The recent events in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., where grand juries refused to indict white police officers in the deaths of unarmed African-American men, depress me just as they depress the nation. As I’ve followed the news these past weeks, and having recently celebrated my 83rd birthday, my mind returns to a very different time and circumstance — the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when racial issues were at the forefront of our consciousness and when our country was moving in a progressive direction.
In March of 1965, after the bloody confrontation in Selma, Ala., I was privileged to draft President Lyndon Johnson’s speech to a joint session of Congress, calling for the passage of a voting rights bill as an absolute condition “to overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.’’
“There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem or Northern problem,’’ the president declared. “There is only an American problem.’’
It was clear that the new law guaranteeing every American the right to vote was neither the be-all nor the end-all, but rather, the necessary prelude for social justice. It was also clear that to fulfill these rights, we had to launch a frontal assault upon the denial of economic and social opportunity. As Johnson said to me about voting rights, “It’s only the tail on the pig. We ought to be going for the whole hog.”
In the weeks that followed, Johnson gave me greater freedom to explore this more complex problem — the idea that legal rights without opportunity were hollow deceptions. “We’ve got the biggest pulpit in the world up here,” he said, “and we ought to use it to do a little preaching.” He chose a commencement address at Howard University that June as his pulpit.
“In far too many ways, American Negroes have been another nation, deprived of freedom, crippled by hatred, the doors of opportunity closed to hope,” he began. “Men and women of all races are born with the same range of abilities. But ability is stretched or stunted by the family that you live with, and the neighborhood you live in — by the school you go to and the poverty or the richness of your surroundings. It is the product of a hundred unseen forces playing upon the little infant, the child, and finally the man.” At the core of the American dream, he concluded, was the idea that “each could become whatever his qualities of mind and spirit would permit – to strive, to seek, and, if he could, to find his happiness.”
The Great Society promised a sweeping approach, a war on poverty and racial injustice linking the troubles of the inner city to inequality and education, family structure, slum housing, and decaying neighborhoods. If some of the rhetoric of the Great Society seems grandiose, it was certainly authentic, profoundly felt and believed.
Yet before the end of the ’60s that comprehensive vision had fragmented and shattered. A commission established by the White House to fathom the causes of urban violence warned of the danger that America was moving toward two societies — one black, one white; separate and unequal.
We have, of course, seen great improvements since the ’60s. The Civil Rights Act is a half-century old, voting rights are guaranteed to millions of African-Americans, and Barack Obama is president of the United States. Yet, the situation LBJ addressed at Howard University — the problems of the inner city, of an uneven playing field, of a discrepancy of income and opportunity — remain the root of our current predicament.
In the wake of our recent hellish incidents, Obama has pledged to address the “simmering distrust” between police officials and members of minority communities. Panel discussions in the media have focused on how law enforcement officials can be outfitted with body cameras to discern who did what when, on ways to diminish racial profiling, on setting tighter controls on the distribution of military-style weapons to police. But these piecemeal solutions are a far cry from the war we had once envisioned to suture the racial divide in America. After a few victorious opening skirmishes, that war on poverty and racial injustice was cannibalized by the war in Vietnam.
May our present anger and fear beget a heartening protest that will truly go viral, one that spreads beyond the next news cycle to kindle fundamental dialogue in families, churches, communities, colleges; to foment a long overdue and enduring protest for social and economic justice as crucial to the white population as to the black and minority populations. If I were young, like the protesters in the streets, this is the fight I would wage.
Richard N. Goodwin was special assistant to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. His memoir, “Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties,’’ was recently re-released. His website is RichardNGoodwin.com.