Today in 1965, president Lyndon B. Johnson went before a joint session of Congress to issue a famous entreaty to pass legislation that would secure voting rights for all Americans regardless of race. Despite a Constitutional guarantee of equal enfranchisement for African-Americans, many states still implemented literacy and character tests, given only to black Americans, as a voting qualification requirement.
Johnson declared that “every American citizen must have an equal right to vote,” and invoked the African-American civil rights mantra, “we shall overcome.” President Johnson called for the Fifteenth Amendment, hard-won fruit of the Civil War, to be upheld universally for all American citizens.
“Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”
Eight days prior to LBJ’s speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. and a group of 500 supporters were assaulted while planning a march to Montgomery, Alabama to register blacks to vote. The melee, driven largely by police violence, erupted in Semla, Alabama and claimed the life of James J. Reeb, a white Unitarian minister from Boston. The news only garnered more support for MLK, the Civil Rights Movement and the legislative push to enforce equal voting rights in all states.
The police blocked a subsequent attempt to organize a march to Montgomery. The federal government intervened, “federalizing” the Alabama national guard with a detail of 2,000 additional guards. The march was permitted and began on March 21st. Over 3,000 people marched, and the story of the march made headlines across the country.
But violence followed close on the march’s heels. After the march ended on March 25th, a Detroit woman named Viola Liuzzo was murdered by four KKK members as she drove a group of marchers back to Selma.
Ultimately, Johnson’s push for universal, federally-enforced voting enfranchisement was successful. He signed the Voting Rights Act on August 6th, 1965. The Act legally barred any federal, state or local election from denying voting rights on racial grounds.
Unfortunately, the Voting Rights Act was not rigorously enforced at first, especially in Southern states, where it was most needed. But eventually, it did help to significantly improve black voter turnout, and gave African-Americans a legal foothold to challenge racist voting restrictions.
Johnson’s liberalizing push to broaden voting rights was continued by Richard Nixon, who lowered the universal minimum voting age to 18.