When the second session of the 89th Congress convened on Monday, January 4, 1965, the Democrats were flying high. President Lyndon Johnson had trounced Republican Barry Goldwater in the presidential election two months before, bringing along huge Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. The Republicans lost 38 seats in the House. In the Senate, the Republicans, led by Illinois Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen, lost two seats. The president’s party held a 68 to 32 majority. Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the House 295 to 140.
In his State of the Union address, President Johnson described his goal for his legislative program: “The Great Society asks not how much but how good; not only how to create wealth but how to use it; not only how fast we are going, but where we are headed. It proposes as the first test for a nation: the quality of its people.”
“Annual Message to the Congress on the State of the Union”
Dirksen laid out the legislative agenda for his constituents in a television broadcast. After explaining the trials of the Vietnam war, he continued with these words: “Now when it comes to the domestic scene, all seems to be beer and skittles, apple pie and honey, and yet it is not quite that sweet.” As examples of the bitters, he enumerated the gold problem, medicare, aid to education, excise taxes, farm prices and subsidies, and the public debt—not a word about voting rights.
In response to an attack on U.S. ground troops in Vietnam, President Johnson ordered the bombing of North Vietnam positions, marking a significant enlargement of the U.S. role in the war.
Malcolm X, former leader of the Black Muslims, was shot and killed as he prepared to address an audience in New York City.
“Bloody Sunday.” Close to 200 state troopers attacked 525 civil rights demonstrators in Selma, Alabama, as demonstrators prepared to begin a march to Montgomery to protest voting rights discrimination. Seventeen people were injured by police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, including future Congressman John Lewis.
After President Johnson federalized the state National Guard and sent another 2,200 troops to protect the marchers, the walk began on March 21, with over 3,000 participating.
U.S. Marines landed in Vietnam. The two battalions were the first U.S. combat forces in that country. Some 23,000 U.S. personnel already served in Vietnam as military advisers.
Martin Luther King, Jr., led another march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The march is largely symbolic; as arranged previously, the crowd turns back at a barricade of state troopers. Demonstrations are held in cities across the U.S. to show solidarity with the Selma marchers.
President Johnson issued a statement in the wake of the Selma protests: “I am certain Americans everywhere join in deploring the brutality with which a number of Negro citizens of Alabama were treated when they sought to dramatize their deep and sincere interest in attaining the precious right to vote.”
“Statement by the President on the Situation in Selma, Alabama”
The U.S. Justice Department files suit in Montgomery, Alabama asking for an order to prevent the state from punishing any person involved in a demonstration for civil rights.
The Reverend James J. Reeb of Boston died in Selma following a beating. Two other white Unitarian ministers were injured in the attack.
President Johnson went before a special, televised joint session of Congress to urge swift enactment of voting rights legislation. He began with these words:
I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy. I urge every member of both parties, Americans of all religions and of all colors, from every section of this country, to join me in that cause.
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.
“Special Message to Congress: The American Promise” (audio included)
The president sent a special message to Congress urging legislation to protect the right to vote:
Unless we act anew, with dispatch and resolution, we shall sanction a sad and sorrowful course for the future. For if the Fifteenth Amendment is successfully flouted today, tomorrow the First Amendment, the Fourth Amendment, the Fifth Amendment—the Sixth, the Eighth, indeed, all the provisions of the Constitution on which our system stands—will be subject to disregard and erosion. Our essential strength as a society governed by the rule of law will be crippled and corrupted and the unity of our system hollowed out and left meaningless.
“Special Message to Congress on the Right to Vote”
Senator Everett M. Dirksen’s weekly radio and television broadcast to Illinois carried the title, “The Old Problem of Voting Rights.” Following passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he said, “I thought at least for a time that we would not be confronted with that issue in its entirety or any particular aspect until we had developed some experience and would then know how perhaps it would have to be implemented and amended.”
After reviewing the history of voting rights law, he admitted that congressional action had not gone far enough. “There has to be a real remedy,” he said. “There has to be something durable and worthwhile. This cannot go on forever, this denial of the right to vote by ruses and devices and tests and whatever the mind can contrive to either make it very difficult or to make it impossible to vote.”
He concluded: “All this is then by way of saying that the job of freedom in all its glorious aspects never seems to be quite consummated. Freedom and its attributes, the right of a free citizen to vote is somehow a battle that is never quite fully won in any time or generation and so now the torch is lighted for us and the mantel falls on our shoulders to carry on where those before us left off.”
President Johnson submitted a voting rights bill to Congress.
“Letter to the President of the Senate Proposing Legislation To Eliminate Barriers to the Right to Vote”
Federal District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. rules in favor of the marchers. "The law is clear that the right to petition one's government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups."
“1965 Selma to Montgomery Fast Facts”
The president’s proposals were embodied in S. 1564, “To enforce the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States.” The Senate bill was cosponsored by 39 Democrats and 18 Republicans.
In voting to send the bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Senate required the committee to report the bill no later than April 9.
Dirksen made a Senate floor speech in favor of moving forward with the voting rights bill and defended its constitutionality under the 15th amendment. He asked that the bill be referred to the Judiciary Committee with the requirement that full consideration would begin on April 9.
House Judiciary Committee chairman Emanuel Celler convened a session of Subcommittee No. 5 to consider the House version of the administration’s bill, H.R. 6400.
President Johnson received a telegram from Alabama Governor George C. Wallace, which Johnson read to reporters:
Dear Mr. President:
With regard to the order of the Federal District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, providing a plan for the so-called march from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, Ala., the Department of Public Safety of the State of Alabama advises me that the following personnel will be required in order to provide maximum security for the march; 6,171 men, 489 vehicles, 15 buses, not including support units. The State of Alabama has available 300 State troopers and approximately 150 officers of the Department of Conservation and Alcohol Beverage Control Department for use in accordance with the order of the Federal Court. I respectfully request that the United States provide sufficient Federal civil authorities or officers to provide for the safety and the welfare of the citizens in and along the proposed march route and to provide for the safety and the welfare of the marchers. Officials of the Department of Public Safety of the State of Alabama are available to confer with your appropriate agency, the appropriate liaison officer being Capt. W. B. Painter, Department of Public Safety, Montgomery, Ala.
“Statement by the President in Response to a Telegram From the Governor of Alabama”
Civil rights demonstrators began their march to Montgomery, Alabama.
The marchers reach the state capitol in Montgomery. The number of marchers grows to about 25,000.
In his weekly radio and television broadcast to Illinois residents, Dirksen cited voter registration statistics in southern states before explaining in broad terms the proposed voting rights act.
Senators Mike Mansfield and Everett Dirksen refuted charges that the proposed voting rights legislation had been shown to members of the Supreme Court during the drafting stage in order to determine its constitutionality.
The Senate Judiciary Committee reported out a bill that was substantially stronger than what the administration had requested by a 12-4 vote. The major change was the addition of a ban on the use of poll taxes in state and local elections.
One major limitation, proposed by Senate Minority Leader Dirksen, was written into the bill, however. It allowed states with literacy tests and low voter turnout in 1964 to exempt themselves from coverage if fewer than 20 percent of the population was “non-white,” or by proving in court that at least 60 percent of their voting-age residents were registered.
On the House side, Judiciary Subcommittee No. 5 approved an amended version of H.R. 6400 and voted 10-1 to send the measure to the full Judiciary Committee. As the Senate Judiciary Committee had done, the House committee wrote in a poll-tax ban, provided for poll watchers, and made private citizens criminally liable for interference with voters’ rights.
The House bill, however, retained the administration’s figure of 50 percent as the “trigger” to begin the federal voter machinery (the percentage of voter turnout that would determine which states or districts would fall under the bill).
Soon after the Senate Judiciary Committee reported the voting rights bill, Dirksen responded to those who wrote him on the matter: “I am quite sure that when the Senate has completed action on this proposal it will be fair, reasonable, workable, constitutional and will go to the heart of the discrimination issue where it really exists.”
Clarence Mitchell, Washington Bureau Director for the NAACP, sent Dirksen a telegram:
This is to thank you for the part you played in getting a long standing color bar removed in the U.S. Senate through the appointment of Lawrence Bradford of New York as a page. It seems incredible that this opportunity for bright young people would be denied to a part of our population for so long a time, but you have cut the Gordian Knot at last.
President Johnson issued a statement on the eve of Senate consideration of a voting rights bill:
There can be no forgetting, however, that neither a Voting Rights Act nor any other single act will solve the civil rights problems of the Nation or insure equal justice and equal opportunity for our Negro citizens. Those goals can be achieved only as the result of individual understanding, of community responsibility, and of national good faith. We have, in past months, seen some splendid examples of such action.
“Statement by the President on the Eve of Senate Consideration of the Voting Rights Bill”
Senate debate on the bill began. Southern opponents argued that the measure was unconstitutional in circumventing a state’s right to impose its own voting criteria. Unlike 1964, however, the opponents did not resort to a filibuster. Instead, they sought to weaken the bill by offering scores of amendments. Most were defeated by substantial margins.
Dirksen delivered extended remarks on the Senate floor in defense of S. 1564 in which he reviewed the history of voting rights, the provisions of the 15th amendment to the Constitution, and the work to produce a Senate bill.
Francis Keppel, the U.S. Commissioner of Education, announced that all public schools were to desegregate by the fall of 1967. The announcement was based on the 1964 Civil Rights Act barring federal aid to schools practicing racial discrimination.
Dirksen and Mike Mansfield offered Amendment No. 124 in the nature of a substitute to S. 1564. As Dirksen explained, its purpose was “to give States complete control of their election process when they have ceased to discriminate in the conduct of their elections.”
As Section 2 stated: “No voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.”
The poll tax challenge. Senators debated two approaches to the poll tax. Some favored the committee bill’s approach which imposed a complete ban on all poll taxes, including those in state and local elections.
A second group feared that such a provision would be ruled unconstitutional and, instead, proposed to direct the Attorney General to initiate court proceedings against the taxes.
Mike Mansfield and Everett Dirksen joined forces to delete the committee provision from S. 1564.
An effort by the first group, comprised mostly by Senate liberals, to reinsert into the bill a flat ban on the use of poll taxes as a requirement for voting failed by a narrow 45-49 roll-call vote.
The House Judiciary Committee approved H.R. 6400 with additional amendments by voice vote, and it went to the Rules Committee where it stalled for three weeks.
Dirksen composed the following form letter to respond to critics of the voting rights bill:
I can well understand your interest in the voting rights bill and I think it is essential to point out what it does and what it does not do. It does not abolish literacy tests and it does not abolish poll taxes. It does prohibit a state or sub-division from using either literacy tests or poll taxes as a means whereby the rights of citizens to vote is abridged or denied because of race or color. This is precisely the right assured by the Fifteenth Amendment.
We deal with a national problem and with the matter of insuring domestic tranquility and equality and fair treatment for a large segment of our people. At one time the problem was ignored but it can be ignored no longer and there must be a decent, reasonable and equitable solution.
This is not a case of merely going along with the tide but instead is a question of facing up to the realities of the present day world as evidenced by a considerable volume of testimony and facts indicating discrimination in certain states with respect to voting rights.
The chief law officer of this nation should not be compelled to try to solve this problem a case at a time and after pursuing first one discriminatory incident and then another for two or three years through the courts, to have to start all over again. If we were to rely on this remedy, our great, great grandchildren would never live long enough to see a solution of the problem.
By a 69-20 roll-call vote, the Senate adopted a Dirksen-Mansfield proposal that the Attorney General “forthwith” seek federal court orders against the levying of discriminatory poll taxes.
As debate in the Senate continued, and following three unsuccessful effort by Mansfield to limit debate through unanimous consent, a petition for cloture was filed in the Senate. It was signed by 29 Democrats and 9 Republicans—16 signatures were needed.
The Senate adopted a debate-limiting cloture motion by a 70-30 roll-call vote, setting the stage for passage of S. 1564 the following day. Approval of the cloture motion marked only the second time in history—but the second time in two years—that the Senate had voted to close off debate of a civil rights issue.
In a 23-minute address to the Senate, Dirksen laid out the legislative record of the voting rights bill and previous legislative efforts. He concluded: “I could not think of anything pleasanter than to have some humble citizen meet me in the street and say to me, ‘You made some telling marks in the cause of civil liberty in your time and generation.’ That would be enough for me.”
The Senate passed S. 1564 on a 77-19 vote. Voting for passage was a coalition of 30 Republicans and 47 Democrats. Two Republicans and 17 southern Democrats opposed passage.
President Johnson issued a brief statement following Senate action:
The passage today by the Senate of the voting rights bill I recommended to the Congress on March 15 is 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. By a vote of 77 to 19, the Senate has spoken clearly and firmly.
On behalf of a heartened Nation, I express my appreciation to the Senate leadership, and those who supported them.
“Statement by the President Following Passage by the Senate of the Voting Rights Bill”
H.R. 6400 was reported to the House floor, but there were five weeks of delay before debate actually began as House Rules Committee Chair Howard Smith held up action.
Excerpts from President Johnson’s Commencement Address at Howard University, “To Fulfill These Rights”:
In far too many ways American Negroes have been another nation: deprived of freedom, crippled by hatred, the doors of opportunity closed to hope.
In our time change has come to this Nation, too. The American Negro, acting with impressive restraint, has peacefully protested and marched, entered the courtrooms and the seats of government, demanding a justice that has long been denied. The voice of the Negro was the call to action. But it is a tribute to America that, once aroused, the courts and the Congress, the President and most of the people, have been the allies of progress.
The voting rights bill will be the latest, and among the most important, in a long series of victories. But this victory—as Winston Churchill said of another triumph for freedom—“is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."
That beginning is freedom; and the barriers to that freedom are tumbling down. Freedom is the right to share, share fully and equally, in American society--to vote, to hold a job, to enter a public place, to go to school. It is the right to be treated in every part of our national life as a person equal in dignity and promise to all others.
“Commencement Address at Howard University”
House debate began. As floor manager for H.R. 6400, Emanuel Celler opened debate and said the measure would eliminate the “legal dodges and subterfuges” possible under existing legislation. He called the bill “impervious to all legal trickery and evasion.”
Rules Committee Chair Smith, a leading opponent of civil rights legislation, said the bill was an “unconstitutional” vendetta against the former Confederate states, that it was “dripping in venom,” and that its effect was to make of the Attorney General a “czar” with “almost unlimited power to investigate, to prosecute and to try and convict sovereign states … .”
The House Republican leadership moved to substitute a bill, H.R. 7896, for H.R. 6400. Their proposal would drop the poll-tax ban but authorize court action against discriminatory poll taxes and provided for the appointment of voting examiners.
Republicans might have succeeded except that southern Democrats rallied around the substitute as less objectionable than H.R. 6400. Republican members began to desert their leadership for fear that aligning with the southerners for the GOP bill would be taken as opposition to civil rights.
H.R. 7896 was defeated by 166-215 in a teller vote.
In a roll call vote on passage, the House approved H.R. 6400 by a vote of 333-85. Voting for passage were 112 Republicans and 221 Democrats. The final version contained an amendment which provided criminal penalties for falsifying voting or registration information or for buying votes in federal elections.
Because the House and Senate versions of the voting rights bill differed—especially because the House retained the poll-tax ban—the measure was sent to a conference committee.
The president issued a statement following House passage of the voting rights bill which read in part:
Thus we near the completion of a process almost as old as America itself. Our Revolution established the principle of democratic self-government—a reality for ourselves, a guiding hope for a world then drowned in monarchy and despotism. From that day to this we have labored and fought to extend the suffrage—the central mark of democratic dignity—to more of our people. Barrier after barrier--from property to sex—has fallen before the resistless progress of this most consistent political movement in American history. One major barrier alone remains, that of race and color. Now this too is tumbling.
Once this barrier is down, and if the right is fully exercised, we will enter a new and more hopeful stage in the progress of the Negro American. Possessing this most fundamental instrument of political redress, he can make his needs and his just demands heard and heeded in the politics and, ultimately, in the life of this land. We have been awakened to justice by the sound of songs and sermons, speeches and peaceful demonstrations. But the noiseless, secret vote will thunder forth a hundred times more loudly—inspiring the faithful, summoning the reluctant, and strengthening a Nation in its search for the promise of equality.
“Statement by the President Following Passage of the Voting Rights Bill by the House of Representatives”
Stalemate over the poll-tax ban was short-lived. On this date, the conferees agreed on a final form for the voting rights bill. The poll-tax ban from the House bill was dropped. The Senate proposal that the Attorney General seek court action against enforcement of state and local poll taxes was retained.
The compromise included a “finding” that poll taxes were used to discriminate in some areas and that the constitutional right to vote was “denied or abridged” by payment of the taxes as a pre-condition for voting. This language established the presumption of discrimination in places using the poll tax, signaling to the Supreme Court congressional support for a decision banning the device.
Poll taxes were banned in federal elections by the 24th amendment, ratified in 1964. State and local poll taxes were successfully challenged in a case decided by the Supreme Court in 1966.
The House approved the conference report by a 328-74 vote.
The Senate approved the conference report by a 79-18 roll call vote.
President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (S. 1564—PL 89-110). The law departed from the pattern of civil rights bills of recent years in that it provided for direct federal action to enable blacks to register and vote, rather than the often-protracted individual legal suits required by previous legislation.
The final bill, considerably broader than the original, also provided additional machinery for dealing with discriminatory poll taxes, authorized suspension of tests and the appointment of examiners by federal courts in voting rights suits initiated by the Attorney General, and waived English language requirements for persons who had completed the sixth grade in a school under the American flag where the language instruction was other than English.
The legislation brought the federal registration machinery to bear on six southern states (AL, GA, LA, MS, SC, VA), Alaska, 28 counties in North Carolina, three counties in Arizona, and one county in Idaho.
“Remarks in the Capitol Rotunda at the Signing of the Voting Rights Act”
The Justice Department filed suit to strike down the Mississippi poll tax. The department also suspended literacy tests and similar voter qualification devices in the seven states and most of the separate political subdivisions covered by the new act.
The Attorney General designated the first group of counties and parishes in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi for the appointment of federal examiners to process African American voter applicants and order their registration.
The Justice Department filed suit to strike down the poll tax in Alabama, Texas, and Virginia.
A major race riot broke out in the Watts district of southwest Los Angeles, triggered by a minor incident—a white highway patrolman pulling over a black motorist on suspicion of drunken driving. Before the violence ended on August 16, 34 people were killed with thousands arrested. Property damage amounted to more than $40,000,000.
“Watts Rebellion” (Los Angeles, 1965)