On this Day in 1965, President L.B. Johnson Called for Equal Rights

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.

Monday, March 15, 1965, was a turning point in civil rights and American history. President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress to plead with the passage of the Voting Rights Act

“Open your polling places to all your people,” he declared. “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.”

Johnson borrowing “we shall overcome,” a key phrase from the civil right movements, declared that “every American citizen must have an equal right to vote.”

A Response to Bloody Sunday

Johnson gave the speech as a response to events in and around Selma, Ala., where civil rights leaders were organizing a voting rights campaign. Eight days earlier, state authorities violently suppressed a march by black demonstrators in an incident known as Bloody Sunday.

Civil rights activists marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1965.
Civil rights activists marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1965.

Civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King and over 500 supporters were attacked while planning a march from Selma to Montgomery to register African-Americans to vote. The attacks from the police resulted in the death of two voting rights demonstrators, a young black man, and a white minister. The victims were killed by white men in separate episodes around Selma.

The Voting Rights Act was signed into law on August 6, 1965, by President Lyndon Johnson. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 removed barriers which prevented African Americans to register for voting, such as the banning of poll taxes, literacy tests, proof of residence, and specific identification papers, among other obstacles.

While state and local enforcement of the act were slow, especially in the southern states, the Voting Rights Act gave African-American voters the legal means to challenge ongoing voting restrictions locally and was met with notably improved voter turnout. In Mississippi alone, voter turnout among blacks increased from 6 percent in 1964 to 59 percent in 1969. By the end of 1965, to the National Archives reports that a 250,000 new black voters had registered to vote in the South.

A few years later in 1970, under great political pressure to do so, President Richard Nixon amended the provisions of the Voting Rights Act and lowered the eligible voting age from 21 for all voters to 18.

The Voter Participation Center wrote on its website: the threats against voting rights are no less real than they were 50 years ago, even if they’re more subtle; now that the VRA has been weakened, some state officials are committed to bringing back restrictions on voting that target minorities.

“Today there are no poll taxes or literacy tests. Instead, there are strict and unnecessary voter-identification requirements, or cutbacks to early voting and same-day registration—all of which are known to disproportionately burden black voters.”

Feature images: President Lyndon Johnson shakes hands with civil rights activists, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., after signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Image courtesy the LBJ Presidential Library.

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