Classroom Activities

  1. Listen to or watch President Johnson’s speech (in part or in whole), following one of the links from the on-line resources section of this unit. Does hearing or viewing the address change your impression of the message? If so, in what way? How important is Johnson’s delivery?
  2. President Johnson’s speech was prepared at the last moment. Assume the role of White House speechwriter for a moment, and presume you have more time to revise the speech. What, if anything, would you change? Why?
  3. Do President Johnson’s appeals to the American Promise seem outmoded today? Would Americans in the twenty-first century be responsive to such a narrative? If not, why not? If so, on what subject(s)?
  4. Review the “We Shall Overcome” speech and identify the ways in which President Johnson established his credibility to speak on civil rights? Do you find such explications of credibility persuasive? Why or why not?
  5. How did President Johnson use history in “We Shall Overcome?” What lessons did he try to teach from U.S. history? Are such lessons still relevant today?
  6. The Web site for the United States Information Agency contains a transcript of President Johnson’s speech as one of its “Basic Readings in U.S. Democracy” ( as well as list of readings for citizens of other countries interested in learning about American history. Why might the State Department have included Johnson’s speech? What does one learn about U.S. democracy by reading Johnson’s speech?

Student Research

  1. President Johnson spoke to both the American people and Congress to urge immediate passage of the Voting Rights Act. Some scholars of American politics are critical of “going over the heads of Congress” to create public pressure for specific legislation the president advocates (See, for example, Jeffrey Tulis’s book The Rhetorical Presidency and Samuel Kernell’s book Going Public). Read excerpts from these sources and write a position paper detail your position on whether or not president’s should go over the heads of Congress and target the U.S. people instead. In the process, answer whether Johnson should have kept quiet and only sent a written message to Congress (as originally planned)? Why or why not?
  2. Visit the section of the Library of Congress’s Web site about the Fifteenth Amendment (, searching the various links provided. Assuming the role of speechwriter, try your hand at writing a voting rights message for President Johnson based on the Fifteenth Amendment? Should Johnson have focused on the Constitution instead of the American Promise in his speech? Why or why not?
  3. Search for newspaper coverage of Bloody Sunday to see how the U.S. news media covered the events of that day. Next, read relevant newspaper coverage of Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech. Do the journalists draw connections between the Bloody Sunday events and Johnson’s speech? If so, what connections do they draw.
  4. Write a research paper that examines a central voting rights issue that has become controversial since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In addition to discussing the controversies surrounding the more contemporary voting issue as well as the resolutions instituted or proposed, indicate the ways in which the Fifteenth Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are invoked. Also make sure to note which political officials are taking the lead in such voting controversies. Are such issues handled predominantly at the local, state, and/or federal levels? Finally, indicate the similarities and differences in the arguments made within the more recent voting controversy and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Citizenship Resources

  1. Locate news stories about recent congressional renewal of the provisions of the Voting Rights Act. In what terms do contemporary political deliberations frame the issue of voting rights? How are they similar to or different from President Johnson’s language?
  2. In recent deliberations about voting, legislators have debated the means for assessing equal voting rights. Should only the process of voting be assessed (and determined to be free from illegal discrimination)? Or should the actual levels of voter participation by minority groups be assessed? What do you think? Which is more consistent with President Johnson’s message?
  3. Although the Constitution makes it illegal to discrimination at the ballot box on certain term (e.g., “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude”) the states still may set other restrictions on who may not vote. Investigate what voter restrictions (i.e., kinds of voter discrimination) exist in your home state, if any? Do they seem consistent with President Johnson’s message about the right to vote?
  4. Conduct a search of the Internet and identify those groups that exist to lobby local, state, and federal governments on issues of voting. What are the primary issues of concern for such grass roots organizations?
  5. Conduct an Internet search and identify three recent voting initiatives that have been debated in the U.S. Congress or your state legislature. Prepare a report on such initiatives and how they relate to the Voting Rights Act.

Last updated May 5, 2016