“Lyndon had been quite sick the night before and up most of the night,” Lady Bird remembered. “The doctor insisted that he absolutely, positively could not go.” Nevertheless, wearing “a dark-blue presidential suit” and “flawlessly polished oxfords,” he headed out over the icy roads on the 70-mile trek to Austin. Though he had given up driving in recent months, he became so agitated by the driver’s slow pace that he took the wheel himself.
Those who watched the former President ascend the steps to the stage knew that determination alone drove him. He struggled noticeably to reach the lectern. The pains in his chest were such that he paused to place a nitroglycerine tablet in his mouth. If this effort was to cost him his life, so be it. He spoke haltingly, acknowledging that he no longer spoke in public “very often” or for “very long,” but, he emphasized, there were now things that he wanted to say.
“Of all the records that are housed in this library, 31 million papers over a 40-year period of public life,” he began, the record relating to civil rights “holds the most of myself within it, and holds for me the most intimate meanings.” While admitting that civil rights had not always been his priority, he had come to believe that “the essence of government” lay in ensuring “the dignity and innate integrity of life for every individual”—“regardless of color, creed, ancestry, sex, or age.”
Continuing, Johnson insisted, “I don’t want this symposium to come here and spend two days talking about what we have done; the progress has been much too small. We haven’t done nearly enough. I’m kind of ashamed of myself that I had six years and couldn’t do more than I did.”
The plight of being “Black in a White society,” he argued, remained the chief unaddressed problem of our nation. “Until we address unequal history, we cannot overcome unequal opportunity.” Until blacks “stand on level and equal ground,” we cannot rest. It must be our goal “to assure that all Americans play by the same rules and all Americans play against the same odds.”
“And if our efforts continue,” he concluded, “and if our will is strong, and if our hearts are right, and if courage remains our constant companion, then, my fellow Americans, I am confident we shall overcome.”
Five weeks after this address, Johnson suffered a fatal heart attack. The man who needed to be surrounded by people all his life was alone. At 3:50 p.m., he called the ranch switchboard for the Secret Service. By the time they reached his bedroom, Lyndon Johnson was dead. As he had long foretold, he was 64-years-old. Three days later, he was buried in the family cemetery, in the sheltering shade of the massive oak trees.
This keynote address was Lyndon Johnson’s last public statement. By going to the symposium, Lady Bird later said, “he knew what he was spending, and had a right to decide how to spend it.” The choice he made that day represented his hope that history would recall the time when he had been willing to risk everything for civil rights, to push in all the chips, the entire capital of his presidency. “If I am ever to be remembered,” Johnson told me, “it will be for civil rights.”
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