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In our country, we seem to revere only a few presidential speeches Washington 's Farewell Address, Lincoln 's Emancipation Proclamation, Franklin Delano Roosevelt 's First Inaugural, John F. Kennedy 's "Ask Not ", and a few others.

But I have to confess that, while I have written thousands of words about the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it has been many years since I actually listened to the words President Lyndon B. Johnson used to introduce this legislation.

I did that yesterday. Thanks to television 's last outpost of civility, C-SPAN, I watched transfixed as LBJ addressed a joint session of Congress.

Behind him was Vice President Hubert Humphrey seated next to House Speaker John McCormack. Before him were all the members of the Congress he loved so much, all the members of the Diplomatic Corps and the Supreme Court, and the whole Cabinet, including Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, the man who would ultimately share with the president the ignominious legacy of Vietnam.

"I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy, " he began.

He went on: "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.
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"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, " he said, bringing most of the audience, Republicans and Democrats, to their feet with the exception of Southern Democrats, who sat on their hands.

LBJ, more than almost anyone alive on that day, knew the political price he might have to pay. Because he knew the Congress better than anyone else.

Perhaps in purely rhetorical terms, LBJ 's speech wasn 't up to Lincoln, FDR or JFK. But in so many ways it was at least as consequential as any words ever uttered by an American president.

With the confidence of one speaking to friends, LBJ intoned:

"This bill will strike down restrictions to voting in all elections -- Federal, State, and local -- which have been used to deny Negroes the right to vote.
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"This bill will establish a simple, uniform standard which cannot be used, however ingenious the effort, to flout our Constitution.

"It will provide for citizens to be registered by officials of the United States Government if the State officials refuse to register them.

"It will eliminate tedious, unnecessary lawsuits which delay the right to vote. Finally, this legislation will ensure that properly registered individuals are not prohibited from voting. "

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William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and elsewhere for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration and now (more...)

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