On Memorial Day 1963, Vice President Lyndon Johnson spoke on the hallowed grounds of Gettysburg. He was trying to lead his own party toward an appreciation for advocating the civil rights of Black Americans.
Here is an opportunity to move, to uplift an entire people from adversity. And Johnson took it.
He didn’t say, ‘Wait.’
He didn’t say, ‘Change is coming … in time.’
He said, ‘The moment is now.’
Looking at the grave markers on that battlefield, Johnson pressed that all who died there—and battlefields like it across the nation—are reaching out to our present moment, to continue the fight for which they died.
“The Negro today asks justice. We do not answer him—we do not answer those who lie beneath this soil—when we reply to the Negro by asking, ‘Patience.’”
—Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Memorial Day 1963
The freedom and justice that people fought and died for is disrespected when it is denied to any group of Americans. And it is not just freedom and justice as applied to race.
In his 1965 Voting Rights speech, President Johnson told us.
“The time of justice has now come. I tell you that I believe sincerely that no force can hold it back. 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,” Johnson said.
“For Negroes are not the only victims. How many white children have gone uneducated, how many white families have lived in stark poverty, how many white lives have been scarred by fear, because we have wasted our energy and our substance to maintain the barriers of hatred and terror?”
And so it is the same in our present moment.
In our present moment, the civil rights movement continues.
We speak of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights. Many among us fight to suppress people’s chance to marry and to raise a family. Many among us still think it’s okay to fire a lesbian or gay worker, deny a transgender person the right to serve in our armed forces.
We speak of immigrants wanting a fair chance at life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Many among us fight against their being here at all. Many among us want to deny them of the very jobs they’re willing to do but we don’t choose to do ourselves.
We speak of our low-income wage earners who want to work, who are willing to offer labor as their contribution to our communities. Many among us denounce them as freeloaders just wanting to squeeze more out of us. Many among us want to deny them of a standard minimum wage, calling them money-hungry siphons burdening our business owners.
We speak of the deaths: youth and young adults dead on the streets of Chicago—gangbangers taking the lives of gangbangers, gangbangers taking the lives of innocent bystanders, cops taking the lives of unarmed citizens, HIV/AIDS sufferers left to fend for themselves.
We speak of #BlackLivesMatter.
Many among us don’t see or refuse to see that the seeds of that plague is sowed by our inability to truly address poverty, ignorance, disease.
Many among us are fighting the call, that the moment to do something radical to bring about justice is now.
We are fighting the call because we are scared. We are scared to take a chance. We are scared to free ourselves of the bonds of tradition.
“So I say to all of you here, and to all in the nation tonight, that those who appeal to you to hold on to the past do so at the cost of denying you your future,” Johnson said. “These are the enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease. They are the enemies—and not our fellow man, not our neighbor. And these enemies … we shall overcome.”
We shall overcome, as Johnson said. But overcoming needs action. And the time to act is now.