Why direct practice will always matter

Lyndon Johnson was no social worker.

But it is a speech of his, or rather a section of one, made on March 15, 1965, one week after the march in Selma, Alabama that drew the nation’s attention to the urgency of the struggle for racial justice, that, for me, best highlights why it is so critical that policymakers, in any profession, be rooted in the lives of those who will be most touched by the policies they create.

Towards the end of his speech outlining for Congress his vision for The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which remains, in 2010, an essential piece of civil rights legislation and one of the core victories of the African-American struggle for equality, he said:

“My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas, in a small Mexican-American school. Few of them could speak English, and I couldn’t speak much Spanish. 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. I often walked home late in the afternoon, after the classes were finished, wishing there was more that I could do. But all I knew was to teach them the little that I knew, hoping that it might help them against the hardships that lay ahead.

Somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child.

I never thought, then, in 1928, that I would be standing here, in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country.

But now I do have that chance–and I’ll let you in on a secret–I mean to use it.

And I hope that you will use it with me.”

We will not all become President, certainly, nor wield the kind of power that Lyndon Johnson did at his peak, but we can cultivate positions of power and authority in our pursuit of social justice, in the expectation that we will, too, someday have the chance to do great things on behalf of those who have touched our lives by allowing us to walk with them.

Failing to seek that power gives up that chance. And it’s inexcusable.

As is forgetting those faces once we’re in a position to do something to help them.

And, for all his many, many failings, that’s something Lyndon Johnson, the teacher and the President, can help us remember.

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