We Shall Overcome

Propaganda and politics go together like two peas in a pod. George Orwell discusses the marriage of the two in his essay, “Politics and the English Language.” Among the most common propaganda techniques Orwell demonstrates, the two most prominent political speeches would be meaningless words and pretentious diction. Propaganda techniques are most commonly known as ways to be dishonest or when there is a hidden agenda. However in President Lyndon B. Johnson speech known as “We Shall Overcome”, he shows how propaganda can be used with good intentions. His speech changed the lives of millions of African American people that struggled for human rights back in the nineteen sixties. President Johnson utilizes propaganda techniques in a positive way to help direct the nation on the course of racial equality.

President Johnson’s opens his speech by saying, “I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy.” (Pauley). Orwell gives several examples of “meaningless words,” one of which being “democracy”. In the case of a word like “democracy”, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides (169). A word like democracy is often used in a consciously dishonest way. This happens when the person using it has their own personal definition for the word but allows the listener to interpret it in their own way. When President Johnson gave his speech there were millions of Caucasian men and women who were strongly against racial equality. It was only a century before that, when President Lincoln freed the African race from slavery. It was another big undertaking that wouldn’t come easy. Johnson has to convey that the destiny of democracy, is racial equality. However he must do this without turning away his racially biased voters. He uses propaganda to reach a wider audience with a cause that he believes will lead the country in the right direction.

In the next line he announces, “I urge every member of both parties, Americans of all religions and of all colors, from every section of this country, to join me in that cause.” (Pauley). This is where the President addresses the crowd and everyone listening as Americans as a unified nation. Johnson is pointing out how diverse we all are, whether by religion or color. And yet all men are on an unending search for freedom. President Johnson tries to inspire the people to join his fight against racial discrimination by bringing up the fact that all men want more freedom. Donna Woolfolk Cross would consider this attempt to inspire to be a propaganda technique she calls “transfer”, in her essay “How Not to Be Bamboozled.” She describes this to be when an association is made with a person’s character or appearance with an issue or idea he supports (Cross 153). President Johnson is associating his cause for more freedom with each and every citizen. This glorifies the ideal definition of democracy. Freedom is independence and liberty, exemption from external control. These words all persuade people to take the side of the cause in which these things are promised.

The most convincing moments in Johnson’s speech where when he spoke about teaching in a small Mexican-American school; witnessing severe poverty and racial prejudice. He looked out to the audience and admitted he never thought then, in 1928, that he would be standing in front of millions advocating for equal rights. He came from a rather small town, but dreamed larger than life. He is using the Plain Folks appeal Cross writes about in her essay (151). He is trying to relate with the hard working American family, like the one he came from. At an early age he knew exact what he wanted to do. He wanted to fight for a higher quality of life for all ages, races and religions. He wanted to educate the children and help feed the hungry; because for Johnson it’s like helping a neighbor. He will never forget where he came from, and who helped him along the way. He spoke with a direct tone, one you expect from a man that it honest. This propaganda technique won over the working class and helped him connect and unite the nation.

President Johnson finishes his speech by saying “Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome” (Pauly). This is where he closes the deal using the Bandwagon appeal (Cross 151). It’s our cause too, it’s all of us in this together. We shall all overcome this barrier that is racial inequality. When he says, “[W]e shall overcome,” he is say that this is an issue that the entire country has to deal with together. At the end of the day he is just like one of us, a concerned citizen who wants to make a difference.

Lyndon B. Johnson counted on history to make the final assessment. “I hope it may be said, 100 years from now,” he told the Congress as he departed Washington in 1969, “that we helped to make this country more just. That’s what I hope. But I believe that at least it will be said that we tried.” (Middleton). President Johnson showed courage in his years in presidency. His speech, “We Shall Overcome”, used several propaganda techniques, but in a positive way. He saw a good cause and used proper techniques to guide the nation onto it’s path toward racial equality.