The president spoke with passion and conviction in the immediate hours after the jury in Minneapolis found Derek Chauvin guilty on all three counts. The question is what, if any, action will follow, and what role this president will play in advancing the cause he embraced so fully on Tuesday.
Historical analogies are imprecise, but the role Lyndon B. Johnson played in advancing the Voting Rights Act in 1965 provides one model for this moment. This was in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, the historic civil rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where marchers were savagely beaten by police in an event that shocked the nation and stirred a president to act.
Eight days after the march, on March 15, 1965, Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress, calling for action to guarantee voting rights to all Americans. “At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom,” he said. “So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Ala.”
Johnson promised to send Congress voting rights legislation immediately and called on the leaders of both parties to pass it swiftly. He memorably ended the speech by invoking the words of the civil rights anthem, saying, “And we shall overcome.” Five months later he signed the Voting Rights Act into law. Few of Johnson’s speeches are remembered more than this one.
At the time, the nation was still absorbing and digesting the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964. Johnson also had an ambitious agenda planned for 1965 that included Medicare and Medicaid, education funding and other elements of the Great Society proposals, including voting rights.
Bloody Sunday brought voting rights to the forefront, and Johnson recognized the need to act. Some members of Congress advised against the joint session speech, but others endorsed the idea when Johnson raised it.
“Once this [Bloody Sunday] happened, he knew that he had to pivot with the time, and it absolutely made a difference,” said historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose husband, Richard Goodwin, wrote the speech for Johnson.
Goodwin said Wednesday that she saw obvious parallels between that moment in 1965 and this one, a combination of a movement on the outside pressuring for change and “the highest halls of power” on the inside responding.
Johnson had an obvious goal in 1965. Strong voting rights were not part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act; it was deferred business. The beatings on the bridge on March 7, 1965, gave him the impetus and the moral imperative to push Congress to act. It was in that way an obvious presidential response, and Johnson seized the moment.
What Biden faces is more difficult. There is not one single action or piece of legislation that fits the moment. Instead, there are many options. Biden did not offer any hint in his words on Tuesday what course he would favor.
Policing reforms are one choice and have been since Floyd was murdered last year. But partisan differences have stalled progress on that issue. There is legislation named after John Lewis, the late congressman, who was among those beaten on Bloody Sunday, a bill that would restore and strengthen the Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court invalidated one of the most important sections of the law in a 2013 decision.
There is also H.R. 1, the comprehensive voting and elections bill already approved by the House and now awaiting action in the Senate. There could be other ideas that will be advanced to address issues of inequality, racial justice and racism.
Like Johnson in 1965, Biden has a robust agenda for his first year in office. One piece of it already is law, the American Rescue Plan. A second piece is his jobs and infrastructure package. Another will be the companion proposal to address other issues. He has a border crisis as well to occupy his time and ambitions to deal more fully with climate change.
The Chauvin verdict brings racial justice to the forefront. Biden’s challenge will be to decide both what he thinks can be accomplished and how he works to shape public sentiment to create the conditions that bring about the changes he talked about on Tuesday. He can draw from Johnson’s presidency as he thinks about all this.
Less well remembered, perhaps, than Johnson’s voting rights speech was his historic commencement address at Howard University in June 1965. By then, the Voting Rights Act was on its way to passage. At Howard, Johnson spoke broadly about justice, freedom, opportunity — and inequality, laying the intellectual foundation for a continued commitment to civil rights. The words still resonate today.
“It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity,” Johnson said. “All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates . . . We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.”
Goodwin pointed to Abraham Lincoln’s memorable words about the power of public sentiment and the ability by leaders to shape it. “In this age, in this country, public sentiment is everything,” Lincoln said. “With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed. Whoever molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces judicial decisions.”
Goodwin cautioned that Biden ought not be judged by whether he had a specific plan in mind when he spoke on Tuesday. Those are decisions he must weigh and weigh carefully in the days and perhaps weeks ahead. Eventually, those who have been in the streets over the past year, and those who have been affected by Floyd’s murder and the demonstrations, will look to Biden and other elected officials to respond more concretely. But continuing to shape public sentiment will be part of the challenge.
“No matter what, the words matter,” Goodwin said. “If the words begin to mobilize more public sentiment, that gives you more possibility for doing something. You don’t have to judge whether the action follows right then. It’s part of creating that public sentiment.”
Next week, Biden will address a joint session of Congress, the first time he has done so as president. His focus has been on the coronavirus pandemic and the economic dislocations it has caused. But as Johnson said more than half a century ago, at times, history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point. So it was in Selma in 1965. So, perhaps, it was in Minneapolis last May 25 and again on Tuesday.