which he said to a body composed of a large number of white supremacists of his own party (and a country filled with them), "we shall overcome," echoing the rallying cry of civil rights activists in the South. He demanded of Congress that it pass the Voting Rights Act to make good on a centuries-old promise of full civic participation for African-American citizens.
This period in history has been the subject of controversy lately because of the portrayal of Johnson as being reluctant to push the act in the movie "Selma," but as Millhiser points out, that's irrelevant to the greatness of the speech he gave that day, which announced a pending indictment of America itself as a "failed nation" if it refused to act in the face of what had happened on that bridge and elsewhere. That is a radical notion, to be sure. If any American president today uttered the words, he'd likely be impeached.
Millhiser draws upon his book "Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted" to illustrate the America in which Johnson was speaking, a time of astonishing economic growth accruing to the benefit of generations who had lived through depression and war. In those days before the historic blunder of Vietnam engulfed the national consciousness, Johnson was able to use America's idealism to finally force the nation to push through the institutional racial barriers that had been standing since the earliest days of the Republic and that even a bloody civil war had failed to properly dismantle. However he got there, it was a propitious use of a moment in history, to say the least.
Millhiser looks briefly at the man Johnson had just defeated in the 1964 election, Barry Goldwater, and makes an interesting observation about him that has resonance to the ongoing issues with civil rights we still see today:
Johnson’s speech was, in many ways, a test of just how completely he had vanquished his opponent in the 1964 presidential elections, Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, and whether the ideology that drove Goldwater’s campaign could finally be cast aside in America’s golden age. Goldwater, for reasons that I explain in more detail in Injustices, was a somewhat unlikely champion for white supremacists. He’d supported weaker civil rights bills in 1957 and 1960. And he supported integrating the Arizona Air National Guard when he served as its chief of staff. Ultimately, however, the Barry Goldwater of 1964 cared more about a narrow, philosophical objection to government intervention than he did about the rights of African Americans struggling to break free from Jim Crow.
That would be an apt description of the libertarian right today, would it not? Sen. Rand Paul famously said that tolerating injustice, inequality and discrimination was "the hard part about believing in freedom," which simply translates into believing in the "freedom" of the powerful to do whatever they choose. After all, the only people for whom such a belief is truly "hard" are those who are forced to live as second-class citizens.
Johnson gave that speech 50 years ago almost to the day. The Voting Rights Act was passed and many more African-Americans and other racial minorities were able to participate in our democracy as full citizens. It resulted in such a sea change in American politics that the regional coalitions that formed the two parties in Johnson's time have switched places. Ironically, today practically the only Southern Democrats are African-American and the Northern Republican is as rare as an albino elephant. There are very few conservatives in the Democratic Party and you'd have to waterboard any Republican to make him admit to being the "l" word.
But one thing has continued: the reactionary right's relentless quest to deny African-Americans the right to vote. In fact, after having calmed down a bit for a few years, they are more aggressive about it than ever, passing voter ID laws designed to make it difficult for people to vote. And while they will caterwaul 24/7 that there is no racist intent, America's history proves otherwise, particularly since there is no evidence that their alleged "concerns" over voter fraud have any basis in fact. Just this week, the state of Ohio had to reluctantly announce that yet another waste of taxpayer's money has proved that there is no systematic "voter fraud" in the state:
Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted has been on a mission to weed out purported voter fraud in the state since he took office in 2011. After launching an investigation into what he called an “expanding loophole” allowing non-citizens to vote in Ohio and potentially decide elections, he announced Thursday that 145 non-citizens were registered to vote illegally in 2014, amounting to just .0002 percent of the 7.7 million registered voters in the state. Husted’s office would not provide any information about the 27 people it referred to the Attorney General’s office for further review.
But in 2013, his office sent 17 potential cases — .0003 percent of total ballots cast in the state — to the AG who eventually referred them to county prosecutors. Most reports of voting irregularities were dropped by the county prosecutors because the “voter fraud” problems were determined to have been caused by simple mistakes and confused senior citizens, according to a Cleveland Plain Dealer investigation. Voter fraud in Ohio is a fifth-degree felony and could carry up to a year in prison. But of the cases referred to prosecutors’ offices in 2013, most irregularities were caused by voter confusion or mistakes made by elections officials and not deliberate attempts to commit fraud, the investigation found.
For example, Cuyahoga County looked into 15 cases referred from Husted’s office and chose not to pursue criminal charges against any of the individuals, concluding that the voters were confused about the “Golden Week” during which people can both register to vote and also cast their absentee ballot.
He did find two non-citizens who registered to vote, so all that work was surely worth it. No word on how much all this cost the state but evidently there is no limit on how much time and money can be spent by frugal, small government, liberty lovers on these quixotic scavenger hunts for the Sasquatch of the electorate: the fraudulent partisan voter.
This is just one of dozens of investigations that have been done over the past few years that have yet to turn up the kind of voting irregularity that could change election results. But if they succeed in keeping even a few racial minorities away from the polls either out of confusion or fear, these crusades will have done the job for which they were intended: vote suppression. This, along with other practices like the purging of legitimate voters from the rolls and "caging" initiatives, can make the difference in close elections and they know it.
Conservatives sincerely believe the nation is better off if certain people are making decisions and those people are qualified by the fact that they have money and property. As founder John Jay is said to have quipped, "the owners of the country ought to be the ones to run it." But inconveniently for them, we do have a democracy and today the GOP is facing a serious demographic challenge, which makes it almost imperative that they find a way to stop Hispanics, young people and African-Americans from voting in big numbers or they simply will not be able to win national elections. One might expect them to take a second look at that ideology and see if maybe it could use some revision for the 21st century, but that's a problem too. This ideology, which confers "freedom" in degrees commensurate with how much money you have, is fundamental to their beliefs and is not easily changed.
Fifty years ago brave civil rights activists in the streets and a president and other officials who knew the moment for change had arrived put justice and equality ahead of a property owner's right to discriminate and the state's right to deny the vote to their citizens. It was a radical move, necessitating a serious challenge to federalism. Unfortunately, the story did not end there. Millhiser reminds us at the end of his piece that Johnson and company may have been radicals in their time but today the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts overturned much of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 and Sen. Rand Paul, who lugubriously proclaims that liberty is never harder for him than when his philosophical integrity forces him to support the constitutional rights of racist property owners over everyone else's, is running for president.
Those people are radicals of a different sort and they stand ready to overturn and subvert progress wherever they find it.