OTD in History… August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act into law
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, the law would prevent the federal government, the states or local areas from imposing any restrictions, which would prevent anybody from voting. The Voting Rights Act combined with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, were meant to guarantee equal and voting rights to African-Americans, who were long relegated to segregation and denied the right to vote guaranteed to them in the fifteenth amendment ratified in 1870. The Fifteenth Amendment promised the guarantee to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” but the South’ Jim Crow laws found ways to circumvent the amendment for nearly a hundred years. Johnson signed the bill surrounded by Civil Rights leaders after an arduous journey imperiled by Southern Democrats, whose constituents long opposed equality for African Americans with racial prejudices alive from the post-Civil War period.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 aimed to reduce inequality for African Americans it did not address the problems with voting. In the South especially, restrictions were meant to prevent African Americans from being registered to vote including difficult literacy tests, poll taxes and grandfather clauses and other tricks and bureaucratic excuses, just to deny them the vote. Johnson and the Democrats’ landslide victory in the 1964 election gave him the mandate to create legislation dealing with the voting issue. Still, he was weary the public would not be supportive so soon after the Civil Rights Act and concerned Southern Democrats would block it and his Great Society social program.
On Sunday, March 7, Bloody Sunday would turn the tide. There Martin Luther King, Jr. and others were peacefully marching for voting rights in Selma, Alabama, ended up being brutally beaten by the police and state troopers, which led to one death. Despite it, all King believed and said at the march, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” The images on television were enough for Johnson to sway the public and Congress on legislation. The moment was now.
On March 15, President Johnson delivered one his best speeches the Voting Rights Address to Congress, where he spoke of the need for the legislation. Johnson used the moment to his favor, expressing “At times, history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.” Johnson ordered his Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach to draft “the goddamndest, toughest voting rights act that you can.”
Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) and Minority Leader Everett McKinley Dirksen (R-Ill.) introduced the bill, 64 senators co-sponsored it, 44 Democrats and 20 Republican co-sponsors. In the Senate floor debate on April 22, Dirksen defended the bill saying “legislation is needed if the unequivocal mandate of the Fifteenth Amendment … is to be enforced and made effective and if the Declaration of Independence is to be made truly meaningful.” While Senator and segregationalist Strom Thurmond (R-SC) said, it would lead to “despotism and tyranny.”
The Voting Rights Act, known as the “Dirksenbach” bill for its primary authors first passed the Senate on May 26, with a vote of 77–19 (Democrats 47–16, Republicans 30–2), all Southern Democrats opposed the bill. The bill passed in the House of Representative on July 9 with a vote of 333–85, Democrats 221–61, and Republicans 112–24, again with Southern Democrats opposing. When the bill went to conference, the biggest difference was the House bill not outlawing poll taxes; a compromise in the bill outlawed them. The House approved the revised bill, on August 3 with a vote of 328–74 (Democrats 217–54, Republicans 111–20). The next day on August 4 the Senate approved the bill 79–18 vote (Democrats 49–17, Republicans 30–1).
On August 6, Johnson signed the bill into law at Statuary Hall in the Capitol building. In attendance were dignitaries including those that helped make landmarks in the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks, who refused to sit at the back of the bus starting the Montgomery bus boycott was there. Solicitor General Thurgood Marshall, whom Johnson had just appointed, and had successfully argued in 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was there. Charles Evers, brother of Medgar Evers killed in 1963 the NAACP’s field secretary, a position Charles later assumed attended. John Doar, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, who “helped shaped the act” attended. John Lewis, who was the face of the violence of the Selma March, he fought for voting rights in the state even before Martin Luther King, Jr., and he was badly injured on Bloody Sunday. King also attended, for the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, this was the second legislative victory. King said at the Lincoln Memorial in May 1957. “So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably have the right to vote I do not possess myself.”
Johnson chose the day because it was symbolic. As historian Gary May in his book Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy recounted, “On that day in 1861, President Lincoln had signed the Confiscation Act, freeing all slaves who were being used to aid the Confederacy; that act was a precursor to the Emancipation Proclamation, which liberated the rebel states’ remaining slaves.” (May 19) President Johnson ensured the visual was also there as he delivered a televised speech, with the backdrop of two busts of Lincoln, and was John Trumbull’s painting of George Washington, the Surrender of Cornwallis. (May 19)
In his speech, Johnson declared, “Today, we strike away the last major shackle of those fierce and ancient bonds. . . . The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.” The president, however, signed the bill in the President’s room, he gave the first pen to Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the second to Senator Everett M. Dirksen, and the third to Senator Robert Kennedy. Johnson also gave one to Rev. King, and told him “his work was now done, that the time for protest was over.” (May, 20) Afterward, Johnson hosted the Civil rights Leaders at the White House.
Historian Gary May indicates, “The Voting Rights Act transformed American democracy and in many ways was the last act of emancipation, a process Abraham Lincoln began in 1863.” President Johnson believed it was but the Voting Rights Act was a work in progress, opening the doors to voting, however, African Americans might still have to fight but now with the means in the courts. Through the years, the act would see provisions added evolving for the better. The Voting Rights Act’s greatest victory was Election Day 2008, where 65 percent of African American voters and an overwhelmingly 96 percent of them voted in the first African American President history, Barack Obama.
May, Gary. Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy. New York, N.Y: Basic Books, 2013.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.