Empathy Guided President to Push for Civil Rights

As we get ready to celebrate MLK, Jr. Day, I want to share a perhaps lesser known fact from the era of the American Civil Rights Movement. And it is about empathy. Even great leaders are influenced by seemingly inconsequential, personal experiences.

President Johnson is known for declaring War on Poverty and supporting civil rights.  While he wanted to continue the work President Kennedy had done to end segregation in the United States, President Johnson had his own powerful motivation to fight this inequality.  And it was personal.

The American Promise

In the days following the Selma to Montgomery marches in March 1965 (during which 600 marchers were attacked by state and local police in Alabama), President Johnson delivered A Special Message to the Congress: The American Promise.  His speech was broadcast nationally and announced that he would be sending the Civil Rights Bill to Congress.
The speech is moving for many reasons, but I found one particularly intriguing:  An experience from his younger years that gave him intense empathy for people facing discrimination.

Empathy of a President

President Johnson tells congress about his first job out of college, working as a teacher in a small Mexican-American school in Texas.  He recounts his personal experience working with children who knew “the pain of prejudice,” who faced poverty and hatred daily.  He tells listeners that he never expected to have the chance to do something about it. But he now he had that chance. And he was going to use it.

Reading his speech is powerful, but hearing him give it even more.  I highly recommend both:

“My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Tex., in a small Mexican-American school. Few of them could speak English, and I couldn’t speak much Spanish. My students were poor and they often came to class without breakfast, hungry. They knew even in their youth the pain of prejudice. They never seemed to know why people disliked them. But they knew it was so, because I saw it in their eyes. I often walked home late in the afternoon, after the classes were finished, wishing there was more that I could do. But all I knew was to teach them the little that I knew, hoping that it might help them against the hardships that lay ahead.

Somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child.

I never thought then, in 1928, that I would be standing here in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country.

But now I do have that chance–and I’ll let you in on a secret–I mean to use it. And I hope that you will use it with me.”

Empathy reduces prejudice

An early experience with someone from a different cultural and economic group influenced him. And us.
We probably don’t, or even can’t, realize until later how much our contact with others influences us.  But we do know that the more contact we have with the “other”, the more they’ll seem “just like us.”  This empathy leads to reduced prejudice.
By teaching children empathy, we give them the courage to stand up for what’s right and to be the leaders our world needs in the future.

Anne Glick

(The full American Promise speech is also on Youtube.)


  • Portrait photo -LBJ Library photo by Frank Muto (D3538-3)
  • LBJ and MLK,Jr – LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto (W28-12)
  • Signing 1964 Civil Rights Act – LBJ Library photo by Cecil Stoughton (276-10-WH64)
  • At Welhausen School with students – LBJ Library photo by unknown (28-13-4)

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