What Makes a Great Speech? LBJ’s “We Shall Overcome”

Christopher Witt —  March 15, 2014

What makes a great speech?

President Lyndon Johnson’s speech to Congress and to the American people 49 years ago today (March 15, 1965) is, by all standards, a great speech.

To understand its power, you have to know a bit of history of the events leading up to it.

The 15th Amendment guaranteed black Americans the right to vote. But Southern states had passed new constitutions, constitutional amendments, and laws from 1890 to 1910 making voter registration and voting more and more difficult. Most black voters, as well as many poor white ones, were disenfranchised.

On Sunday March 7, 1965, about six hundred people began a fifty-four mile march from Selma, Alabama to the state capitol in Montgomery.

They were demonstrating for African American voting rights and to commemorate the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, shot three weeks earlier by a state trooper while trying to protect his mother at a civil rights demonstration.

On the outskirts of Selma, after they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the marchers, in plain sight of photographers and journalists, were brutally assaulted by heavily armed state troopers and deputies.

That night, ABC News broadcast a 15-minute story that sickened viewers across the country, who witnessed for themselves the vicious brutality of the police.

The day became known as Blood Sunday.

One week later President Johnson delivered a speech, which has become known as his “We Shall Overcome” speech, urging congress to ensure the voting rights of black Americans.

The Voting Rights Act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on August 6, 1965, aimed to overcome legal barriers at the state and local levels that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote under the 15th Amendment (1870) to the Constitution of the United States. The act significantly widened the franchise and is considered among the most far-reaching pieces of civil rights legislation in U.S. history.

Johnson’s speech is a masterpiece.

What makes it even more remarkable is the fact that it was written in only 8 hours. (Read The Making Of LBJ’s Historic ‘We Shall Overcome’ Speech.)

Why is it a great speech? And what makes any great speech great?

1. A great speech is both timely and timeless.

People were still reeling one week later, sickened by the images and accounts that continued to surface. Their outrage and the longstanding injustice of the situation could no longer be ignored.Johnson spoke to the issue at hand at exactly the right moment. His speech was timely.

His speech was also timeless, “not affected by the passage of time or changes in fashion.” As state legislatures pass new laws in an attempt to restrict voting rights, LJB’s words are as relevant today as they were 49 years ago. They stand the test of time.

2. A great speech is righteous.

Speeches, good ones at least, advocate a moral vision. They denounce what is wrong, unjust, and unworthy of us, and call us to listen to what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

Johnson’s opening words, “I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy,” set the moral tone of his speech. He proclaimed, in no uncertain terms, that discrimination harmed not just those deprived of their rights, but all Americans.

3. A great speech is courageous.

LJB was an astute politician. He knew that his civil rights advocacy would cost his party, the Democrats, their support in the South. And yet he placed the needs of the disenfranchised and of the country above his own political needs.

Great speeches stake out a clear position, even if it involves sacrifice and risk for the speaker.

4. A great speech is eloquent.

Eloquence is the persuasive use of words. Eloquence isn’t just the clever fashioning of beautiful phrases. It builds a case — both logically and emotionally — to convince and persuade listeners.

LBJ’s speech is eloquent in both sense of the word. There are many phrases, sentence after sentence, that are memorable and quotable. And the logic of the speech as a whole builds from one argument to another to its climax: a call to action.

5. A great speech is effective.

The final, and most important, measure of a great speech is this: It accomplishes its purpose.

Within 5 months Congress had passed the legislation President Johnson had called for.

 

Those are five attributes of a great speech — timely and timeless, righteous, courageous, eloquent, effective — as I see them. What would you add?

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.