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Lyndon B. Johnson: 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.

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