17 March 65 : US food and civil rights history being made : Cincinnati, USA

Wednesday 17th March 1965

Dear Mum, Dad, Carol, Nigel and Kipp,

Cincinnati is a very nice place to be. Prices are considerably cheaper out here and we can eat quite lavish meals for quite a modest price. Also the food is much nicer.

Quite honestly I haven’t really enjoyed eating a great deal since I have been in America, as so much of the food is frozen, pre-cooked, dessicated, and everything else they do to it, and the result is usually pretty tasteless.

However out here in the Midwest the food is more home cooked and consequently far more tasty, and I am enjoying my meals far more as a result.

The weather is very good, and when the sun is out its very warm. Yesterday the temperature was 59 degrees, although today has been awful with continuous rain.

We are working with some very nice people who are ten times more friendly than in the east. We are quite relieved to hear that there is very little crime or corruption here in this city, which makes quite a refreshing change.

When we turned up for work on Monday morning (having driven nearly 1,000 miles) we were told we were not expected, which was a bit shattering, and our boss hasn’t appeared yet so the result is we have had a quiet and easy week.

We are planning to knock off early on Friday and drive up to Detroit and cross into Canada and drive along the Canadian side of the lake to Niagara Falls, and then back into America via the Niagara Bridge. It’s a very long journey but it should be well worth it. I hope so anyway.

We have a new system. With the company car, we get paid 3 cents per mile, so by purchasing the cheapest petrol we can make a profit of one cent for every mile. Last weekend driving here we made a profit of $10, which will pay for our trip this weekend.

The weekend afterwards we plan to go south and see some of the terrible poverty which we are told exists south of here. We have seen so much luxury here we can’t believe that people really do live in such poverty as we have been led to believe.

 

Lyndon B Johnson giving his voting rights address to Congress
Lyndon B Johnson giving his voting rights address to Congress

 

On Monday night we saw something very historic happening. Due to the recent racial riots in this country, President Johnson called a special evening session of Congress in the Capitol to plea for the passing of a new bill to give Negroes equal rights.

It was televised live, and I should imagine nearly everyone tuned in. It was a very rare happening, and it is only done for very serious national reasons. The President spoke for an hour almost, and it was a very simple and moving speech. I am sure you will have seen parts of it on TV, but to see it complete and live was quite something.

He described the many ways which are used to prevent Negroes from voting.

They are told it’s the wrong day, the wrong place, the wrong time, or are threatened and if finally they do managed to get inside they are told to recite the entire constitution, which even the President couldn’t do.

The speech was frequently interrupted by applause, and often the entire meeting rose to their feet and applauded for minutes on end.

I am sure we saw history being made.

To be continued… 

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You can watch president Lyndon B Johnson’s address to Congress on Voting Rights HERE – and Tony was correct, they were watching history being made.

The New York Times recently ran an article entitled ‘The speech that defined the fight for voting rights‘ while USA Today called LBJ’s address ‘one of the great presidential speeches’, noting his use of the iconic line ‘we shall overcome’ in his rousing call to arms against racism in America. 

LBJ speech to congress march 65

To read his beautiful words and powerful message, here is the full transcript. And here are some of my favourite excerpts: 

I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy.

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 Selma, Alabama.

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.

….

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.

….

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 accrue for themselves the full blessings of American life.

Their cause must be our cause too. Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s 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, I know how agonizing racial feelings are. I know how difficult it is to reshape the attitudes and the structure of our society. But a century has passed–more than 100 years–since the Negro was freed.

And he is not fully free tonight.

It was more than 100 years ago that Abraham Lincoln–a great President of another party- -signed the Emancipation Proclamation. But emancipation is a proclamation and not a fact.

A century has passed since the day of promise, and the promise is unkept. The time of justice has now come, and 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.

….

These are the enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease. They are our enemies, 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 section look with prideful righteousness on the troubles in another section or the problems of our neighbors.

The real hero of this struggle is the American Negro. His actions and protest, 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?

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 welfare check.

So we want to open the gate to opportunity. But we’re also going to give all our people, black and white the help that they need to walk through those gates.

My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas, in a small Mexican- American school. Few of them could speak English, and I couldn’t speak Spanish.

My students were poor and they often came to class without breakfast and hungry. And 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 lay ahead.

And 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.

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