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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

The Voting Rights Act of 1965

The march from Selma to Montgomery on U.S. 80, the deaths of Jackson, Reeb, and Liuzzo, and the President's commitment kept the Voting Rights Act moving forward. In the Senate, Southern opponents staged a 24-day filibuster. Reporter E. W. Kenworthy explained in The New York Times explained that in contrast with the filibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, "the sense of history in the making that made the closure vote last year a great occasion was largely missing today." He explained that the limited scope of the bill, in contrast with the sweeping 1964 Act, was one reason the debate had less tension. He added:

By contrast, the voting rights bill was much less controversial. Southerners themselves have always recognized that, of all discriminations practiced against the Negro, the denial of his right to vote was the least defensible because the 15th Amendment [to the Constitution], ratified 95 years ago, forbids states to deny or abridge the right to vote because of race or color.

In the desultory debate on the bill, the Southerners did not attempt to defend the way that Mississippi and Alabama, and to a lesser degree Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, have employed literacy and other tests to prevent the voter registration of Negroes.

They rested their defense almost entirely on the right of the states, under Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution, to determine their own qualifications for voting . . . .

Although the Southerners had protested bitterly through the debate that the bill was unconstitutional and that it was particularized and punitive legislation, many gave the impression they were not reluctant to have the issue settled.

In part, this unspoken acceptance may be explained by the knowledge that Negroes are voting in large numbers in many parts of the South and will be voting in larger numbers, and that consequently Southern Democrats will soon be courting their votes.

On May 25, the Senate voted 70 to 30 to invoke closure, 3 votes more than the two-thirds vote required at the time to end filibusters. [Kenworthy, E. W., "Senate, 70 to 30, Invokes Closure on Voting Rights," The New York Times, May 26, 1965]

The following day, the bill passed the Senate by a vote of 77 to 19, with 47 Democrats and 30 Republicans in support and 17 Democrats and 2 Republicans opposed. They approved the bill despite the assertion by Senator Allen J. Allender (D-La.) that the bill violated the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

Before voting against the bill, Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who had switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican in September 1964, eulogized the Senate as the "final resting place of the Constitution and the rule of law, for it is here that they will have been buried with shovels of emotion under piles of expediency, in the year of our Lord, 1965." According to Branch:

Defeated Southern Democrats foresaw a "federal dictatorship" over the vote process to cement the economic impoverishment of "garden variety" white people that their leader, Senator Russell, had pronounced already inevitable from the Civil Rights Act of 1964. [Canaan, p. 227]

Shortly after Senate action, President Johnson called the vote "triumphant evidence of this Nation's resolve that every citizen must and shall be able to march to a polling place and vote without fear or prejudice or obstruction." He thanked the Senate leadership and their supporters on behalf of "a heartened Nation." He urged quick approval in the House.

While awaiting House action, the President delivered a commencement address at Howard University on June 4. He said he was proud of his role in approval of three Civil Rights Acts. As Senate Majority Leader, he secured passage of Civil Rights Acts in 1957 and 1960 and of course as President, he had signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964:

And, as your President, I was proud to sign the third. And now very soon we will have the fourth-a new law guaranteeing every American the right to vote. No act of my entire administration will give me greater satisfaction than the day when my signature makes this bill, too, the law of this land.

He did not imagine that signing laws, alone, ensured freedom. He cited Winston Churchill who had said "of another triumph for freedom" that it "is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning." To carry on the fight, he announced that he planned to call a White House conference in the fall "of scholars, and experts, and outstanding Negro leaders-men of both races-and officials of Government at every level." The theme would be "To Fulfill These Rights":

Its object will be to help the American Negro fulfill the rights which, after the long time of injustice, he is finally about to secure.
To move beyond opportunity to achievement.
To shatter forever not only the barriers of the law and public practice, but the walls which bound the condition of many by the color of his skin.
To dissolve, as best we can, the antique enmities of the heart which diminish the holder, divide the great democracy, and do wrong-great wrong-to the children of God.

He concluded his address with a biblical reference that reflected his hopes for the conference:

The Scripture promises: "I shall light a candle of understanding in thine heart, which shall not be put out."

Together, and with millions more, we can light that candle of understanding in the heart of America.

And once lit, it will never again go out.

The Senate and House versions of the Voting Rights Act were similar, but the House had included an outright ban on poll taxes as a condition for voting in State and local elections. The Senate had considered a similar ban but had defeated it narrowly (49 to 45). The Administration and the chief author of the Senate bill, Senator Everett M. Dirksen (R-Il.), had opposed an outright ban because they feared, as Kenworthy explained, "it might be difficult to assemble evidence to prove that the poll tax had, in every instance, been used to prevent Negro registration." That exposed the provision to the risk that a court would find the ban unconstitutional. Dirksen and the Administration had agreed to include a declaration in the Senate bill that the poll tax was an abridgement of the constitutional right to vote, along with a provision directing the Attorney General to proceed "forthwith" to test the constitutionality of the poll tax.

The Administration hoped the House would accept the Senate bill, substituting it for the House bill, still in the Judiciary Committee, thereby avoiding the need for a conference committee that would include powerful Southern opponents. A compromise bill would have to pass the Senate again, and face resistance from the Southerners, but also from Senator Dirksen and others who opposed the poll tax provision.

The House would take longer than the President hoped, and approval came with its share of drama. Before approving its bipartisan version of the bill, the House rejected a substitute bill supported by Republican leaders, including Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford (R-Mi.) and Representative William M. McCullough (R-Oh.), who had drafted the alternative. They considered their bill less repugnant than the Administration bill reported out by the Judiciary Committee. Kenworthy described the main difference:

The McCullough bill would have allowed the dispatch of Federal registrars to a voting district upon the receipt of 25 meritorious complaints of discrimination. Literacy tests would have been waived for those with a sixth-grade education, but retained for those without it.

The House rejected the substitute, 215 to 166, and a later Republican bill, 248 to 171, that would have recommitted the Administration bill to committee with instructions to report back a Republican substitute.

Finally, the House passed the Voting Rights Act, 333 to 85, on July 9. Those voting for the bill included 221 Democrats and 61 Republicans, while 61 Democrats and 24 Republicans voted against it. Twenty-one Southern Democrats voted for the bill along with one Southern Republican, William C. Cramer of Florida. [Kenworthy, E. W., "Democratic Bill on Voting Passed by House, 333-85," The New York Times, July 10, 1965]

White House Press Secretary Bill Moyers said he had never seen President Johnson more elated than he was after House passage of the bill. In a statement, the President said:

That bill is not only a monument to this Congress, it is a shining moment in the entire history of the United States Congress.

The President pledged that his Administration would be ready with full enforcement upon final passage of the legislation:

But it is a vital step. It is an important addition to the sum of rights and obligations we call freedom. And, perhaps more importantly, it enriches the life of every one of us-white and black. For men are fully free only in the company of the free. And thus, today, we can all be a little prouder to be Americans.

The primary difference between the Senate and House versions involved the poll tax. A Conference Committee consisting of six members of the House Judiciary Committee and five members of the Senate Judiciary Committee would have to resolve this and other differences in putting the final bill together.

As late as July 27, the conference was deadlocked on a proposal to substitute the Senate version of the poll tax provision for the version that had passed in the House overwhelmingly. On July 28, Attorney General Katzenbach contacted Dr. King in Cleveland, as Branch explained:

The voting rights bill was likely to remain stuck unless key representatives on the House-Senate conference-chiefly [Democratic Representatives] Harold Donohue of Massachusetts and Peter Rodino of New Jersey-accepted assurance that civil rights supporters could retreat honorably from a poll tax amendment the House had added July 9 over the Johnson Administration's opposition. Katzenbach agreed to substitute [the Senate version] and King agreed . . . that Katzenbach could quote his exact appraisal of the compromise ending, "I am confident that the poll tax provision of the bill-with vigorous action by the Attorney General-will operate finally to bury this iniquitous device." He agreed also that Katzenbach could call final enactment of the voting rights law his "overriding goal."

Katzenbach sent a "confidential" letter to the conference chairman, Representative Celler, outlining the Administration's position and Dr. King's support for the Senate compromise language. Donohue and Rodino, after seeing the letter, agreed to switch their votes to support the Senate language, thus breaking the deadlock. [Canaan, p. 270]

When word of the letter leaked, some Southerners expressed shock, but their views had little effect on the outcome. On August 3, the House approved the Conference version of the bill, 328 to 74 - 217 Democrats and 111 Republicans voted for the bill, while opponents included 54 Democrats and 20 Republicans. The following day, the Senate approved the bill, 79 to 18.

President Johnson was so excited that he headed to the Capitol to thank Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mt.) and Minority Leader Dirksen personally. They met in Senator Dirkson's office. The President told reporters:

I regard the cooperation and the effort of these two leaders in behalf of the bill as one of the most outstanding patriotic and selfless things I have ever seen, and the whole world ought to revere them for it. ["Voting Right Bill Sent to Johnson," The New York Times, August 5, 1965, no byline]

He was eager to sign the bill and wanted to do so in a setting with historic significance for African-Americans' long struggle for civil rights. He chose the Capitol Rotunda for a speech prior to the signing, which would take place in the "President's Room" just off the Senate chamber:

In this gorgeously painted and gilded room, widely considered the most beautiful and certainly the most ornate in the Capitol, Presidents from Abraham Lincoln through Mr. Hoover signed bills that had passed Congress during the last hours of the session.

On the same green, baize-covered table, exactly 104 years ago tomorrow [August 6], President Lincoln signed a bill giving freedom to slaves "employed by Confederates in carrying on the civil war." There, too, Lincoln refused to sign the punitive Wade-Davis Reconstruction bill. [Robertson, Nan, "President to Sign Voting Bill Today," The New York Times, August 6, 1965]

On Friday, August 6, 1965, President Johnson and his entire Cabinet drove to the Capitol by motorcade at noon. He went first to Speaker McCormack's office, where Vice President Humphrey, congressional leaders, and invited guests awaited the President's arrival. The guests included Dr. King, John Lewis, Roy Wilkins, and James Farmer. Rosa Parks was there, too, and Vivian Malone, the first African-American to enter the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa.

Led by the President, the group walked to the Capitol Rotunda for the President's remarks. His lectern had been placed in front of a model of Gutzon Borglum's head of Lincoln on Mount Rushmore and a statue of Lincoln by Vinnie Ream. (Ms. Reams, a sculptor from Wisconsin, had created the statue on commission from the government. It was dedicated in January 1871 when Ms. Reams was 23 years old.)

The President began with a bit of history, noting that "the first Negroes arrived at Jamestown" three and a half centuries earlier:

They did not arrive in brave ships in search of a home for freedom . . . . They came in darkness and them in chains. And today we strike away the last major shackle of those fierce and ancient bonds. Today the Negro story and the American story fuse and blend.

He described efforts over the years to remove the shackles, then said:

And then last March, with the outrage of Selma still fresh, I came down to this Capitol one evening and asked the Congress and the people for swift and for sweeping action to guarantee to every man and woman the right to vote. In less than 48 hours I sent the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to the Congress. In little more than 4 months the Congress, with overwhelming majorities, enacted one of the most monumental laws in the entire history of American freedom . . . .

There were those who said this is an old injustice, and there is no need to hurry. But 95 years have passed since the 15th amendment gave all Negroes the right to vote.

And the time for waiting is gone.

He recognized that years of "outward walls" and "inward scars" would be difficult to overcome:

We must all now help to end them-help to end them through expanding programs already devised and through new ones to search out and forever end the special handicaps of those who are black in a Nation that happens to be mostly white.

So, it is for this purpose-to fulfill the rights that we now secure-that I have already called a White House conference to meet here in the Nation's Capital

It is difficult to fight for freedom. But I also know how difficult it can be to bend long years of habit and custom to grant it. There is no room for injustice anywhere in the American mansion. But there is always room for understanding toward those who see the old ways crumbling. And to them today I say simply this: it must come. It is right that it should come. And when it has, you will find that a burden has been lifted from your shoulders, too.

It is not just a question of guilt, although there is that. It is that men cannot live with a lie and not be stained by it.

He concluded:

Thus, this is a victory for the freedom of the American Negro. But it is also a victory for the freedom of the American Nation. And every family across this great, entire, searching land will live stronger in liberty, will live more splendid in expectation, and will be prouder to be American because of the act that you have passed that I will sign today.

Following his speech, President Johnson and the crowd moved to the Senate side of the Capitol:

More than 100 persons crowded in to [the President's room] to watch the signing with multiple pens.

The green baize-covered walnut table-known as the "Lincoln table"-that occupies the center of the room had been pushed aside and replaced with a small, simple desk, also covered in green baize.

There is some dispute whether Lincoln used this desk or the "Lincoln table" when he signed the bill freeing slaves forced into the service of the Confederate Army.

But the desk had a personal meaning for the President; because it was this desk that he used as majority leader, and it was from this desk that he guided through the Senate the 1957 and 1960 civil rights acts.

As the President signed the bill, he handed pens to Vice President Humphrey, Senator Dirksen, other congressional leaders, and to the civil rights leaders, including Parks and Malone. [Canaan, p. 276-277; Kenworthy, E. W., "Johnson Signs Voting Rights Bill, Orders Immediate Enforcement; 4 Suits will Challenge Poll Tax," The New York Times, August 7, 1965]

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was law.

(On July 3, 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed Public Law 101-321, the Selma to Montgomery National Trail Study Act of 1989. John Lewis, one of the marchers and now a Member of Congress, had introduced the Act, which called for the National Park Service to study designation of the route of the march as a National Trail. In Section 2, the Congress found that:

The designation of the route of the march from Selma to Montgomery as a national historic trail will serve as a reminder of the right and responsibility of all Americans to fully participate in the election process. It will serve as a reminder that we must be ever vigilant in securing our right to vote. It will also give long overdue recognition to the men and women who have sacrificed so much for, and dedicated their lives to, voting rights for all Americans.

This action was completed by the Omnibus Parks and Public Lands Management Act of 1996 (Public Law 104-333), which President Bill Clinton signed on November 12, 1996. It established the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail.

In 1996, the U.S. Department of Transportation designated the Selma to Montgomery March Scenic Byway an All-American Road under the National Scenic Byways Program. An All-American Road is considered a destination unto itself, one that provides an exceptional traveling experience that is so recognized by travelers that they would make a drive along the highway the primary reason for their trip. By itself, the trip by car along U.S. 80 from Selma to Montgomery takes only about an hour, but the byway has become part of a Civil Rights pilgrimage of sites that played in a significant role in these years of struggle.)

Updated: 10/17/2013
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