We Shall Overcome
March 15, 1965
Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, Members of the Congress: I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny
I urge every member of both parties, Americans of all
religions and of all colors, from every section of this
country, to join me in that cause.
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. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it
was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in
There, long-suffering men and women peacefully protested
the denial of their rights as Americans. Many were brutally
assaulted. One good man, a man of God, was killed.
There is no cause for pride in what has happened in Selma.
There is no cause for self-satisfaction in the long denial
of equal rights of millions of Americans. But there is
cause for hope and for faith in our democracy in what is
happening here tonight.
For the cries of pain and the hymns and protests of oppressed
people have summoned into convocation all the majesty of
this great Government - the Government of the greatest
Nation on earth.
Our mission is at once the oldest and the most basic of
this country: to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man.
In our time we have come to live with moments of great
crisis. Our lives have been marked with debate about great
issues; issues of war and peace, issues of prosperity and
depression. But rarely in any time does an issue lay bare
the secret heart of America itself.
Rarely are we met with a challenge, not to our growth
or abundance, our welfare or our security, but rather to
the values and the purposes and the meaning of our beloved
The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such
an issue. And should we defeat every enemy, should we double
our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal
to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and
as a nation.
For with a country as
with a person, "What is a man
profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his
There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem.
There is no Northern problem. There is only an American
problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans-not as
Democrats or Republicans-we are met here as Americans to
solve that problem.
This was the first nation
in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose.
The great phrases of that purpose still sound in every
American heart, North and South: "All men are created equal" - "government
by consent of the governed"-"give me liberty
or give me death." Well, those are not just clever
words, or those are not just empty theories. In their name
Americans have fought and died for two centuries, and tonight
around the world they stand there as guardians of our liberty,
risking their lives.
Those words are a promise to every citizen that he shall
share in the dignity of man. This dignity cannot be found
in a man's possessions; it cannot be found in his power,
or in his position. It really rests on his right to be
treated as a man equal in opportunity to all others. It
says that he shall share in freedom, he shall choose his
leaders, educate his children, and provide for his family
according to his ability and his merits as a human being.
To apply any other test - to deny a man his hopes because
of his color or race, his religion or the place of his
birth - is not only to do injustice, it is to deny America
and to dishonor the dead who gave their lives for American
Our fathers believed that if this noble view of the rights
of man was to flourish, it must be rooted in democracy.
The most basic right of all was the right to choose your
own leaders. The history of this country, in large measure,
is the history of the expansion of that right to all of
Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex and
most difficult. But about this there can and should be
no argument. Every American citizen must have an equal
right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the
denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more
heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.
Yet the harsh Act is that in many places in this country
men and women are kept from voting simply because they
Every device of which human ingenuity is capable has been
used to deny this right. The Negro citizen may go to register
only to be told that the day is wrong, or the hour is late,
or the official in charge is absent And if he persists,
and if he manages to present himself to the registrar,
he may be disqualified because he did not spell out his
middle name or because he abbreviated a word on the application.
And if he manages to fill out an application he is given
a test. The registrar is the sole judge of whether he passes
this test. He may be asked to recite the entire Constitution,
or explain the most complex provisions of State law. And
even a college degree cannot be used to prove that he can
read and write.
For the fact is that the only way to pass these barriers
is to show a white skin. Experience has clearly shown that
the existing process of law cannot overcome systematic
and ingenious discrimination. No law that we now have on
the books- and I have helped to put three of them there
- can ensure the right to vote when local officials are
determined to deny it.
In such a case our duty must be clear to all of us. The
Constitution says that no person shall be kept from voting
because of his race or his color. We have all sworn an
oath before God to support and to defend that Constitution.
We must now act in obedience to that oath.
Wednesday I will send to Congress a law designed to eliminate
illegal barriers to the right to vote.
The broad principles of that bill will be in the hands
of the Democratic and Republican leaders to morrow. After
they have reviewed it, it will come here formally as a
bill. I am grateful for this opportunity to come here tonight
at the invitation of the leadership to reason with my friends,
to give them my views, and to visit with my former colleagues.
I have had prepared a more comprehensive analysis of the
legislation which I had intended to transmit to the clerk
tomorrow but which I will submit to the clerks tonight.
But I want to really discuss with you now briefly the main
proposals of this legislation.
This bill will strike down restrictions to voting in all
elections - Federal, State, and local - which have been
used to deny Negroes the right to vote.
This bill will establish a simple, uniform standard which
cannot be used, however ingenious the effort, to flout
It will provide for citizens to be registered by officials
of the United States Government if the State officials
refuse to register them.
It will eliminate tedious, unnecessary lawsuits which
delay the right to vote. Finally, this legislation will
ensure that properly registered individuals are not prohibited
I will welcome the suggestions from all of the Members
of Congress - I have no doubt that I will get some - on
ways and means to strengthen this law and to make it effective.
But experience has plainly shown that this is the only
path to carry out the command of the Constitution.
To those who seek to avoid action by their National Government
in their own communities; who want to and who seek to maintain
purely local control over elections, the answer is simple:
Open your polling places to all your people.
Allow men and women to register and vote whatever the
color of their skin.
Extend the rights of citizenship to every citizen of this
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
in this country.
There is no issue of States rights or national rights.
There is only the struggle for human rights.
I have not the slightest doubt what will be your answer.
The last time a President sent a civil rights bill to
the Congress it contained a provision to protect voting
rights in Federal elections. That civil rights bill was
passed after 8 long months of debate. And when that bill
came to my desk from the Congress for my signature, the
heart of the voting provision had been eliminated. This
time, on this issue, there must be no delay, no hesitation
and no compromise with our purpose.
We cannot, we must not, refuse to protect the right of
every American to vote in every election that he may desire
to participate in. And we ought not and we cannot and we
must not wait another 8 months before we get a bill. We
have already waited a hundred years and more, and the time
for waiting is gone. So I ask you to join me in working
long hours - nights and weekends, if necessary - to pass
this bill. And I don't make that request lightly. For from
the window where I sit with the problems of our country
I recognize that outside this chamber is the outraged conscience
of a nation, the grave concern of many nations, and the
harsh judgment of history on our acts.
But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be
over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement
which reaches into every section and State of America.
It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves
the full blessings of American life.
Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just
Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome
the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.
And we shall overcome.
As a man whose roots go deeply into Southern soil l know
how agonizing racial feelings are. I know how difficult
it is to reshape the attitudes and the structure of our
But a century has passed, more than a hundred years, since
the Negro was freed.
And he is not fully free tonight.
It was more than a hundred years ago that Abraham Lincoln,
a great President of another party, signed the Emancipation
Proclamation, but emancipation is a proclamation and not
A century has passed, more than a hundred years, since
equality was promised.
And yet the Negro is not equal.
A century has passed since the day of promise.
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. 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
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. This
great, rich, restless country can offer opportunity and
education and hope to all: black and white, North and South,
sharecropper and city dweller. These are the enemies: poverty,
ignorance, disease. They are the enemies and not our fellow
man, not our neighbor. And these enemies too, poverty,
disease and ignorance, we shall overcome.
Now let none of us in any sections look with prideful
righteousness on the troubles in another section, or on
the problems of our neighbors. There is really no part
of America where the promise of equality has been fully
kept. In Buffalo as well as in Birmingham, in Philadelphia
as well as in Selma, Americans are struggling for the fruits
This is one Nation. What happens in Selma or in Cincinnati
is a matter of legitimate concern to every American. But
let each of us look within our own hearts and our own communities,
and let each of us put our shoulder to the wheel to root
out injustice wherever it exists.
As we meet here in this peaceful, historic chamber tonight,
men from the South, some of whom were at Iwo Jima, men
from the North who have carried Old Glory to far corners
of the world and brought it back without a stain on it,
men from the East and from the West, are all fighting together
without regard to religion, or color, or region, in Vietnam.
Men from every region fought for us across the world 20
And in these common dangers and these common sacrifices
the South made its contribution of honor and gallantry
no less than any other region of the Great Republic - and
in some instances, a great many of them, more.
And I have not the slightest doubt that good men from
everywhere in this country, from the Great Lakes to the
Gulf of Mexico, from the Golden Gate to the harbors along
the Atlantic, will rally together now in this cause to
vindicate the freedom of all Americans. For all of us owe
this duty; and I believe that all of us will respond to
Your President makes that request of every American.
The real hero of this struggle is the American Negro.
His actions and protests, his courage to risk safety and
even to risk his life, have awakened the conscience of
this Nation. His demonstrations have been designed to call
attention to injustice, designed to provoke change, designed
to stir reform.
He has called upon us to make good the promise of America.
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.
For at the real heart of battle for equality is a deep
seated belief in the democratic process. Equality depends
not on the force of arms or tear gas but upon the force
of moral right; not on recourse to violence but on respect
for law and order.
There have been many pressures upon your President and
there will be others as the days come and go. But I pledge
you tonight that we intend to fight this battle where it
should be fought in the courts, and in the Congress, and
in the hearts of men.
We must preserve the right of free speech and the right
of free assembly. But the right of free speech does not
carry with it, as has been said, the right to holler fire
in a crowded theater. We must preserve the right to free
assembly, but free assembly does not carry with it the
right to block public thoroughfares to traffic.
We do have a right to protest, and a right to march under
conditions that do not infringe the constitutional rights
of our neighbors. And I intend to protect all those rights
as long as I am permitted to serve in this office.
We will guard against violence, knowing it strikes from
our hands the very weapons which we seek - progress.
In Selma as elsewhere we seek and pray for peace. We seek
order. We seek unity. But we will not accept the peace
of stifled rights, or the order imposed by fear, or the
unity that stifles protest. For peace cannot be purchased
at the cost of liberty.
In Selma tonight, as in every - and we had a good day
there - as in every city, we are working for just and peaceful
settlement We must all remember that after this speech
I am making tonight, after the police and the FBI and the
Marshals have all gone, and after you have promptly passed
this bill, the people of Selma and the other cities of
the Nation must still live and work together. And when
the attention of the Nation has gone elsewhere they must
try to heal the wounds and to build a new community.
This cannot be easily done on a battleground of violence,
as the history of the South itself shows. It is in recognition
of this that men of both races have shown such an outstandingly
impressive responsibility in recent days - last Tuesday,
The bill that I am presenting to you will be known as
a civil rights bill. But, in a larger sense, most of the
program I am recommending is a civil rights program. Its
object is to open the city of hope to all people of all
Because all Americans just must have the right to vote.
And we are going to give them that right.
All Americans must have the privileges of citizenship
regardless of race. And they are going to have those privileges
of citizenship regardless of race.
But I would like to caution you and remind you that to
exercise these privileges takes much more than just legal
right. It requires a trained mind and a healthy body.
It requires a decent home, and the chance to find a job,
and the opportunity to escape from the clutches of poverty.
Of course, people cannot contribute to the Nation if they
are never taught to read or write, if their bodies are
stunted from hunger, if their sickness goes untended, if
their life is spent in hopeless poverty just drawing a
So we want to open the gates to opportunity. But we are
also going to give all our people black and white, the
help that they need to walk through those Rates.
My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla,
Tex., in a small Mexican-American school. Few of them could
speak English, and I couldn't speak much Spanish. My students
were poor and they often came to class without breakfast,
hungry. They knew even in their youth the pain of prejudice.
They never seemed to know why people disliked them. But
they knew it was so, because I saw it in their eyes. I
often walked home late in the afternoon, after the classes
were finished, wishing there was more that I could do.
But all I knew was to teach them the little that I knew,
hoping that it might help them against the hardships that
Somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do
when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child.
I never thought then, in 1928, that I would be standing
here in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest
dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and
daughters of those students and to help people like them
all over this country.
But now I do have that chance - and I'll let you in on
a secret - I mean to use it.
And I hope that you will use it with me.
This is the richest and most powerful country which ever
occupied the globe.
The might of past empires is little compared to ours.
But I do not want to be the President who built empires,
or sought grandeur, or extended dominion.
I want to be the President who educated young children
to the wonders of their world. I want to be the President
who helped to feed the hungry and to prepare them to be
taxpayers instead of taxeaters.
I want to be the President who helped the poor to find
their own way and who protected the right of every citizen
to vote in every election.
I want to be the President who helped to end hatred among
his fellow men and who promoted love among the people of
all races and all regions and all parties.
I want to be the President who helped to end war among
the brothers of this earth.
And so at the request of your beloved Speaker and the
Senator from Montana; the majority leader, the Senator
from Illinois; the minority leader, Mr. McCulloch, and
other Members of both parties, I came here tonight - not
as President Roosevelt came down one time in person to
veto a bonus hill not as President Truman came down one
time to urge the passage of a railroad bill - but I came
down here to ask you to share this task with me and to
share it with the people that we both work for. I want
this to be the Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike,
which did all these things for all these people.
Beyond this great chamber, out yonder in 50 States, are
the people that we serve.
Who can tell what deep and unspoken hopes are in their
hearts tonight as they sit there and listen. We all can
guess, from our own lives, how difficult they often find
their own pursuit of happiness, how many problems each
little family has. They look most of all to themselves
for their futures. But I think that they also look to each
Above the pyramid on
the great seal of the United States it says-in Latin
- "God has favored our undertaking."
God will not favor everything that we do. It is rather
our duty to divine His will. But I cannot help bee believing
that He truly understands and that He really favors the
undertaking that we begin here tonight.