The presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson was a difficult and troubled time for this country, but he left a magnificent legacy in the civil rights laws he managed to push through Congress — something that probably no other president could have done, and an achievement that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. likened to “a second Emancipation Proclamation.”
Following last weekend’s ceremonies at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, here are some excerpts from Johnson’s remarks to the nation upon signing that bill into law.
… We believe that all men are created equal. Yet many are denied equal treatment.
We believe that all men have certain unalienable rights. Yet many Americans do not enjoy those rights.
We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty. Yet millions are being deprived of those blessings — not because of their own failures, but because of the color of their skin.
The reasons are deeply imbedded in history and tradition and the nature of man. We can understand — without rancor or hatred — how this all happened.
But it cannot continue. Our Constitution, the foundation of our Republic, forbids it. The principles of our freedom forbid it. Morality forbids it. And the law I will sign tonight forbids it.
… The purpose of the law is simple.
It does not restrict the freedom of any American, so long as he respects the rights of others.
It does not give special treatment to any citizen.
It does say the only limit to a man’s hope for happiness, and for the future of his children, shall be his own ability.
It does say that those who are equal before God shall now also be equal in the polling booths, in the classrooms, in the factories, and in hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, and other places that provide service to the public.
I am taking steps to implement the law under my constitutional obligation to “take care that the laws are faithfully executed.”
… We must not approach the observance and enforcement of this law in a vengeful spirit. Its purpose is not to punish. Its purpose is not to divide, but to end divisions — divisions which have all lasted too long. Its purpose is national, not regional.
Its purpose is to promote a more abiding commitment to freedom, a more constant pursuit of justice, and a deeper respect for human dignity.
We will achieve these goals because most Americans are law-abiding citizens who want to do what is right.
… This Civil Rights Act is a challenge to all of us to go to work in our communities and our States, in our homes and in our hearts, to eliminate the last vestiges of injustice in our beloved country.
So tonight I urge every public official, every religious leader, every business and professional man, every workingman, every housewife — I urge every American — to join in this effort to bring justice and hope to all our people — and to bring peace to our land.
My fellow citizens, we have come now to a time of testing. We must not fail.
Let us close the springs of racial poison. Let us pray for wise and understanding hearts. Let us lay aside irrelevant differences and make our Nation whole. Let us hasten that day when our unmeasured strength and our unbounded spirit will be free to do the great works ordained for this Nation by the just and wise God who is the Father of us all.
Thank you and good night.