Yet Again, the Power of Bearing Witness

Our colleague Andy McMahon recently found and shared this clip of President Lyndon Johnson 50 years ago this month speaking of hunger in the classroom during his famous March 15, 1965 speech to a joint session of Congress on the Voting Rights Act. @ http://www.c-span.org/video/?c4531247/lbj-saw-hunger-classroom That speech came just a week after the infamous violence in Selma, Alabama. In it Johnson adopted the anthem of the civil rights movement and proclaimed “we shall overcome”.  Passage of the Voting Rights bill followed five months later.

            Near the end of his remarks, Johnson said: “My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas, in a small Mexican-American school…. My students were poor and they often came to class without breakfast, hungry. 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….Somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child.”

            “I saw it in their eyes.”  When else have you heard a U.S. president speak this way? It’s an all too rare example of how the act of bearing witness shapes a leader’s character, fuels their ambition, and ultimately impacts policy that changes the world. Whatever one thinks of President Johnson, few disagree that his force of personality made him effective as a legislator and later as a President getting legislation enacted into law.  Part of that personality was forged by being in a position to see firsthand how others lived, and to let himself feel something about it.

            “I saw it in their eyes.” This crucial element of leadership too often goes missing in our politics today. In its place we have “I saw it in the public opinion polls” or “I saw it on cable news”.  But it’s not coincidental that LBJ declared war on poverty, or that he was the last president to elevate the issue so high on the national agenda. He was a consummate politician but what he’d seen and felt clearly did not, could not, dissipate even decades later.  Just the opposite. It remained vivid enough to share with 70 million Americans who watched that prime time broadcast and the U.S. government assembled in its entirety under the Capitol dome.

            “I saw it in their eyes.”  To bear witness in this way, to enable others to do so, is not just a task for politicians and elected officials. It also remains the most solemn and powerful of our many responsibilities at Share Our Strength and Community Wealth Partners.  (Share Our Strength’s most recent report on Hunger in Our Schools can be found @ http://www.hungerinourschools.org/ )

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