It was the year President John F. Kennedy traveled to Berlin to proclaim "Ich bin ein Berliner" and the year he gave his famous American University speech arguing that peace was "the necessary rational end of rational men." It was the year the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke from the Lincoln Memorial of a "dream deeply rooted in the American dream."
In American history, 1963 was a year rich in speeches. But of all the signature speeches that year, it's the one that has been all but forgotten that might have transformed the country the most.
Fifty years ago, on Memorial Day in 1963, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson gave a speech in Gettysburg, Pa., that foreshadowed profound changes that would be achieved in only 13 months and that mark us still.
The occasion was a speech that almost wasn't given at all, for an anniversary that was still a month off, delivered by a man who had grown weary of his apparent uselessness in an office that neither interested him nor engaged his capacious gifts. It is a reminder that the titanic events of history sometimes occur away from the main stage -- and proof of the power of a great idea, even if it is delivered ahead of its time.
"One hundred years ago, the slave was freed," Johnson said at the cemetery in a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. "One hundred years later, the Negro remains in bondage to the color of his skin."
With those two sentences, Johnson accomplished two things. He answered King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail." And he signaled where the later Johnson administration might lead, which was to the legislation now known as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Six months later, after Kennedy was assassinated, Johnson became president and vowed to press ahead on civil rights, even though he was a Southern Democrat and many of his congressional allies were devout segregationists.
Yet Johnson nearly didn't give his Gettysburg speech at all. He dismissed the invitation with a shrug when it arrived in the vice president's office. He was distracted, distressed and depressed. Almost nothing interested him.
He was moping too much, "and it was becoming obvious," George E. Reedy, a Johnson press secretary, said in an oral history recorded for the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas. "He just looked lugubrious. He reminded me of one of those Tennessee bloodhounds, you know, with the drooping ears."
His closest aides never sent Johnson's regrets to the Gettysburg invitation, leaving the option open, hoping to lure the vice president to use the occasion to break out of his funk. Juanita Roberts, Johnson's personal secretary, saw special appeal in the opportunity, and she dashed off a note to Horace Busby, who was Johnson's head speechwriter.
"Do you think something good could be made here?" she wondered. "The distinguished son of distinguished confederates on the 100th anniv. of the battle --."
Then she wrote Johnson directly, saying, "I can't regret this one yet -- I am excited by the possibilities it could offer." She told the vice president that this was a chance to deliver "a masterpiece to be remembered by" and suggested that Dwight D. Eisenhower, living in Gettysburg in retirement from the presidency, might be drawn to the event.
By then the idea had gained momentum, all except the Eisenhower element. "Bringing in nationally prominent Republicans, however, could reduce the advantage of this situation," a top Johnson aide, probably Busby, wrote in an unsigned internal memo that now rests in the files of the Johnson Library.
All politics, in LBJ's time as in ours, is personal.
So Busby drove over to the Elms, Johnson's house in the Spring Valley section of Northwest Washington, and sat by the pool as the vice president, who was deeply affected by his experience as a young man teaching Mexican-American children, thought aloud about race. Busby was so startled by how fluent and articulate Johnson was that on the way home he pulled his car over to the curb and recorded what Johnson had said.
The final product, shaped by Busby and Harry C. McPherson Jr., another close adviser, thus was more stenography than speech craftsmanship -- and it was all the more powerful if you looked carefully at Johnson's remarks and saw how they grew out of King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail," in which the civil-rights leader spoke of his frustration with the pace of change:
"For years now I have heard the word 'Wait!' It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.' We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that 'justice too long delayed is justice denied.' "
Johnson's speech directly addressed King: "The Negro today asks justice. We do not answer him -- we do not answer those who lie beneath this soil -- when we reply to the Negro by asking, 'Patience.' It is empty to plead that the solution to the dilemmas of the present rests on the hands of the clock."
The speech was given on Memorial Day, May 30, 1963, not on the anniversary of a battle now regarded as a turning point in the Civil War. Johnson's visit to Gettysburg was a helicopter trip that took but two hours and 34 minutes, start to finish, but it was indicative of the bigger journey he would take as president.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (email@example.com, 412-263-1890). This article is also appearing in The New York Times. First Published May 27, 2013 4:00 AM