“We must preserve the right to free assembly. But free assembly does not carry with it the right to block public thoroughfares to traffic.” U.S. President Lyndon Johnson in his “We Shall Overcome” speech (see minute 35 above) to a joint session of Congress on March 15, 1965.

“But the President pulled back from a blanket endorsement of all civil rights demonstrations. He intends to protect the right of free speech and the right of free assembly, he said, but they did not include ‘the right to block public thoroughfares to traffic.’ This evoked heavy applause and apparently was a reference to demonstrators who briefly blocked traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House Friday. Mr. Johnson eliminated, however, a line in his prepared text that said that ‘the right of free speech does not carry with it the right to endanger the safety of others on a public highway.’ This was apparently intended to be a reference and a rebuke to Negroes in Selma who have twice set out on marches to Montgomery, the State Capitol along the highway. Once they were turned back with violence; once they halted peacefully in front of a line of policemen.” The New York Times, March 15, 1965, reporting on Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech.

“The most effective demonstrations would be those which are conducted according to the law and do not interfere with the rights of other people. … Groups trying to take over operations of transportation do not help their cause.” Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley quoted in the Chicago Tribune, March 12, 1965, after civil rights demonstrators blocked Chicago’s State Street.

“The law is clear that the right to petition one’s government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups … and these rights may be exercised by marching, even along public highways.” U.S. Federal District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. in his 1965 ruling that allowed the African-American voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965.

“It was unclear what such a demonstration could hope to achieve. Few segregationists could be converted by it, the national commitment to civil rights would hardly be increased by it, there was certainly an element of danger in it, and for the local citizenry it might have a long and ugly aftermath. … The procession filled the two left lanes of the four-lane highway, but in the two right lanes traffic was proceeding almost normally.” The New Yorker, April 10, 1965, reporting on the march from Selma to Montgomery.

Categories: Activism