LBJ’s Voting Rights Message Still Resonates


July 2, 2013 RSS Feed Print–USNews & World Report, Thomas Jefferson Street Blog


President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965.President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

It struck me, after the extraordinary week of Supreme Court decisions, that there are real lasting lessons that we may need to take to heart.

When it comes to the striking down of crucial elements of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, memories washed over me. I was a Senate page during the summer of 1965 and stood with other pages in the Capitol Rotunda to watch President Lyndon Johnson sign the law he had worked so hard to pass.

Here is the line he began his speech with:  “Today is a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield.” He then traced the history of slavery and oppression. He spoke eloquently about the American Dream denied to so many. He spoke about the fundamental right to vote as part and parcel of what it meant to achieve equality and basic dignity.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gay marriage.]

But his opening sentence could so easily apply to the striking down of the Defense of Marriage Act or the growing freedom to marry, the freedom to be who you are, the emergence from the shadows of oppression for the LGBT community.

So it is rather ironic that the court affirmed the rapid change in attitudes and culture on gay rights, but undercut the nearly 50 year-old law so critical to civil rights. It isn’t as if these justices are deaf, dumb and blind to the voter suppression laws being proposed and the effort to prevent the poor and minorities from casting their ballots. It isn’t too much to recognize that the startling transformation that society, followed by our politicians, have made on gay marriage in less than a decade resulted in part from civil rights battles that are still being fought.

I am taken aback by the symbolism of admitting that the train has left the station on gay rights and ordering up the green lights on the tracks, while ordering up blinking red lights, or at least flashing yellow,  when it comes to voting rights.

[Weigh in: Was the Supreme Court’s voting rights decision correct?]

These two decisions are linked and many would have preferred consistency, not complacency when it came to civil rights.

I do think that the underlying message of the speech LBJ gave so many years ago could apply to civil rights and gay rights, and indeed, human rights.

Here are LBJ’s closing words that day in 1965:

The central fact of American civilization–one so hard for others to understand–is that freedom and justice and the dignity of man are not just words to us. We believe in them. Under all the growth and the tumult and abundance, we believe. And so, as long as some among us are oppressed–and we are part of that oppression–it must blunt our faith and sap the strength of our high purpose.

Strong words for us and for the Supreme Court to heed, to be sure.