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Government, Politics & Issues

Commentary: Vice President Johnson led in defining civil rights as a moral issue

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 30, 2013: The world has little noted nor long remembered what Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson said at Gettysburg 50 years ago today but Johnson’s address at that hallowed spot on May 30, 1963, provided an important link in the battle for civil rights one half century ago.

Spring 1963 brought America’s shameful record on civil rights into bold relief. Demonstrations in Birmingham, Ala., had presented images broadcast around the world of police brutality against blacks protesting Jim Crow practices. The pictures of Bull Connor’s force turning powerful hoses, police dogs and sticks on African-Americans peacefully demonstrating against segregation remain today among the enduring images of the 1960s.

Johnson had largely been excluded from the inner circles of the Kennedy administration, which were considering what, if anything, to do about civil rights. That changed after he used an invitation to be the Memorial Day speaker at Gettysburg to discuss race in America.

In a stirring eight minute speech, Johnson recast civil rights as a moral imperative. “The Negro today asks justice,” Johnson declared, and the response could no longer be “patience.” America would forfeit its claim to greatness unless whites and blacks made common cause to achieve equal opportunity for African Americans.

“The solution is in our hands,” Johnson, declared. “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.”

Johnson challenged civil rights advocates to persevere in using the law as an instrument to achieve racial justice. But he acknowledged that the nation had failed itself “by not using the law to gain sooner the ends of justice which law alone serves.”

The next month President John F. Kennedy followed Johnson’s lead in making civil rights a moral issue. “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution,” Kennedy told the nation on June 11, 1963. The heirs of the slaves were not “free from social and economic oppression,” Kennedy said; and until they were, America would not fulfill its promise. Kennedy denounced legal barriers that discriminated against blacks but he also attacked conditions that made the life prospects of African Americans inferior to the opportunities accorded whites.

Kennedy said: “The Negro baby born in America today, regardless of the section of the Nation in which he is born, has about one-half as much chance of completing high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day, one-third as much chance of completing college, one-third as much chance of becoming a professional man, twice as much chance of becoming unemployed, about one-seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year, a life expectancy which is seven years shorter, and the prospects of earning only half as much.”

After receiving Johnson’s advice, Kennedy sent Congress civil rights legislation. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1967, then President Johnson appointed the first African-American to the Supreme Court, civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall. Courts, for more than three decades, recognized that race could sometimes be fairly used as a factor to remedy the effects of past discrimination and to create a society in which opportunity was open to all.

Surely America has made progress in the half century since Johnson spoke at Gettysburg. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the percentage of blacks with high school educations has grown from 31 percent in 1970 to 84 percent in 2010, with college degrees from 4 percent in 1970 to 20 percent 40 years later. Yet the percentage of blacks with college degrees lags behind the numbers for whites (20 percent to 30 percent).

Whereas blacks comprise 12.5 percent of the population, the Census Bureau reports that in 2009 blacks earned only 6.5 percent of doctoral degrees and 7 percent of first professional degrees.  The New York Times reports that only about 1 percent of Fortune 500 companies have black chief executives, and only about 3 percent of senior executive positions are held by blacks at major companies. The Pew Center on the States reports that whereas less than 1 percent of white men are incarcerated, almost 7 percent of black men, and 11 percent of black men between ages 20 and 34, are.

These discrepancies surely trace to our nation’s sorry history regarding race, not simply slavery and Jim Crow but to other, sometimes subtle, practices that continue to depress opportunities for blacks and other minorities.  Yet the public seems increasingly indifferent to the need for programs to help create opportunity and the court seems inclined to retreat from even the limited race-conscious programs it approved a decade ago.

America will neither fulfill its ideals nor fully benefit from its available talent until opportunity is not correlated to race.

Joel K. Goldstein is the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law at Saint Louis University School of Law where he teaches and writes about constitutional law.

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