Reconsidering President Johnson on Memorial Day

When we arrived in Wilcox County, Alabama in June 1965 to join a team of local leaders, SCLC and SNCC workers in a massive voter registration drive, I had a very low opinion of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Our SCOPE project, planned by Hosea Williams of SCLC, had counted on the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act to protect us and the community while we walked together to the courthouse to register the 79% disenfranchised voters of the county. All over the South, similar teams of civil rights workers and local leaders were facing the same challenge. My opinion was that President Johnson and Congress were dragging their feet, athough my new boyfriend Bob told me that he saw Johnson on television pushing for the proposed Act in May.  He and Major Johns, one of our project directors, watched the speech together at Rev & Mrs Frank Smith’s home in Lower Peachtree. Bob told me, “I can’t believe that cracker actually said We shall overcome!” So I had to reconsider. Neither of us were aware that Johnson had been pushing for civil rights legislation for two years before we noticed him. This article from the Sunday NY Times is well worth reading in its entirety. [See link below]

L.B.J.’s Gettysburg Address

Excerpted from an article By DAVID M. SHRIBMAN

New York Times – Analysis News

MAY 24, 2013

Fifty years ago, on Memorial Day in 1963, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson gave a speech in Gettysburg, Pa., that foreshadowed profound changes that would be achieved in only 13 months and that mark us still.

“One hundred years ago, the slave was freed,” Johnson said at the cemetery in a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. “One hundred years later, the Negro remains in bondage to the color of his skin.”

With those two sentences, Johnson accomplished two things. He answered King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” And he signaled where the later Johnson administration might lead, which was to the legislation now known as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Six months later, after Kennedy was assassinated, Johnson became president and vowed to press ahead on civil rights, saying that was what the presidency was for — even though he was a Southern Democrat and many of his Congressional allies were devout segregationists.

Johnson’s speech directly addressed King: “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.’ It is empty to plead that the solution to the dilemmas of the present rests on the hands of the clock.”…The speech was given on Memorial Day, May 30, 1963, not on the anniversary of a battle now regarded as a turning point in the Civil War. Johnson’s visit to Gettysburg was a helicopter trip that took but 2 hours and 34 minutes, start to finish, but it was indicative of the bigger journey he would take as president.

Pres Johnson Memorial Day 1963

Pres Johnson Memorial Day 1963

The speech was given on Memorial Day, May 30, 1963, not on the anniversary of a battle now regarded as a turning point in the Civil War. Johnson’s visit to Gettysburg was a helicopter trip that took but 2 hours and 34 minutes, start to finish, but it was indicative of the bigger journey he would take as president.

For full text and audio recording: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/26/sunday-review/at-gettysburg-johnson-marked-memorial-day-and-the-future.html?hpw

Photo copyright Batteson/Corbis

Rev Frank & Mrs Etta Pearl Smith Family

Smith Family 1950
Children L-R Geraldine, Carolyn, Frank Milton, and Jesse

During the Wilcox County AL SCOPE-SCLC voter registration drive of summer 1965, my boyfriend, Bob (Luke) Block often stayed with the Rev & Mrs. Frank Smith family in Lower Peachtree. Jesse Smith, then a sixteen year old student leader recalls: “I remember Bob real well. We were sort of like brothers then. One day I was cutting Larry’s hair and Bob asked me to cut his. He had great faith in me; I had never cut white hair before, but I went ahead. It looked real bad on the sides. He looked at it in the mirror for a long while and then he said,”It’ll grow back.”

Bob (Luke) Block 1965

“I admired Bob for his ‘never give up’ attitude.  Somewhere in Pine Hill he asked this man was he a registered voter. He said, ‘Son, that ain’t none of your business.’ We made a U turn – no use talking to him- but we kept on goin.  In Lower Peachtree we had been trying to get the people to go over to sign up for commodities. Bob got Mr. Campbell and his wife to sign up after they wouldn’t listen to me or other black students. They needed that food for their family. After Mr. Campbell signed up, a bunch of other folks went over and got signed up. That was a big help. One night Daddy wrote out the complaints of the students at the high school: No running water, no library, gym or science lab. The student body signed it. Someone from the Board of Education came and we gave the letter to him.” – Rev Jesse Smith, Montgomery AL interview with Maria Gitin June 8, 2009

Rev Frank Smith was fired from his teaching position at Pine Apple High School immediately upon passage of the Voting Rights Act, August of 1965. The official reason provided by the Superintendent of Schools, as was the case with all of the activist teacher terminations, was low attendance in Smith’s classes. The real reason he was fired was because he had allowed white civil rights workers to stay at his home, SNCC and SCLC to meet at his church and because his children were active in the Movement. It took fifteen years of legal filing, but in 1980 Smith won a back pay settlement and was elected to the same Wilcox County Board of Education that terminated him — victorious at last.

Carolyn Smith Taylor represents the Smith Family
2010 Selma Jubilee

The Smith family, Frank Smith Jr, (may he rest in blessed memory), Geraldine Gwendolyn Smith, Carolyn Smith Taylor, Jesse Smith and Larry Smith keep their parents’ memory alive by living up to their ideals.