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Johnson Urges Congress at Joint Session to Pass Law Insuring Negro Vote

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« on: March 15, 2010, 07:15:51 am »

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« Reply #1 on: March 15, 2010, 07:17:04 am »

Johnson Urges Congress at Joint Session to Pass Law Insuring Negro Vote
Nation Hears Him President, in TV Talk, Pledges That 'We Shall Overcome'
By Tom Wicker
Special to The New York Times


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Washington, March 15 -- President Johnson took the rallying cry of American Negroes into Congress and millions of American Homes tonight by pledging that "we shall overcome" what he called "a crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice."

In his slow Southern accent, Mr. Johnson demanded immediate action on legislation designed to remove every barrier of discrimination against citizens trying to register and vote.

He was interrupted 36 times by applause and two standing ovations.

The President said he would send this legislation to Congress Wednesday. It is expected to receive overwhelming bipartisan support.

Violence Deplored

Before a joint session of Congress and millions watching on television, Mr. Johnson deplored recent violence against Negroes in Selma, Ala., where a voter registration struggle has been going on for six weeks. And he identified the cause of Negroes there and elsewhere with the spirit of the nation.

"Their cause must be our cause too," he said. "Because it's not just Negroes, but really it's all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.

"And we ... shall ... overcome."

To these last words, the title of the great Negro freedom hymn, Mr. Johnson's accent and emphasis imparted an unmistakable determination.

"I Mean to Use It"

Later, telling of his own experiences as a young teacher in a Mexican-American school in Texas in 1928, Mr. Johnson said he had "never thought then I might be standing here."

"It never occurred to me," he went on, "that I might have the chance to help the sons of those students and people like them all over this country."

Then, forcefully and slowly, he declared:

"But now that I have this chance, I'll let you in on a secret -- I mean to use it!"

No other American President had so completely identified himself with the cause of the Negro. No other President had made the issue of equality for Negroes so frankly a moral cause to himself and all Americans.

For "should we defeat every enemy, double our wealth and conquer the stars and still be unequal to this issue," Mr. Johnson said, "then we will have failed as a people and as a nation."

The President's daughter Lynda Bird Johnson, summed up the impact of the speech in an interview at its conclusion.

She said, "It was just like that hymn, 'Once to every man and nation comes a moment to decide.'"

Mr. Johnson's specific purpose in his fourth appearance before a joint session was to make a dramatic appeal for the legislation he said he would send to Congress.

In passing that legislation, he said, there could be "no delay or no hesitation or no compromise." And he asked the members of the House and Senate, jammed into the chamber of the House of Representatives to hear him, to join with him in working "long hours, nights and weekends if necessary to pass this bill."

A Demand for Aid

But the speech, as delivered, went far beyond that basic purpose and became a moral demand upon the American people to assist in "the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life."

For that goal, he said, "we must not and ought not and cannot wait another eight months."

"We have already waited a hundred years and more," he added. "The time for waiting is gone."

In a printed message accompanying the President's personal appearance he gave a more detailed description of the voting rights legislation on which Administration and Congressional officials were still working today.

It is expected to provide Federal registration officials to put Negroes' names on the election books in states and districts where discriminatory practices and devices have prevented them from registering and voting.

In addition, the legislation will provide stiff criminal penalties for state and local officials engaging in such discriminatory practices.

Six Southern states would be immediately affected -- Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, Virginia and South Carolina.

Sees Simple Course

For these and other states who wished no Federal action in their communities and wanted to retain local control of elections, Mr. Johnson said, there is a simple course available.

"Open your polling places to all your people," he said. "Allow men and women to register and vote whatever the color of their skin. Extend the rights of citizenship to every citizen of this land."

Anticipating inevitable objections and arguments, he continued: "There is no constitutional issue here. The command of the Constitution is plain.

"There is no moral issue. It is wrong -- deadly wrong -- to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote.

"There is no issue of states' rights or national rights."

Then Mr. Johnson received a standing ovation that went on for nearly a minute after he declared:

"We cannot- we must not- refuse to protect the right of Americans to vote in any election in which they may desire to participate."

'No Negro Problem'

But Mr. Johnson- a President who has declared it his goal to be a President of all the people and to end sectional and class antagonisms- refused to aim his remarks solely at Southern states where voting discrimination had occurred.

"There is no Negro problem," he said. "There is no Southern problem or Northern problem. There is only an American problem.

"Let no one, in any section, look with prideful righteousness on the troubles of his neighbors. There is no part of America where the promise of equality has been fully kept. In Buffalo as well as Birmingham, in Philadelphia as well as Selma, Americans are struggling for the fruits of freedom."

The hero of that struggle, he said, is the Negro himself.

"His actions and protests, his courage to risk safety and even to risk his life," Mr. Johnson said, "have awakened the conscience of the nation. His demonstrations have been designed to call attention to injustice, designed to provoke change and designed to stir reform, and who among us can say that we would have made the same progress were it not for his persistent bravery, and his faith in American democracy."

But the President pulled back from a blanket endorsement of all civil rights demonstrations. He intends to protect the right of free speech and the right of free assembly, he said, but they did not include "the right to block public thoroughfares to traffic."

This evoked heavy applause and apparently was a reference to demonstrators who briefly blocked traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House Friday.

Mr. Johnson eliminated, however, a line in his prepared text that said that 'the right of free speech does not carry with it the right to endanger the safety of others on a public highway."

This was apparently intended to be a reference and a rebuke to Negroes in Selma who have twice set out on marches to Montgomery, the State Capitol along the highway. Once they were turned back with violence; once they halted peacefully in front of a line of policemen.

Roots in Southern Soil

These words were almost the only ones that did not represent a complete endorsement of the Negro cause.

Mr. Johnson, describing himself as "a man whose roots go deeply into Southern soil," said he knew "how agonizing racial feelings are."

But, he said, "the time of justice has now come."

"I believe with all my heart that no force can hold it back," he went on. "It is right in the eyes of man and God that it should come. And when it does, I think that day will brighten the lives of every American."

For it is not only Negroes who are the victims of racial injustice, he said. "How many white children have gone uneducated, how many white families have lived in poverty, how many whites lives have been scarred by fear because we have wasted our energy and substance to maintain the barriers of hatred and terror."

Television viewers got some remarkable views of the reaction of Congress and official Washington to these and other remarks.

They saw Mike Mansfield of Montana, the Senate majority leader, apparently close to tears at one emotional moment.

They saw Senator Albert Gore, Democrat of Tennessee, applauding the President's pledge that "we shall overcome" not only racial bigotry but also "poverty and ignorance and fear."

They saw Senator George Smathers of Florida clap tentatively at one point, then desist quickly.

They saw Senator Sam Erwin of North Carolina sitting with folded arms in massive disapproval.

They saw Senator Allen Ellender of Louisiana slumped gloomily in his seat.

And they saw President Johnson, departing from the chamber, turn to the gallery and blow two quick kisses to his wife and his daughter.

Their party in a special box included J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation; Msgr. George Higgins, director of Social Welfare for the National Catholic Welfare Conference; Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, Stated Clerk of the United Presbyterian Church, and a number of others.

Describes Measure

In the printed message that accompanied his speech, Mr. Johnson described fully the voting rights measure that he will propose and the reasons it was needed. In his address, he contended himself with a brief outline of the measure, which he said would "establish a simple, uniform standard" for registration and voting that could not be evaded. It would also eliminate lawsuits in obtaining the right to vote, he said.

Such steps are necessary, he insisted, because in some states, the only way to pass a variety of discriminatory barriers "is to show a white skin" to voting officials.

The Outlines Clear

The outlines of the bill were made clear by officials before Mr. Johnson appeared in essence, the bill was designed to accomplish these large objectives:

To provide a swift and workable means of registering Negroes and others who have been prevented by discriminatory devices from registering through the usual state and local channels; and of insuring that these persons then could actually vote and have their ballots counted.

To provide stronger criminal penalties against a state and local officials practicing discrimination, in the hope that the discrimination itself might be stopped or lessened.

Officials explained that their object was to get Negroes registered and to have them vote, whether through normal state and local procedures or through the special Federal machinery to be set up by the new legislation.

The bill would apply to all elections, state and local as well as Federal. In that, as well as in its avoidance of cumbersome and time-consuming court procedures, it is unlike any other Federal legislation now on the books.

Penalties Provided

The practical effect of the legislation would be to abolish literacy tests and other devices of voter qualification wherever these devices have been used in a discriminatory manner.

State and local officials could not apply such devices -- for instance, they could not require Negroes to explain involved passages in the Constitution as a prerequisite to voting -- under penalty of five years in jail or a $5,000 fine.

Such sentences would be dependent, however, upon the Government's being able to prove a case of discrimination before a Southern jury.

If the devices are applied, however, upon complaint of a sufficient number of Negroes, the Attorney General would have legal grounds to ask the Civil Service Commission, a bipartisan Federal agency, to appoint Federal officials to register them.

The number of Negroes required to file such complaints has not been disclosed but Capitol Hill sources said it would probably be 20.

Conditions Outlined

Upon receiving such complaints, the Attorney General could ask the Civil Service Commission to appoint registration officials in any area where the following conditions existed:

Completion of a literacy or other qualification test -- for example, Virginia's complicated registration form, providing for twelve separate entries -- was required before registration.

Less than 50 per cent of the voting age population of a state, or elections subdivision within a state, had been registered to vote on Nov. 4, 1964.

But even if 50 per cent of the voting age population was registered, Federal registration officials could be appointed in any state or district applying a discriminatory qualification test if 50 per cent of the voting age population had failed to vote in the general election of Nov. 4, 1964.

The latter provision would make the new law immediately applicable in seven states. They are Mississippi, where only 33 per cent of the voting age population actually voted on Nov. 4, 1964; Alabama, where 39 per cent voted; South Carolina, 38 per cent; Virginia, 41 per cent; Georgia, 43 per cent; Louisiana, 47 per cent; and Alaska, 49 per cent.

In contrast, the national average for voter participation in the general election of 1964 was just above 60 per cent. The highest participation was in Minnesota, where 77 per cent of the voting age population casts ballots in the Presidential election.

Alaska's low percentage is not generally considered due to racial discrimination. One official suggested today that it probably resulted from cold weather and hard traveling conditions in November. There is little chance that the Federal voting machinery will have to be applied in that state.

It could be applied elsewhere than in the six Southern states, however, if election districts within a state met the same conditions- a voter qualification test, and registration of voter participation under 50 per cent.

Certain elections districts in North Carolina, for instance meet these requirements.

On the other hand, such states as New York and Vermont may continue to apply their nondiscriminatory literacy tests. That is because more than 50 per cent of their populations register and vote and there is no pattern of discrimination against Negroes or any one else.

In practice, the proposed Federal registration procedure would work as follows:

If a Negro was denied the right to register in a state or an elections district where the stated conditions of discrimination existed, he could complain to the Attorney General or to Federal officials in the area.

If a sufficient number of such complaints were received, the Attorney General would request the Civil Service Commission to appoint Federal registration officials in that state or district. In most cases, these would be commission employees or other Federal officials, perhaps postmasters, who lived in the locality.

The Negro denied normal registration would visit this official and fill out a simple form, stating his age, residence and name. This would prove his literacy as well as his basic voting qualifications.

The Federal official would then cause the responsible state or local official to enter the Negro's name on the voting rolls. The law would provide that the Negro could pay at that time any state poll tax required of him, even though state law might have required such payment earlier.

State Requirements

State requirements as to age and length of residence would still be valid. If a Negro registering through the Federal machinery were challenged on these grounds, a hearing would be held with five days to settle the issue.

Hearing examiners would be appointed in the same manner as the Federal registration officials.

States could still refuse to register felons or those shown to be mentally unstable.

If on Election Day, state an local officials refused to permit voting by Negroes registered through the Federal process, or if in a community there had been pressures exerted to keep them from going to the polls, the Federal registration officials would complain to the United States Attorney for the area. He would take the matter into Federal Court.

The proposed legislation would make it mandatory for the court to impound the ballots for the voting district and to suspend their release until the judge was satisfied that all qualified voters had cast a ballot and had it counted.

A state like Mississippi could not evade this law by abolishing its literacy test. In that requirement, as in the insufficient percentages of registration or voting, the vital question is whether the test or the low percentages existed on Nov. 4, 1964.

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