Lyndon B. Johnson: Voting Rights Act Address

(redirected from Voting Rights Act Address)

Lyndon B. Johnson: Voting Rights Act Address

On March 15, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress to urge the passage of new voting rights legislation. Although Johnson had successfully engineered the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C.A. § 2000a et seq.) the year before, problems remained. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and other civil rights leaders demanded an end to racially discriminatory voting practices in the South. They organized public protests and voter registration drives that were met with intense resistance from local authorities.

When King and civil rights supporters marched to Selma, Alabama, in 1965 to demand voting rights, police met them with violence, and several marchers were murdered. The Selma violence, which was broadcast on television news programs, galvanized voting rights supporters in Congress. One week later, President Johnson responded by introducing the Voting Rights Act (42 U.S.C.A. § 1973 et seq.), which included the harshest penalties ever imposed for denials of civil rights. Congress enacted the measure five months later.

In his address Johnson confronted the problem of racism and racial discrimination. He declared that "every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right." Johnson reminded the nation that the Fifteenth Amendment, which was passed after the Civil War, gives all citizens the right to vote regardless of race or color, yet states had defied the Constitution and erected barriers based on those forbidden grounds. In Johnson's view no constitutional or moral issue was at stake. Congress simply needed to enforce the amendment with strict penalties.

Johnson, a native of Texas, surprised the nation near the close of his speech when he invoked the famous civil rights anthem and declared "we shall overcome." He was greeted by stunned silence, followed by thunderous applause and tears. It was reported that Dr. King, watching the speech on television from Selma, wept. Many historians view the speech as the watershed moment of the civil rights revolution of the 1960s.

Lyndon B. Johnson: Voting Rights Act Address

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.

There is no Negro problem. There is no southern problem. There is no northern problem. There is only an American problem.And we are met here tonight as Americans—not as Democrats or Republicans—we are met here as Americans to solve that problem.

This was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose. The great phrases of that purpose still sound in every American heart, north and south: "All men are created equal"—"Government by consent of the governed"—"Give me liberty or give me death."…

Those words are a promise to every citizen that he shall share in the dignity of man. This dignity cannot be found in man's possessions. It cannot be found in his power or in his position. It really rests on his right to be treated as a man equal in opportunity to all others. It says that he shall share in freedom, he shall choose his leaders, educate his children, provide for his family according to his ability and his merits as a human being….

Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex and most difficult. But about this there can and should be no argument. Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.

Yet the harsh fact is that in many places in this country men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes….

Experience has clearly shown that the existing process of law cannot overcome systematic and ingenious discrimination. No law that we now have on the books—and I have helped to put three of them there—can ensure the right to vote when local officials are determined to deny it.

In such a case our duty must be clear to all of us. The Constitution says that no person shall be kept from voting because of his race or his color. We have all sworn an oath before God to support and to defend that Constitution.

We must now act in obedience to that oath.

Wednesday I will send to Congress a law designed to eliminate illegal barriers to the right to vote….

To those who seek to avoid action by their National Government in their home communities—who want to and who seek to maintain purely local control over elections—the answer is simple. Open your polling places to all your people. Allow men and women to register and vote whatever the color of their skin. Extend the rights of citizenship to every citizen of this land. There is no constitutional issue here. The command of the Constitution is plain. There is no moral issue. It is wrong—deadly wrong—to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country. There is no issue of States rights or National rights. There is only the struggle for human rights.

I have not the slightest doubt what will be your answer….

But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.

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….

This great, rich, restless country can offer opportunity and education and hope to all—all black and white, all North and South, sharecropper and city dweller. These are the enemies—poverty, ignorance, disease—they are our enemies, not our fellow man, not our neighbor. And these enemies too—poverty, disease, and ignorance—we shall overcome.