In this eloquent speech to the full Congress, President Lyndon B. Johnson used the phrase "we shall overcome," borrowed from African American leaders struggling for equal rights.
The speech was made on Monday, March 15, 1965, a week after deadly racial violence had erupted in Selma, Alabama, as African Americans were attacked by police while preparing to march to Montgomery to protest voting rights discrimination.
That discrimination took the form of literacy, knowledge or character tests administered solely to African Americans to keep them from ever registering to vote.
Civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and over 500 supporters had planned to march from Selma to Montgomery to register African Americans to vote. The police violence that erupted resulted in the death of a King supporter, a white Unitarian-Universalist Minister from Boston named James J. Reeb.
A second attempt to march to Montgomery was also blocked by police. It took Federal intervention via the 'federalizing' of the Alabama National Guard and the addition of over 2,000 other guards to ensure protection and allow the march to begin.
On Sunday, March 21st, 1965, the march to Montgomery finally began with over 3,000 participants, under the glare of worldwide news coverage.
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 of them 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. Our mission is at once the oldest and the most basic of this country--to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man. In our time we have come to live with the moments of great crises. Our lives have been marked with debate about great issues, issues of war and peace, issues of prosperity and depression.
But rarely in any time does an issue lay bare the secret heart of America itself. Rarely are we met with a challenge, not to our growth or abundance, or our welfare or our security, but rather to the values and the purposes and the meaning of our beloved nation. The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such an issue. And should we defeat every enemy, and should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation. For, with a country as with a person, "what is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"