Ordinarily, you turned to Lyndon B. Johnson to dislocate a congressman’s elbow and to get things done, not for oratory and inspiration. For that, you had Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy.
But I remembered a particularly moving speech that President Johnson gave at Texarkana to dedicate a memorial square to Kennedy in 1964 on approximately the first anniversary of his dedicating the Greers Ferry Dam at Heber Springs right before his assassination at Dallas. I wondered if it was as inspiring as I remembered it and thus appropriate to the current times. I thought it was and that I would share it.
First, a little context. Gov. Orval E. Faubus was still riding high for trying to stop the integration of Central High School at Little Rock in 1957 when he was to be President Kennedy’s host at the dam dedication in early October 1963. Thousands turned out to see the suntanned and exuberant young president, but Faubus started it on a sour note in his introduction by attacking Kennedy for introducing a civil rights bill that made segregation in public facilities illegal and made it unlawful to discriminate against people in employment, public accommodations and voting requirements based on their race, religion, color or national origin. Reading solemnly from his text, Faubus accused Kennedy of sponsoring “civil wrongs” in a bill masquerading as civil rights. He described the bill in ways that were simply not true, though it was the language of Southern demagogues of the time.
Kennedy graciously ignored the attack, thanked Faubus, praised every member of the Arkansas congressional delegation by name and talked about how the dam and lake would transform the economy of the region. (It did.)
The event would create some angst for the governor. He looked boorish, Kennedy gallant. Faubus’ old Socialist father, Sam, came down from Madison County to see his young hero and Faubus gave him his seat at the fairgrounds lunch next to Kennedy. Kennedy told the old man that a few days earlier he had received a letter from Sam’s daughter and Gov. Faubus’ sister, Bonnie Lou Salcido, praising his efforts to pass a civil rights bill and he asked Sam to tell her how much it meant to him. When the president was martyred at Dallas the next month, people recalled Faubus’ callous attempt to score political points with his segregationist base at Kennedy’s expense.
When Johnson went to Texarkana on Sept. 25, 1964, it was in the midst of an unusually bitter and divisive campaign. He had just pushed Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act, with a bipartisan vote. Immigration was a nasty issue filled with racial innuendoes, and he would soon pass a sweeping immigration bill that has flooded our country with Asian doctors and the Medicare and Medicaid acts — again with bipartisan votes.
Here’s Johnson, speaking at the spot where we first saw Kennedy when he made a short campaign speech at the state line in September 1960:
“In your lifetime and mine, great gains have been made in this land, the greatest gains ever made in any land at any time. And there is no time for us tonight to give those gains away or to allow them to be taken from us. But those gains will go, and they will be taken from us, if ever we allow any people to divide us. Because the ultimate test of moral fitness for men who seek a public trust is their devotion to perfection of our system and their devotion to justice in our society.
“All that we are, all that we ever hope to be, is placed in mortal jeopardy by those who would divide us, by those who would set class against class, and creed against creed, and religion against religion, and color against color, and section against section.
“Let us remind each of you tonight that here in Texarkana I stand astride the boundary line between the two great states. Only a few miles out yonder and a few miles behind me,” he said, waving his big right arm up the Red River toward Oklahoma and then his left one toward Louisiana, “two other great states join these two. Almost anywhere else in the world these lines would be marked by fences, or barriers, or walls — but not here in America.
“As it is among Americans, so it is between us and our neighbors.
“Only last week I stood on our border with the prime minister of Canada, far away from here. Only today, at noon, I stood on our border with the president of Mexico. On neither border are there fortifications or barbed wire fences or fears. And this is the way that Americans want to live — in the world and at home. And this is another reason why we must guard against those who would erect around our regions or our states prejudice and the barriers of hate or misunderstanding.
“My beloved friends, as I stand here before you tonight, looking into your faces and into your eyes, I face to the south. I speak words which were spoken long before when I say, “Abandon all these local animosities and make your sons Americans.”