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President Lyndon Johnson's Statement On Watts Riots [1965]

 

If there is one thing I think we have learned from the civil rights struggle, it is that the problem of bringing the Negro American into an equal role in our society is more complex, and is more urgent, and is much more critical than any of us have ever known. Who of you could have predicted 10 years ago, that in this last, sweltering, August week thousands upon thousands of disenfranchised Negro men and women would suddenly take part in self government, and that thousands more in that same week would strike out in an unparalleled act of violence in this Nations.

Our conscience cries out against the hatred that we heard last week. It bore no relation to the orderly struggle for civil rights that has ennobled the last decade. Every leader in that struggle has condemned this outrage against the laws of the land. And during the few days that preceded it, I had spent all week at the White House visiting individually with Dr. King, Mr. Farmer, Dr. Roy Wilkins, Mr. Philip Randolph—all talking about the great meeting that we had to have here later in the fall, because the cities of this Nation and the Negro family in this Nation are two of our most pressing, most important problems. Well, the bitter years that preceded the riots, the death of hope where hope existed, their sense of failure to change the conditions of life—these things no doubt led to these riots. But they did not justify them.

I hope that every American who believes in equal opportunity for his fellow men, understands this distinction that I have made. For we shall never achieve a free and prosperous and hopeful society until we have suppressed the fires of hate and we have turned aside from violence—whether that violence comes from the nightriders of the Klan, or the snipers and the looters in the Watts district Neither old wrongs nor new fears can ever justify a reason or murder.... With . . . rights comes responsibility. And with responsibility there goes obligation.

We cannot, and we must not, in one breath demand laws to protect the rights of all of our citizens, and then turn our back, or wink, or in the next breath allow laws to be broken that protect the safety of our citizens. There just must never come the hour in this Republic when any citizen, whoever he is, can ever ignore the law or break the law with impunity.

And so long as I am your President I intend to preserve the rights of all of our citizens, and I intend to enforce the laws that protect all of our citizens— without regard to race, religion, region, or without fear or favor.

A rioter with a Molotov cocktail in his hands is not fighting for civil rights any more than a Klansman with a sheet on his back and a mask on his face. They are both more or less what the law declares them: lawbreakers, destroyers of constitutional rights and liberties, and ultimately destroyers of a free America. They must be exposed and they must be dealt with.

It is our duty—and it is our desire—to open our hearts to humanity's cry for help. It is our obligation to seek to understand what could lie beneath the flames b that scarred that great city. So let us equip the poor and the oppressed—let us equip them for the long march to dignity and to wellbeing. But let us never confuse the need for decent work and fair treatment with an excuse to destroy and to uproot.
Ours is an open society. The world is always witness to whatever we do—sometimes, I think (results of the cooperation of some of my friends) to some things we don't do. We would not have it otherwise. For the brave story of the Negro American is related to the struggle of men on every continent for their rights as sons of God. It is a compound of brilliant promises and stunning reverses. Sometimes, as in the past week when the two are mixed on the same pages of our newspapers and television screens, e result is baffling to all the world. And is baffling to me, and to you, and to us. .nd always there is the danger that hours of disorder may erase the accumulated goodwill of many months and many years. And warn and plead with all thinking Americans to contemplate this for a due period.

Yet beneath the discord we hear another theme. That theme speaks of a day when Americans of every color, and every creed, and every religion, and every region, and every sex can be trained for decent employment, can find it, can secure it, can have it preserved, and can support their families in an enriching and a rewarding environment....