By Robert Mann
Who was really responsible for the 1965 voting rights act? And who inspired the bloody 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, which is portrayed in the new film “Selma“?
I haven’t yet seen the film, but some reviewers and former aides to President Lyndon Johnson are criticizing the filmmaker for portraying LBJ as a reluctant supporter of voting rights and the Selma march.
As CBS reported,
“A December 1964 meeting in the Oval Office is reenacted on the big screen: Martin Luther King, Jr. entreats the help of then-President Lyndon B. Johnson to ensure voting rights for black Americans. ‘Mr. President,’ King says in the film, ‘in the South, there have been thousands of racially motivated murders. . . we need your help.'”
Johnson, according to the movie’s account, responds with a condescending pat on the shoulder and a line that some historians and first-hand witnesses reject: “Dr. King, this thing’s just going to have to wait.”
Historians and some who worked for Johnson have attacked the film’s depiction of Johnson as fiction. As the New York Times reported,
The charge began on Dec. 22, three days before the movie’s release, when Mark K. Updegrove, the director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, wrote an article in Politico saying that the film was trying to “bastardize one of the most hallowed chapters in the civil rights movement.” A few days later, Joseph A. Califano Jr., a former top domestic aide to Johnson, issued another salvo, in The Washington Post, accusing the filmmakers of deliberately ignoring the historical record.
The criticism of the film’s depiction of the president has come not just from Johnson loyalists, but from some historians who said they admired other aspects of the film.
“Everybody has to take license in movies like this, and it can be hard for nit-pickers like me to suspend nit-picking,” Diane McWhorter, the author of “Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution,” said in an interview.
“But with the portrayal of L.B.J.,” she continued, “I kept thinking, ‘Not only is this not true, it’s the opposite of the truth.’ ”
As the author of a 1996 political history of the civil rights movement (The Walls of Jericho: Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Russell and the Struggle for Civil Rights), I devoted much ink to Johnson’s important role in the civil rights movement. It’s certainly not an either-or story. The civil rights laws weren’t all Johnson’s doing, although they would not have become law when they did without Johnson’s skillful leadership. They weren’t all King’s doing, or the marchers, although Johnson would have found it impossible to pass those laws without the pressure and public outrage that the movement and the marches generated.
Both had a role and each played those roles perfectly. At the time, both sides publicly acknowledged the important roles each played in the civil rights movement.
Here, for your edification, are the two chapters from my book which detail how King and the movement worked with Johnson to apply pressure on Congress to pass the 1965 voting rights law:
We Are Demanding the Ballot
FOR YEARS SOUTHERN MEMBERS OF CONGRESS fought to defeat civil rights measures by arguing that such pernicious legislation would inevitably lead to violence and dangerous social upheaval in the former Confederate states. The balance between whites and blacks, they argued, was simply too delicate to alter suddenly with sweeping federal legislation.
The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 proved what many liberals had suspected: Such arguments were not based on legitimate concerns about maintaining peace and harmony; they were merely in sincere excuses for preserving the South’s brutal status quo in race relations. Those who had accepted the threadbare southern arguments against the bill must have been greatly surprised by southern reaction to the legislation’s passage. While Democrats suffered significant electoral losses in the South, the five southern states that Goldwater carried hardly qualified as the electoral disaster predicted by Russell and others. Furthermore, response to the dreaded public accommodations provisions was surprisingly benign: An extensive fifty-three-city survey conducted by the Community Relations Service found “widespread compliance” with the bill’s provisions. “What is most important,” Johnson said in reaction to the report, was that “it shows the law is being obeyed in those areas where some had predicted there would be massive disobedience.” In New Orleans two hundred business leaders – including the manager of the well-known Roosevelt Hotel – put their names on a newspaper advertisement urging compliance with the law. Elsewhere in New Orleans, blacks quietly and peacefully desegregated downtown movie theaters and dined at French Quarter restaurants for the first time. The Jackson, Mississippi, Chamber of Commerce called on its members to obey the law “pending tests of its constitutionality in court.” In Birmingham, where Mayor Albert Boutwell refused to use the city’s resources to enforce the act, blacks and whites ate together in several downtown restaurants; the city’s hotel and motel associations said they would obey the law. Holiday Inns of America told its 488 motels to observe the law. The South’s largest cafeteria chain, Morrison’s, announced it would do the same.
There was resistance. The city of Greenwood, Mississippi, drained its white and black community swimming pools rather than allow blacks and whites to swim together. Despite the peaceful integration of three hotels in Jackson, the Robert E. Lee Hotel closed its doors on July 6, four days after the bill became law. The Mississippi state legislature unanimously praised the hotel’s owners for their “courageous” decision.
There was scattered violence. In Moss Point, Mississippi, a sniper’s bullet wounded a nineteen-year-old black girl as she sang the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” at a voter registration rally on July 7. That day, in Bessemer, Alabama, a band of white men wielding baseball bats assaulted a group of blacks who asked for service at a department-store lunch counter. The most prominent resistance to the bill came on July 3 in Atlanta by Lester Maddox, owner of the Pickwick Restaurant. Aided by angry white customers waving ax handles, Maddox produced a revolver and chased three blacks from his establishment. Three days later, when another black bravely demanded service, Maddox again refused. He called the police, who took away the would-be patron.
In late July, a three-judge panel in Atlanta ordered Maddox to obey the law, a decision that was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in December. In writing for the 9-0 majority, Justice Tom Clark said that Congress possessed clear constitutional authority to enact laws removing obstructions to interstate commerce. “How obstructions in commerce may be removed-what means are to be employed-is within the sound and exclusive discretion of the Congress,” Clark wrote. For Maddox, the unfavorable Supreme Court ruling was not a total defeat. He became a hero among Georgia’s white racists. In 1966 the voters of Georgia – aided by the state legislature – rewarded his contempt for the law of the United States by electing him governor.
As the Supreme Court ruling of December had shown, the Civil Rights Act’s public accommodations provision had sharp teeth. By contrast, the act’s voting rights provision proved a toothless, ineffectual instrument to guarantee black voting rights. Despite three separate acts – the 1957, 1960, and 1964 civil rights bills – Congress had so far been unable to break down the barriers to significant and widespread registration of blacks in the South. Under Dwight Eisenhower, the Justice Department had often been hesitant to employ the meager legal weapons issued by the Congress in the 1957 act. As the Kennedy administration proved with its more determined enforcement of the 1957 and 1960 acts, assertive executive action was severely limited without potent legislation. Because the Justice Department could enforce these laws only through the federal courts, hostile or indifferent southern judges controlled the fates of many voting rights cases. “The avenues for opposition through litigation were so manifold,” observed Stephen Pollak, an attorney in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, “that the pouring of the Civil Rights Division’s total resources into voting discrimination” had resulted “in only minuscule advances.” The existing voting rights statutes, Nicholas Katzenbach said, “were all sort of hopeless, the way judges down there were reading them and administering them. It just never got any body registered.” Katzenbach, now attorney general, quickly learned “that you’re never going to get anywhere going case by case.”
The voting rights provisions of the 1964 act were designed primarily to accelerate the consideration and appeals of voting rights cases. Voting rights suits would be heard expeditiously by a three-judge panel and could be appealed directly to the Supreme Court. The bill also prohibited the unequal application of voter registration laws, outlawed dis qualification for insignificant errors or omissions, and stipulated that a sixth-grade education was adequate proof of literacy. But the law applied only to voting in federal elections.
Despite these stronger provisions, black registration in November 1964 was much lower than white registration in every southern state. Across the South, only 43 percent of eligible blacks were registered, compared to 73 percent of eligible whites. The greatest disparities existed in Mississippi, where 70 percent of eligible whites were registered but only 6.7 percent of eligible blacks; in Alabama, with 71 percent of whites registered to 23 percent of blacks; and Louisiana, with So percent of whites and 32 of blacks.
This deplorable state of black voter registration had lured about nine hundred idealistic college students from northern campuses to Mississippi during the summer of 1964. Under the auspices of the Council of Federate Organizations (COFO), an association of major civil rights groups, the students came flocking southward to participate in a voter education and registration effort known as the Freedom Summer Project. Led by Robert Moses of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the students — mostly whites — went door to door in rural Mississippi, hoping to persuade nonvoting blacks to attend voter education seminars at local churches. After being educated in the art of passing a voter registration test, the would-be voters — at least those with enough courage — were ready to present themselves to the county registrar.
For most of the students, Freedom Summer was no vacation. Resistance among black citizens was high — and rightly so. As Civil Rights Commission member Theodore Hesburgh later remarked, “In some areas, just attempting to vote is tantamount to suicide.” Freedom Summer exacted an awful toll: six murders, thirty homes and buildings bombed, thirty-five churches burned, thirty-five shooting incidents, eighty beatings, and thousands of arrests. The events of the hot Mississippi summer not only highlighted the near-impossibility of black voter registration but exposed the woeful inability of the federal courts and the FBI to register and protect blacks in the South.
From the White House, Johnson watched the Mississippi summer with concern and dread – fearing that events might force him into another divisive civil rights battle in the new session of Congress. If necessary Johnson would be ready with a bill. At his behest, Attorney General Katzenbach had begun drafting voting rights legislation just days after the Civil Rights Act had passed. “I could have shot him,” Katzenbach later said. “I was so tired of being down in the halls of the Congress on the ’64 act.” The charge from Johnson: “I want you to write me the goddamndest, toughest voting rights act that you can devise.” After all, it was Johnson’s sincere belief that ballots paved the path toward full civil rights for blacks. As he told Humphrey, when the blacks get the vote, “they’ll have every politician, North and South, East and West, kissing their ass, begging for support.” By early 1965 the president was prepared to introduce another civil rights bill. This time, it would be his legislation. “He wanted something,” Katzenbach explained, “that was purely Lyndon Johnson.”
Soon the tragic events in a small town in central Alabama would make Johnson’s bill a national priority.
* * *
Selma. An obscure town on the Alabama River in Dallas County was destined to become the civil rights battleground for 1965. Although the countywide voting-age population of 29,515 was almost 58 percent black, its voter rolls were overwhelmingly white. Of 9,877 registered voters, only 355 were black. Of the 795 blacks who attempted to register be tween May 1962 and August 1964, officials had enrolled only ninety three. During that period, registrars had added 945 of 1,232 white applicants to the county voter rolls.
Its sheriff personified the county’s oppression of black citizens. James Clark, a large, short-tempered, forty-three-year-old bully, would soon prove that Bull Connor was not the only inept lawman in Alabama. Clark would become to voting rights what Connor was to the 1963 civil rights debate-a vivid symbol of official southern racism and hostility toward blacks.
Dallas County had first attracted the attention of the federal government in 1961, when the Justice Department sued to prevent the county’s registrars from discriminating against prospective black voters. By 1963, despite a federal injunction against that blatant discrimination, little had changed. Shortly after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Sheriff Clark’s deputies, wielding electric cattle prods, arrested fifty black citizens who appeared at the county courthouse to register to vote.
By late 1964 Selma beckoned Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King suspected that in Selma, as in Birmingham, the authorities would be unable to respond peacefully when blacks marched and attempted to register in massive numbers. On January 2 King launched his Selma campaign, telling a crowd of seven hundred that Alabama’s blacks would take their appeals for voting rights to Governor George Wallace, the state legislature, and ultimately the federal government. “We must be willing to go to jail by the thousands,” he warned his audience. “We are not asking, we are demanding the ballot.”
Although King depended on another overreaction by local authorities, the Selma campaign would be markedly different from his 1963 Birmingham project in one significant respect. This time he would successfully articulate one simple and distinct goal: the right to vote. While Birmingham had helped sway public opinion in the general direction of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, King’s numerous objectives there had been obscure. Blacks in Birmingham had articulated a diffuse collection of demands, including better jobs and desegregation of businesses, restaurants, and public facilities. In the end, however, Birmingham produced little immediate action in Washington. Kennedy was moved to propose legislation, but Congress reacted sluggishly. Not until Kennedy died and Johnson entered the White House did civil rights gain real momentum. In the words of civil rights historian David J. Garrow, although Birmingham “deeply affected the [Kennedys], there was no widespread national outcry, no vocal reaction by the nation’s clergy, and no immediate move by the administration to propose salutary legislation.”
In Selma the demand was focused, forcefully expressed, and easily understood. The black citizens of Dallas County simply demanded the right to participate in the most fundamental exercise of the American democratic process.
In the weeks that followed, Sheriff Clark arrested Selma’s blacks by the hundreds as they marched to the Dallas County Courthouse to register as voters. On January 19 the sheriff ordered a large group of blacks to wait in an alley near the side entrance of the courthouse. When they resisted this indignity, Clark arrested more than sixty of them on charges of unlawful assembly. Clark had walked into King’s trap. The arrests energized Selma’s fledgling protest movement. The next day another group of blacks appeared at the courthouse. Clark blocked their way. Armed with a billy club and a cattle prod, he stood defiantly in the courthouse doorway and issued his order: Wait in the alley! Clark promptly ordered the arrests of 150 citizens who disobeyed his order. The following week King turned up the heat again. The protests escalated. On February 1, King led 265 blacks to the courthouse, violating the city’s parade permit. This time Selma’s police officers arrested them all, including SCLC leaders King and Ralph Abernathy.
When almost 160 black children poured out of Selma’s schools to protest the arrests, Clark played into King’s hands again. With county jails already overflowing with black citizens, Clark ordered his deputies to herd the children toward the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge, six miles outside Selma. Clark’s men waved billy clubs and cattle prods. They forced the terrified youngsters to march out of town at a quick trot. “You like to march so much, so we’ll let you!” Clark shouted. The forced march lasted for three miles, until the deputies allowed the weary and frightened children to “escape.” By week’s end, Clark had imprisoned more than 2,600 of Selma’s black citizens. In an open letter to the New York Times, King pointed to the tragic irony: “There are more Negroes in jail with me than there are on the voting rolls.” Meanwhile, in nearby Marion, Alabama, state troopers arrested nearly seven hundred black students who had peacefully marched to the courthouse to protest the county’s voting rights and public accommodations violations.
Events in Selma unfolded before a horrified national audience. Most graphic and disturbing was an Associated Press photograph taken of Clark as he brought down his billy club on a black woman whom two deputies had wrestled to the ground. True, the woman had landed the first punch to Clark’s left eye, but the photographer did not capture that blow on film. The next day the photograph ran on the front pages of newspapers across the country. As Newsweek observed, the picture was “worth more to Martin Luther King’s registration drive than all the thousands of words” that accompanied the story. Television cameras captured another violent incident involving Clark. When a black preacher, C.T. Vivian, called the sheriff “an evil man” for forcing twenty-five blacks to stand outside the courthouse in a rainstorm, Clark punched Vivian in the face and knocked him to the ground. “One of the first things I ever learned,” Clark later bragged, “was not to hit a nigger with your fist because his head is too hard.” As Selma’s more temperate police chief later observed, King and the SCLC were manipulating Clark “just like an expert playing a violin.”
On February 5, Dallas County authorities released King from jail. He was now more defiant and determined than ever. The voting rights protests would spread across the South, he pledged, but he had particular designs on Alabama. He would work to triple the number of black voters in Alabama for the 1966 Congressional elections and would “purge Alabama of all Congressmen who have stood in the way of Negroes.” The next day President Johnson’s press secretary, George Reedy, announced that the administration had decided to act. Johnson would soon be sending Congress a “strong recommendation” for a voting rights bill.
King left Selma for Atlanta, but the protests continued. In nearby Marion there was more trouble. When four hundred protesters left the Zion Methodist Church to march through town, a small group of Marion policemen, backed up by fifty Alabama state troopers and a motley collection of angry white thugs, was waiting for them. Also in the group was Sheriff Clark, dressed in civilian clothes but wielding a billy club. Ordered to disperse, the marchers refused. Police and troopers tore into the crowd, beating the marchers at random. “They didn’t have to be marching,” recalled one witness. “All you had to do was be black.” In the melee, the police and troopers injured several newspaper reporters and television cameramen. One victim was Cager Lee, an eighty-two year-old man. Shouting, “Nigger, go home,” one of the troopers dragged Lee into the street and kicked him. Several state troopers assaulted Lee’s daughter. Her son, Jimmie Lee Jackson, was shot in the stomach trying to save his mother. He died eight days later. The Montgomery Alabama Journal declared, “Alabama is, once again and worse than ever before, disgraced by mindless ‘police work’ and blood.”
With Jackson’s death, the reinvigorated Selma project had a martyr. King immediately announced a fifty-mile march to Montgomery, where blacks would stage a dramatic rally for voting rights at the State Capitol. “I can’t promise you that it won’t get you beaten,” King told his followers. “I can’t promise you that it won’t get your house bombed. I can’t promise you that you won’t get scarred up a bit. But we must stand up for what is right!”
On the afternoon of Sunday, March 7, over six hundred blacks and a few whites gathered at the Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Despite orders from Governor Wallace prohibiting the march, the group was eager to begin its trek toward Montgomery. Armed with only bedrolls and knapsacks, the marchers wound their way through town and headed for the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which traversed the Alabama River. Along the way the marchers sang the Baptist hymn that had, by now, become the anthem of the civil rights movement:
We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
We shall overcome someday.
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, We shall overcome someday.
As the marchers walked along U.S. Highway So, an imposing unit of sixty state troopers blocked their way about four hundred yards short of the bridge. Headed by Colonel AI Lingo, the troopers were a menacing sight as they stood shoulder to shoulder in several rows, armed with revolvers, billy clubs, helmets, and gas masks. Nearby, spoiling for trouble, were Sheriff Clark’s well-armed men, some of them on horse back. A bloodthirsty crowd of white townspeople was not far away.
As the marchers approached the phalanx of troopers, state police Major John Cloud bellowed into his bullhorn: “Turn around and go back to your church! You will not be allowed to march any further! You’ve got two minutes to disperse!” When the marchers refused to turn back, Cloud gave the order: “Troopers –forward!” In an instant, the heavily armed troopers donned their gas masks and launched them selves into the crowd. A Newsweek reporter described the rest:
The front ranks of the column fell like dominoes before the first rush of state troopers; John Lewis, national chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, went down with a mild skull fracture. At a half-walk, half-run, troopers shoved and clubbed the marchers into retreat. Behind them, the sheriff’s cavalry mounted a Cossack charge into the scattering column. A fresh wave of troopers laid down the first volley of tear-gas canisters. A thick, acrid, blue-gray cloud spread over the high way. Billies flailed, horses dashed in and out, Negroes sprawled and choked and wept and screamed: “Please, no! God, we’re being killed!” And across the road, in front of the Chick-N Treat cafe, a gallery of whites whooped and cheered.
By now the march had disintegrated into a frantic and bloody retreat. The terrified marchers fled toward town. But Clark’s deputies fiercely pursued them. They were spared only when Selma police chief Wilson Baker ordered Clark to keep his men back. “Everything will be all right,” Clark angrily told Baker. “I’ve already waited a month too damn long!” By day’s end the troopers and deputies had beaten the marchers so badly that seventy-eight black citizens required hospital treatment.
Television and newspaper cameras captured the entire ghastly scene. On Monday morning almost every newspaper in the country played the bloody Selma incident on its front page. The national outcry was deafening. In Detroit ten thousand people – led by the city’s mayor and Michigan’s governor – took to the streets in a peaceful but angry protest. Marchers also turned out in Toronto, Illinois, New Jersey, California, Wisconsin, Connecticut, New York, and Washington, D.C. At the White House, Johnson said he “deplored the brutality” in Selma but urged both sides to moderate their actions.
Congress reacted viscerally to the news from Selma, in what Newsweek‘s congressional reporter, Samuel Shaffer, called “a wave of indignation greater than any episode in the long civil rights struggle.” Suddenly lawmakers appeared eager to enact tough, meaningful voting rights legislation. In the Senate, Ralph Yarborough of Texas cried, “Shame on you, George Wallace, for the wet ropes that bruised the muscles, for the bullwhips which cut the flesh, for the clubs that broke the bones, for the tear gas that blinded, burned and choked into insensibility.” In the House, Ohio congressman Wayne Hays proposed cut ting the number of the Alabama delegation in half. Another Ohio congressman, Charles Vanik, suggested closing all of Alabama’s defense and space installations as long as the state “chooses to declare war on the U.S. Constitution.” Vanik declared, “The shame of Selma is the shame of America.”
In Atlanta King said that as a “matter of conscience and in an attempt to arouse the deepest concern of the nation,” he would lead another march to Montgomery on Tuesday, March 9. He issued an urgent call for white clergymen from around the nation to join him. The response surprised even King. The next day more than four hundred ministers, priests, and rabbis streamed into Selma from all regions of the nation. Despite a federal court order postponing the march, King agreed to abide by a secret compromise brokered by the president’s emissary, Community Relations Service chairman LeRoy Collins. Alabama authorities would permit King’s followers to march, but only to the bridge where the previous trek had ended in violence. At that point, they would be allowed to kneel, pray, and then turn around.
On Tuesday afternoon King led 1,500 people from Brown Chapel toward the now-infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge. As he confronted the mass of state troopers, King halted the march. Again Major Cloud stood between the marchers and the long road to Montgomery. “You can have your prayer and then return to church if you so desire,” Cloud told King. The crowd knelt and prayed for fifteen minutes. “We come to present our bodies as a living sacrifice,” Ralph Abernathy said. “We don’t have much to offer, but we do have our bodies, and we lay them down on the altar today.” As the marchers finished their prayers, Cloud issued an unexpected order: “Troopers, withdraw!” Suddenly Highway 80 was clear. Governor Wallace had hoped to bait King into violating the court order against the march. King was more disciplined than the Alabama authorities. “Let’s return to church and complete our fight in the courts,” he said, as the marchers slowly began to reverse course.
That night King tried to put the best face on his partial victory. “At least we had to get to the point where the brutality took place,” he told the gathering at Brown Chapel. “And we made it clear when we got there that we were going to have some form of protest and worship. I can assure you that something happened in Alabama that’s never happened before. When Negroes and whites can stand on High way So and have a mass meeting, things aren’t that bad.”
The day would not be free of violence and tragedy. That night a white Unitarian minister from Boston, James J. Reeb, was attacked as he and two other ministers left a black-owned cafe near downtown Selma. “Hey, niggers!” a group of whites shouted as they pursued the three ministers. All three were beaten, but Reeb sustained the worst injuries. He died two days later in a Birmingham hospital.
To many observers, it appeared that President Johnson had been only a passive, even indifferent observer of the events in Selma. Outside the White House, six hundred demonstrators protested the administration’s perceived inaction by chanting, “LBJ, just you wait. See what happens in ’68” and “LBJ, open your eyes, see the sickness of the South, see the horrors of your homeland.” At the Justice Department, protesters were evicted after staging two sit-ins to protest Johnson’s response to events in Selma. Inside the White House, twelve demonstrators on a regular tour of the mansion began an embarrassing sit-in to protest Johnson’s civil rights policies.
Johnson’s indecision over Selma was mistaken for indifference. Even before Selma – and well before the protests began outside the White House – he had instructed the Justice Department to draft voting rights legislation that would attract bipartisan support in the Senate and the House. Several times Johnson had talked with prominent civil rights leaders to assure them of his commitment to congressional action on voting rights. In his State of the Union Address in early January, the president had urged Congress to pass voting rights legislation, although he had yet to decide whether he would propose a voting rights bill or a constitutional amendment.
The violence in Selma outraged Johnson, although he complained privately that King and his marchers would be more successful “if they were in Washington, working on their senators, getting a voting bill passed.” Master strategist that he was, though, Johnson instinctively understood that Selma had thrown open a window of opportunity through which he could now push strong voting rights legislation. Many liberals and some civil rights leaders were not as strategic in their approach to Selma. They urged Johnson to send federal troops to restore order, a course that would only have complicated matters for the president.
Attorney General Katzenbach, despite his own initial eagerness to dispatch the military, strongly advised Johnson that he lacked authority to make such a decision unilaterally. Katzenbach’s counsel was wise. Had Johnson sent troops to Alabama without a request from state or local officials, he might have provoked further violence and ruined all chances for passage of his voting rights bill. For now, he would reluctantly defer to Katzenbach, even if that caused him to appear indifferent to Selma’s violence. Even so, the unrelenting protests outside the White House, along with the harsh criticism by civil rights leaders and some liberals, hurt Johnson deeply. “Once again,” he later said, “my southern heritage was thrown in my face.”
In Selma, King demanded permission to lead a march all the way to Montgomery. The compromise trek to the Pettus Bridge had been only a temporary solution. Although Johnson wanted to avoid further violence, he would not protect King’s marchers with federal troops unless Alabama officials explicitly requested them. He waited for Wallace to make the next move. “I Make it clear we’re not going to give an inch,” he told aides. “Now that Wallace, he’s a lot more sophisticated than your average southern politician, and it’s his ox that’s in the ditch. Let’s see how he gets it out.” Meanwhile, he told Katzenbach, “let’s have that voting rights bill ready to go to Congress just as soon as we give the word.”
On March 11, Wallace gave Johnson an opening. When the White House learned that the Alabama governor had indicated his desire to meet with the president, Johnson quickly sent word of his willingness to set up an appointment. On Saturday, March 12, Wallace entered the Oval Office for a three-hour meeting. The six-foot-three Johnson invited the diminutive governor to sit on the sofa. Johnson took a seat in a nearby rocking chair. As Wallace’s small frame sank into the cushions, Johnson leaned his imposing frame forward. He almost touched Wallace’s nose with his. “Well, Governor, you wanted to see me?”
For fifteen minutes Wallace anxiously explained to Johnson the need to preserve law and order, quell troublemaking by outside agitators, and keep federal troops out of his sovereign state. “I saw a nervous, aggressive man,” Johnson recalled, “a rough, shrewd politician who had managed to touch the deepest chords of pride as well as prejudice among his people.” When Wallace finished, it was Johnson’s turn. He focused on Wallace’s nervous eyes.
“Now, tell me, how come the Negroes in Alabama for the most part can’t vote?”
“They can vote,” Wallace replied.
“If they’re registered,” Johnson said.
“White men have to register, too.”
“That’s the problem, George; somehow your folks down in Alabama don’t want to register them Negroes. Why, I had a fellow in here the other day, and he not only had a college degree, but one of them Ph.D.s, and your man said he couldn’t register because he didn’t know how to read and write well enough to vote in Alabama. Now, do all your white folks in Alabama have Ph.D.s?”
“Those decisions are made by the county registrars, not by me,” Wallace replied.
“Well then, George, why don’t you just tell them county registrars to register those Negroes?”
“I don’t have that power, Mr. President, under Alabama law—”
“Don’t be modest with me, George, you had the power to keep the president of the United States off the ballot [in the 1964 election]. Surely you have the power to tell a few poor county registrars what to do.”
“I don’t. Under Alabama law they’re independent.”
“Well then, George, why don’t you just persuade them what to do?”
“I don’t think that would be easy, Mr. President, they’re pretty close with their authority.”
“Don’t shit me about your persuasive power, George. Why, just this morning I was watching you on television . . . And you was attacking me.”
“Not you, Mr. President, I was speaking against federal intervention–”
“You was attacking me, George. And you know what? You were so damn persuasive that I had to turn off the set before you had me changing my mind. Now, ordinarily I’m a pretty strong-minded fellow, just like them registrars. Will you give it a try, George?”
Wallace, the former bantamweight boxer, emerged from the lengthy meeting looking slightly punch-drunk, as if he had gone too many rounds with a much larger heavyweight. “Hell,” he said later, “if I’d stayed in there much longer, he’d have had me coming out for civil rights.”
At an impromptu press conference in the Rose Garden, Johnson strode confidently before the waiting microphones. “Never in his sixteen months in office,” wrote a reporter for Time, “was he more in command of the situation.” First Johnson announced that he would send Congress a voting rights bill early the following week. Next he forcefully condemned the violence in Selma: “It is wrong to do violence to peaceful citizens in the streets of their towns. It is wrong to deny Americans the right to vote. It is wrong to deny any person full equality because of the color of his skin.” With Wallace standing somberly just behind his right shoulder, Johnson informed reporters that he had “advised the governor of my intention to press with all the vigor at my command to assure that every citizen of this country is given the right to participate in his government at every level through the complete voting process.” He was, he said, committed to maintaining law and order. “If the state and local authorities are unable to function, the federal government will completely meet its responsibilities.” He had also told Wallace, he said, “that the brutality in Selma last week must not be repeated. I urged that the governor publicly declare his support for universal suffrage in the state of Alabama and the United States of America.”
Despite having applied his considerable persuasive talents to Wallace, Johnson had really wanted only one concession, which he got: Several days later Wallace officially notified the president that his state was unable to bear the financial burden of protecting King’s marchers on their five-day journey from Selma to Montgomery. Johnson in turn federalized the Alabama National Guard. Federal troops would be used, but not because the president had unilaterally ordered them into action; they would be mobilized because the state could not afford them. As Johnson explained, “they were not intruders forcing their way in; they were citizens of Alabama.”
That, Johnson said, “made all the difference in the world.”
We Shall Overcome
NINETY-SIX YEARS AFTER the states had ratified the Fifteenth Amendment, Lyndon Johnson’s voting rights legislation was ready. In its simplest form, it would breathe life into Section I of the moribund constitutional amendment, which declared that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
In contrast to previous voting rights bills, Johnson’s legislation would not rely on federal district courts for enforcement. Instead the president would ask Congress to establish uniform voting standards in those states with the worst histories of voting rights violations. The bill would abolish literacy and other qualification exams in states and jurisdictions where less than half the voting-age citizens had voted in or registered for the November 1964 general elections. In those states, federal registrars could assume responsibility for voter registration. States that blocked federally registered voters from the polls could have their ballots impounded by the courts. Under the bill’s provisions, the federal government would immediately send voting examiners into at least six southern states whose voter turnouts in the November election had been below 50 percent: Mississippi (33 percent), South Carolina (38 percent), Alabama (36 percent), Virginia (41 percent), Georgia (43 percent), and Louisiana (47 percent). Thirty-four counties in North Carolina and one county each in Arizona and Maine would qualify for voting examiners. Another important provision required states in which the bill nullified voter-qualification laws to submit all subsequent changes in voting statutes to a three-judge District of Columbia panel.
The existing voting rights laws – despite considerable litigation by the Justice Department under Kennedy and Johnson – had produced only minor progress in the seven years since the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Johnson now proposed what one Justice Department official called an “almost revolutionary” change: The Justice Department would no longer seek relief from deliberate or hostile federal district courts. Rather, the government could send federal voter registrars directly into states or jurisdictions when the attorney general certified to the U.S. Civil Service Commission that voting rights violations existed.
With the bill ready for introduction, Johnson’s major concern was the manner in which he would present it to Congress. On Sunday evening, March 14, he met in the White House Cabinet Room with Humphrey and the House and Senate leadership to discuss whether he should present his bill to a joint session of Congress. Dirksen and Mansfield opposed a joint session. “Don’t panic now,” Dirksen advised. “This is a deliberative government. Don’t let these people say, ‘We scared him into it.’ ”
Others – Speaker John McCormack, House Majority Leader Carl Albert, and Humphrey – urged Johnson to take his bill directly to Congress. “Logic is what you are saying,” the vice president argued. “But emotions are running high. A message of what this government is doing – simply – is what is needed.” Johnson, who had already decided he should personally present the bill to Congress, readily agreed. In minutes, Humphrey drafted a statement from the Congressional leaders: “The leadership of the Congress [has] invited the president to address a Joint Session of Congress on Monday evening to present the president’s views and outline of a voting rights bill.”
Going before Congress in this way had its risks. Johnson would be placing much of his considerable popularity and power behind a single bill whose passage was likely, but by no means assured. Since Harry Truman had appeared before a joint session in 1946 to request special legislation to end a national railway strike, no president had appeared in the House chamber to present his request for a specific bill. But the drama that the historic speech would produce was exactly what Johnson wanted. As Johnson later explained, “I felt I had to reassure the people that we were moving as far and as fast as we could. I knew this reassurance would not be provided by the cold words of a written message.” The next night, at nine o’clock, Johnson stood at the podium in the House of Representatives. The speech he was about to deliver was hastily prepared. Speechwriter Richard Goodwin had feverishly labored since morning, under intense pressure, to produce a polished text. Even as Johnson stood before the assembled members of Congress, the speech was not yet on the TelePrompTer. Johnson would read the first twelve pages from his loose-leaf binder before aide Jack Valenti could crawl across the floor of the House well and nervously thread the speech tape onto the machine. “I almost died a thousand deaths getting it here in time,” Valenti whispered to the TelePrompTer operator.
Not every member of Congress was in the House chamber as John son began his speech. The Mississippi and Virginia delegations staged a boycott, as did several other southern members. None of this troubled Johnson; his audience was the entire nation, not southern members of Congress.
Beginning his speech forcefully, Johnson immediately placed the voting rights issue into its larger, more significant context:
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 the 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, long-suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many were brutally assaulted. One good man, a man of God, was killed.
There is no cause for pride in what has happened in Selma. There is no cause for self-satisfaction in the long denial of equal rights of millions of Americans.
But there is cause for hope and for faith in our democracy in what is happening here tonight.
For the cries of pain and the hymns and protests of op pressed people have summoned into convocation all the majesty of this great government of the greatest nation on earth.
The issue, Johnson declared, is “the harsh fact that in many places in this country, men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes.” Current laws, he insisted, “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.” The Constitution, Johnson said, is clear: no one can be denied his voting rights because of his race or color. “We have all sworn an oath before God to support and to defend that Constitution,” he declared. “We must now act in obedience to that oath.”
On Wednesday, he said, he would “send to Congress a law designed to eliminate illegal barriers to the right to vote.” And he noted that the last civil rights bill passed “after eight long months of debate.” This time, Johnson insisted, “there must be no delay, or no hesitation or no compromise with our purpose . . . We ought not, we must not wait an other eight months before we get a bill. We have already waited a hundred years and more and the time for waiting is gone. So I ask you to join me in working long hours, nights and weekends, if necessary, to pass this bill. And I don’t make that request lightly.”
With his next words, Johnson elevated himself and his presidency to a higher plane – linking himself inextricably and forever with the noble cause of civil rights:
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.
Then, for one brief, dramatic moment Johnson paused. Raising his arms like an evangelical preacher certain of the righteousness of his message, Johnson declared:
And we shall overcome!
For a split second, the chamber was quiet. Perhaps his audience was ever so stunned that the president of the United States had, as Richard Goodwin said, “adopted as his own rallying cry the anthem of black protest, the hymn of a hundred embattled black marches.” Suddenly the entire chamber exploded in spontaneous, rapturous applause. Congress men, senators, cabinet members, Supreme Court justices leapt to their feet in an emotional, thunderous ovation. House Judiciary Committee chairman Emanuel Celler cheered wildly. Tears welled in the eyes of Majority Leader Mansfield. In the gallery, blacks and whites wept openly. Watching the speech in far-away Selma, Martin Luther King cried. Next to Harry McPherson sat a glum southern congressman, who, shocked by Johnson’s words, simply sputtered, “Goddamn!”
The real hero of the civil rights struggle, Johnson continued
is the American Negro. His actions and protests, his courage to risk safety and even to risk his life, have awakened the con science of this nation. His demonstrations have been designed to call attention to injustice, designed to provoke change, designed to stir reform. He has called upon us to make good the promise of America. And who among us can say that we would have made the same progress were it not for his persistent bravery, and his faith in American democracy.
As he ended his forty-five-minute speech, Johnson recalled for his audience his first post-college job, as a teacher at a Mexican-American school in Cotulla, Texas:
My students were poor and they often came to class without breakfast, hungry, and they knew even in their youth that pain of prejudice. They never seemed to know why people disliked them. But they knew it was so. Because I saw it in their eyes.
I often walked home late in the afternoon after the classes were finished, wishing there was more that I could do. But all I knew was to teach them the little that I knew, hoping that it might help them against the hardships that lay ahead.
Somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its Scars on the hopeful faces of a young child.
I never thought then in 1928 that I would be standing here in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country.
But now I do have that chance and I’ll let you in on a secret. I mean to use it. And I hope that you will use it with me.
When Johnson finished, the assembled members of Congress rose for another standing ovation. As he walked out of the chamber, down the center aisle, Johnson came face to face with the House Judiciary Committee chairman Emanuel Celler.
“Manny, I want you to start hearings tonight.”
Celler was stunned. “Mr. President, I can’t push that committee or it might get out of hand. I’m scheduling hearings for three days next week, beginning Tuesday.”
Johnson was persistent. “Start them this week, Manny. And hold night sessions, too.”
Then, Johnson walked away. In the words of Time: “He strode from the chamber a changed man, confident . . . that he had launched the U.S. itself inexorably toward a new purpose.”
When Johnson delivered his historic speech, Richard Russell was a thousand miles away. Following more than a month’s confinement at Walter Reed Army Hospital, Russell had left town to recuperate in Puerto Rico, then in Florida, and finally in Winder. He suffered from a pulmonary edema, a condition in which his emphysema-damaged lungs became congested with fluid and restricted his breathing. Despite intensive medical treatment, his condition had worsened. Doctors were finally forced to perform a tracheotomy to assist his breathing. “Not a day goes by that my thoughts and those of Lady Bird and the girls are not with you,” Johnson wrote to Russell on February 11. Throughout Russell’s hospitalization, Johnson phoned Walter Reed almost every day and received periodic reports on Russell’s condition from his aides. “I lean on you so much, Dick,” Johnson wrote, “and not having you where I can talk to you is an unfillable void.”
Russell’s extended absence from the Senate – he would not return to work in Washington until May 24 – only fueled speculation that he would not run again in 1I966. Rumors abounded in Washington and in Georgia that Russell might not recover, or that Governor Carl Sanders would challenge him for reelection. “I am sure you and the president are well aware of the implications of anything incapacitating happening to Senator Richard Russell,” Atlanta Constitution editor Ralph McGill wrote to White House aide Jack Valenti on February II. “This would immediately produce the crisis in southern political leadership that might be an opportunity to loosen it up a bit now that Strom Thurmond is out of it.” McGill hastened to add that he was not “indulging in any wishful thinking.”
Although Russell would eventually recover and move aggressively to head off any challenge to his Senate seat, his impact on the voting rights debate would be negligible. His illness aside, it is difficult to imagine how even a healthy Russell could have altered the dynamics of the debate over an immensely popular bill. In truth, Russell no longer exercised a disproportionate influence on most legislative questions; his voting record on major issues now placed him outside the Senate’s main stream. In the previous two years, for example, he had voted against a host of successful Johnson administration proposals besides civil rights, including the nuclear test-ban treaty, the War on Poverty bill, the Manpower Training Act, tax reduction legislation, federal aid to higher education, and a wheat deal with Russia. In Russell’s absence, southern leadership had fallen to Allen Ellender, the seventy-five-year-old senator from Louisiana who was the most senior southerner after Russell. Although colleagues respected Ellender for his intelligence and integrity, in the end he would provide the same unimaginative and purely defensive leadership that had characterized Russell’s efforts in 1I964.
Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1I964 had left the southerners reeling. Now, just as they had begun to recover, Johnson and the Senate’s liberals came charging again with an extremely popular voting rights measure. “The Senate is like the South after Grant took Richmond,” a liberal senator told the Saturday Evening Post in March. “The southern generals are still brilliant, but their troops are old and tired, and there simply aren’t enough to go around.”
The liberal Democratic ranks had grown by two seats in the 1964 elections; Democrats in the Senate now held a 68-32 advantage over Republicans, their largest margin since 1940. Unlike their aging southern conservative counterparts, the liberals had energized their ranks with the addition of young men in their 30s – Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, 33, and Joseph Tydings of Maryland and Birch Bayh of Indiana, both 37.
A particular cause of the southerners’ gloom was the cloture triumph of 1964. The filibuster’s absolute failure had crippled their ability to mount another offensive against civil rights in 1965. Russell believed, in the words of one friend, that once the southerners had “lost their virginity,” cloture would be easily repeated in 196;. That sentiment was echoed by an aide to a southern senator, who candidly explained to the Wall Street Journal, “They’re tired. Many of them have been sick. And the civil rights fight last year really took the heart out of most of them.” Adding to the southerners’ helpless distress was the way that John son’s brilliant speech energized the supporters of a strong voting rights bill. Typical was the review of journalists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, who called it “the best, most genuinely moving speech” that Johnson had made as president. The speech “had been a summons and a sermon,” historian Doris Kearns observed. “It had been that rare thing in politics, rarer still for Lyndon Johnson – a speech that shaped the course of events.” Eloquently written and brilliantly delivered, the speech capitalized on the powerful emotions that Selma had generated. In only forty-five minutes, Johnson transformed the nation’s raw outrage over violence in Alabama into an undeniable determination to secure – with powerful legislation – the voting rights of all Americans.
The guardians of the Old South were further disturbed by a growing apostasy in their own ranks. Louisiana’s Russell Long, elected to succeed Humphrey as Democratic whip, signaled that he might find the courage to support the bill. On March 17, the morning after attending a private party at which Long was present, White House aide Jim Jones informed the president that Long had “spoke[n] in strong support of the Voting Rights bill (although he said he would work for some amendments).” Long suggested he could persuade eleven of twenty-two southern senators to support the bill, and, Jones reported, “he will carry these eleven votes into the Southern caucus in hopes of thwarting a big filibuster attempt.” At least two other erstwhile civil rights opponents, George Smathers and J. William Fulbright, appeared to have little stomach for a spirited filibuster. Even Harry Byrd, Virginia’s venerable segregationist, seemed to lose his zest for the fight. Asked by Newsweek’s congressional reporter, Samuel Shaffer, if he would participate in the southern filibuster, Byrd replied, “Yes, I’ll have to do my part, but you know you can’t stop this bill. We can’t deny the Negroes a basic constitutional right to vote.”
As Byrd’s extraordinary statement demonstrated, the southern reflex to oppose all civil rights legislation usually overpowered their professed loyalty to the Constitution. Even though they opposed the bill – on constitutional grounds, they argued – most southern senators were never fond of fighting voting rights legislation. “It simply was not a respectable argument to make [that blacks should not vote],” Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach said, “and none made it.” As Newsweek columnist Kenneth Crawford had observed, southern senators realized that “slobbish deputies have supplanted colorful orators as symbols of Dixie . . . Bad conscience about the trickery by which Negroes have been kept away from Southern polls has had a disquieting effect even on some who remain unreconciled to equal access to public accommodations and other concessions to Negroes.”
On March 18 Mike Mansfield asked the Senate to refer the voting rights bill to the Judiciary Committee with instructions to report it by April 9. “That is a pitiful thing,” complained John Stennis before the vote, “if we really mean to study a proposal of this magnitude.” Judiciary chairman James Eastland, whose committee had never willingly reported a civil rights bill, unwittingly provided the Senate ample reason to impose Mansfield’s deadline. “Let me make myself clear,” Eastland declared. “I am opposed to every word and every line in the bill.” Later that day senators voted 67-13 to give Eastland’s committee no more than fifteen days to return with a bill. Despite its chairman’s vehement op position, there was little doubt that the committee – which now included a solid, influential bloc of nine liberals – would favorably report the legislation.
Meanwhile in the House, Attorney General Katzenbach began his testimony for the legislation, telling the Judiciary Committee that the administration bill represented a “new approach, an approach which goes beyond the tortuous, often ineffective pace of litigation . . . a systematic, automatic method to deal with discriminatory tests, with discriminatory testers, and discriminatory threats.” Although some Republicans complained that the bill was too narrow to eradicate small pockets of voter discrimination, Chairman Celler was now in firm control of his committee. Applying the lessons of his near debacle in committee the previous year, he now said he would not allow the bill to become “freighted down” with amendments that might jeopardize its passage. Despite Celler’s concerns, House passage was inevitable. Following the 1964 elections, the Democrats now controlled 295 seats to the Republicans’ 140 — an advantage of 155 seats and the largest Democratic majority since 1938.
Three days later, on March 21, Martin Luther King and thirty-four hundred followers embarked on the first leg of a four-day, fifty-four-mile march from Selma to Montgomery. The marchers – protected by a thousand U.S. military police, nineteen hundred federalized Alabama National Guardsmen, U.S. marshals, and FBI agents – arrived in Montgomery on Thursday, March 25. As they converged on the Capitol grounds for a massive rally, Governor Wallace cowered in his office. He reneged on a promise to meet with a small group of demonstrators. Instead, Wallace meekly peeked through his tightly shut Venetian blinds and muttered to aides, “That’s quite a crowd.” King, in his speech, reminded the marchers that they had overcome powerful odds in their trek to Montgomery. “And there were those who said that we would get here only over their dead bodies, but all the world today knows that we are here and that we are standing before the forces of power in the state of Alabama, saying ‘We ain’t goin’ let nobody turn us around.'”
In Washington, the Senate and House Judiciary committees quickly put their imprints on the voting rights bill. Remarkably, both panels approved bills that were much stronger than the original administration version. In the Senate, the Judiciary Committee added a ban on poll taxes in state and local elections and an additional trigger mechanism that would authorize the appointment of federal voting registrars in states or voting districts where fewer than 25 percent of eligible minority citizens were registered. The Senate committee did, however, weaken the bill slightly in other areas. At Dirksen’s behest, and with administration support, Judiciary members narrowly voted to permit states with literacy tests and low turnout to escape from the bill’s automatic trigger mechanism if less than 20 percent of their voting-age population was nonwhite. Dirksen also persuaded the committee to exempt a state or locality from the bill if its voting participation in the most recent presidential election exceeded the national average or at least 60 percent of the voting-age residents were registered. This provision meant that the bill would not apply to any state or political district outside the South. Some liberals found this particularly bothersome. They argued – accurately, it turned out – that more crafty southern states might try to release themselves from the bill’s grip simply by increasing their white registration. Another Dirksen amendment changed a provision that would have allowed states and counties to exempt themselves from the bill by persuading a three-judge court in Washington that they had not practiced discrimination during the preceding ten years. Dirksen insisted on reducing that time by half.
Dirksen’s negotiations over the bill’s specifics differed from his 1964 effort in one significant respect: This time, after the events in Selma, the Republican leader’s ultimate support for the voting rights bill had never been in doubt. At first he had discounted the need for a voting rights bill, believing that the provisions of the 1964 act were sufficient. But the brutality of authorities in Alabama shocked and deeply offended him. After Selma he told his aides that he would support “revolutionary” legislation to guarantee the right to vote. Initially Dirksen recoiled from the idea of sending federal registrars into the South, preferring more aggressive enforcement through the federal courts. Yet he kept an open mind, conferring often with Johnson and Katzenbach while Justice Department attorneys drafted the bill in February. “My real concern,” Dirksen said; “is not to put anyone in jail, but to get people to vote.” Finally Dirksen acknowledged that many federal courts in the South could not be trusted to enforce the law. He reluctantly agreed to support the registrar provision, but only if the bill called them “examiners” and only if the trigger provision applied to just seven Southern states.
Dirksen’s approach to voting rights was strikingly similar to his negotiating style throughout the civil rights debate of 1964. Joined by aides to Mansfield, Justice Department officials engaged in intense negotiations with several Dirksen aides, including his chief representative, Neal Kennedy. For days the group reviewed “every line of the bill” in response to the many questions that Kennedy raised for Dirksen. Ultimately the administration yielded little of substance. Rather, as one Justice Department participant observed, the tedious negotiating process primarily permitted Dirksen “to come forward with a changed bill so that he could justify to his party moving from a skeptic position, or an opposition position, to a supporting position.” Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach later remembered Dirksen’s role less charitably: “He was demonstrating his power. [He believed that] he was the important guy, you needed him. It was something of an ego trip.” Dirksen of course saw his own role in the most favorable, altruistic light. He quoted Abraham Lincoln to justify his evolution from civil rights opponent to one of its most vocal champions: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new so must we think anew and act anew.”
While he tinkered with the bill at its margins, Dirksen was genuinely concerned about two provisions. He wanted to restrain the bill’s power to dispatch voting registrars to the South, and he worried about the constitutionality of its poll tax provision. On the poll tax question, Johnson, Mansfield, and Katzenbach shared Dirksen’s concerns. They feared the negative consequences in the South if the Supreme Court eventually ruled that Congress could ban poll taxes only by constitutional amendment. Congress had previously taken that route in 1962, when it passed an amendment banning poll taxes in federal elections. There were also Supreme Court precedents to consider. In 1937 and in ’95’ the court had rejected the notion that poll taxes were de facto violations of the Fifteenth Amendment. In fact, not every state that imposed a poll tax (Vermont, for example) used it to exclude black voters. As Katzenbach wrote in a memorandum to Johnson:
First, the ban is an invitation to persons not to pay these taxes. Should the Court hold the ban unconstitutional, thousands of first-time voters in Alabama, Mississippi and Virginia, who have been misled into failing to pay their taxes, may lose their vote in important State elections. The second danger is the very seriously damaging impact of a judicial declaration of unconstitutionality with respect to any portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
On April 30 Mansfield and Dirksen offered a substitute for the Judiciary Committee bill. It became the Senate’s pending business. Though very similar to the committee draft, the leadership proposal was different in two important respects. First, with Dirksen’s reluctant approval, it eliminated the “escape clause” that would have released states from the bill’s provisions when at least 6o percent of their adult residents were registered. Second, it dropped the poll tax ban. In its place, Mansfield and Dirksen inserted language authorizing the attorney general to initiate “forthwith” court proceedings against enforcement of any poll taxes used in a discriminatory fashion.
The Senate’s liberals generally favored the leadership bill. Michigan’s Philip Hart, the only senator to have participated in the day-to-day negotiations between Justice officials and Dirksen’s staff, argued that the bill “is stronger and better balanced than the original legislation sent to Congress. But it is our intention to improve it.” That meant insisting on the poll tax ban, despite administration warnings that such an amendment might eventually render the bill unconstitutional. Even Humphrey could not reason with his former liberal colleagues; they remained determined to press for an amendment to restore the anti-poll tax provision. Led by Massachusetts freshman Edward Kennedy and New York’s Jacob Javits, the liberals believed that the Judiciary Committee’s outright ban was indeed constitutional. “There is no purpose in leaving this issue to the Supreme Court rather than seeking an act of Congress,” Kennedy said, “if, admittedly, the congressional finding is to the effect that we believe, in 1965, that poll taxes have the effect of discriminating against many citizens and depriving them of their constitutional rights.”
Dirksen was a notoriously flexible man. On the poll tax question, however, he refused to budge. He had already relinquished his “escape clause” provision during his negotiations over the leadership substitute. Now he declared flatly that if the bill contained a poll tax ban, “I would have difficulty going to any other senator and asking him to vote for cloture. Then it would be a fielder’s choice. It would be every man for himself.” Attorney General Katzenbach shared Dirksen’s views on the poll tax issue and knew he could not afford to lose the minority leader’s crucial support. “If we had not opposed the flat ban,” he later explained to Johnson, “I believe Senator Dirksen, Senators Aiken and Prouty of Vermont, and other Republicans would probably [have been] lost for cloture. With only 4; Democratic votes, we could not prevail without these Republicans.” Injecting himself into the Senate debate for the first time, Johnson announced that, although he sympathized with Kennedy and Javits, he supported Mansfield and Dirksen. “I have always been opposed to the poll tax,” the president said. “I am opposed to it now. [But] I have been advised by constitutional lawyers that we have a problem in repealing the poll tax by statute.”
Except for this one issue, the leadership commanded a solid majority of the Senate, as evidenced by the first vote on a southern amendment on May 6. North Carolina’s Sam Ervin took direct aim at the heart of the bill – the automatic appointment of voting examiners – with an amendment to give federal district courts the power to authorize their appointment. The trigger provision, some southerners argued, invested too much power in the hands of the attorney general. “People shout about the powers of the Attorney General,” Dirksen finally said in frustration. “I wish someone would tell me who in our form of government is to enforce the Constitution and the law if it is not the Attorney General. Will someone point to a law officer or to an administrator who is going to do it except the Attorney General?” The Senate rejected Ervin’s amendment, 25-64. Only five southern Democrats, none from the Deep South, voted with the majority.
The vote was significant. It was an overwhelming endorsement by the Senate of the bill’s toughest and most important provision. Ervin’s crushing defeat meant that the southerners would have almost no hope of making substantive inroads into the bill. The absurd arguments that some of them made against the bill only worsened their dilemma. “I make the statement,” Strom Thurmond solemnly declared to the Senate on May 3, “that no one in South Carolina is unconstitutionally denied the right to vote. There have been no valid complaints by anyone.” Thurmond then claimed that the bill would result in “a totalitarian state in which there will be despotism and tyranny.” James Eastland saw similar consequences if Congress enacted the bill. “This bill is the worst kind of tyranny,” he said on May 6. “This bill and the civil rights bill passed last year are the most far-reaching acts in the history of this country. These bills are designed to destroy the culture and the civilization of a great people . . . Some say that this bill furthers democracy. The cold facts are that we are watching the sun set on human liberty and individual freedom in this country.”
Little that the southerners could say, however, would hold much sway in the Senate in 1965. Although most of them would vote against Kennedy’s poll tax amendment, the alternative was hardly more to their liking. After all, the issue was not whether Congress should completely abolish the poll tax. The only question was how would it do so? The irony of the southerners’ situation — rejecting an outright ban in favor of an aggressive, congressionally mandated court challenge — did not escape Paul Douglas. On May 10 he wryly noted that many southerners “who would support the Mansfield-Dirksen position” were the same senators “who, in the past, have chided the Court for usurping legislative functions.” These southerners, Douglas said, “are now saying that we should leave this legislative duty to the courts.”
On May 11, with all but five southern Democrats voting with the leadership, the Senate rejected the Kennedy-Javits poll tax amendment, 45-49. Although Martin Luther King decried the Senate vote as “an insult and blasphemy,” the matter was not yet resolved. The provision was still alive in the House. The following day the House Judiciary Committee reported a voting rights bill that included a ban on the poll tax as a voting requirement. A week later Mansfield and Dirksen moved to mollify the liberals by sponsoring an amendment, declaring that poll taxes did infringe on the constitutional right to vote. While still hoping that the final bill would contain an outright ban, Kennedy accepted the amendment. He admitted that “it does strengthen the poll tax section of the bill [and] will make the task of the Attorney General that much easier in the suits he is directed to bring.” The amendment passed, 69-20.
In the Senate, at least, the way seemed clear to final passage. Yet southerners remained intransigent. Though not quite engaged in a full-fledged filibuster, they were determined to press ahead with scores of amendments — and they would take their time doing it.
On three occasions, Mansfield requested unanimous consent to speed up debate on the bill by imposing a one-hour time limit on each amendment. Each time Ellender objected. With seventy-one amendments pending or awaiting introduction, Dirksen became exasperated. “There are mountainous pieces of legislation still to come,” he complained after the Senate rebuffed Mansfield’s first request on May 12. His colleagues, he added, should begin preparing for a long session. In fact, he said sarcastically, senators “better start buying Christmas presents.” By the time of his third request on May 19, Mansfield announced his intention to move forcefully to end debate. On May 21, he filed a cloture motion signed by thirty-eight senators. A vote was set for the following week.
On May 25, after rejecting more than a dozen weakening amendments offered by Sam Ervin and John Stennis, the Senate held a decidedly anticlimactic vote. Senators imposed cloture by a 70-30 margin. The feckless filibuster was over. It was the twenty-fifth day of debate and only the second time in the Senate’s history that a filibuster of a civil rights bill had been stopped. Both had occurred within a year’s time. Once cloture was assured, the southern opposition completely col lapsed. “The way things are,” said Ervin, one of the few southerners who had shown any enthusiasm for the debate, “I don’t think I could even get a denunciation of the Crucifixion in the bill.” A recuperated Russell, who had returned to the Senate on May 24, summed up the sentiment among southerners when he told Time, “If there is anything I could do, I would do it. But I assume the die is cast.”
The next day, facing little opposition from the southerners, the Senate voted, 77-19, to send the voting rights bill to the House. Thirty Republicans joined forty-seven Democrats in support of the bill, but the South gave little ground. Three moderate southerners who had seemed ready to break with their diehard colleagues – Democratic whip Russell Long, former whip George Smathers, and J. William Fulbright – remained securely within the fold of the southern bloc. Only five marginal southerners – Ross Bass and Albert Gore of Tennessee, Fred Harris and Mike Monroney of Oklahoma, and Ralph Yarborough of Texas – supported the bill.
The House bill differed only slightly from the Senate-passed version, but there was one important difference: Liberals on the Judiciary Committee managed to restore the poll tax ban that the Senate had narrowly rejected. Although the committee formally reported the bill to the House on June 1, Rules Committee chairman Howard Smith promptly applied the brakes and delayed consideration of the bill for a month. When the House debate finally began on July 6, two prominent Republicans – Minority Leader Gerald Ford and Judiciary member William McCulloch – sparked what David Broder called “a major battle for political credit” among blacks and civil rights activists. Ford and McCulloch offered a much weaker substitute bill that did not ban the poll tax. It also replaced the automatic trigger for voting examiners with a milder provision authorizing examiners only after the attorney general received twenty-five or more complaints. Furthermore, the Republican measure did not ban literacy tests in states with low voting records, nor did it include the committee provision requiring a Washington court to approve all voting laws passed by the delinquent states. After House members rejected the Republican bill, 215-166, Johnson declared that the substitute “would have seriously damaged and diluted the guarantee of the right to vote for all Americans.” In an angry response, Ford and McCulloch said that Johnson’s past opposition to civil rights qualified him as a “Lyndon-come-lately” on the issue. “Lyndon Johnson,” they said, “has traveled a crooked path” to become an advocate of civil rights legislation.
While moderates and conservatives had found the Republican amendment an attractive alternative to the administration bill, other House members were in no mood for the kind of protracted, bruising battle with the Senate that the Ford-McCulloch substitute threatened. Near-unanimous Republican support for the substitute bill had seemed assured until a July 7 speech by Virginia Democrat William Tuck, who argued that civil rights opponents should support the Republican bill. Fearing that the public would interpret their votes for the Ford McCulloch bill as a vote against voting rights, at least fifteen Republicans threw their support to the Judiciary Committee bill. On July 9 the House overwhelmingly passed the voting rights bill – including the poll tax ban – by a vote of 333-85. In all, thirty-six southerners (thirty-three Democrats and three Republicans) supported the bill, including a former opponent of civil rights, Majority Whip Hale Boggs of Louisiana.
House and Senate conferees began their first meeting in an atmosphere of optimism. The only significant difference between the two bills was the poll tax question. But proposals by Dirksen and House Judiciary Chairman Celler to strengthen the Senate’s poll tax provision did not satisfy House liberals. Meanwhile some House Republican conferees, hoping that the poll tax question would bring down the entire bill, were even less inclined to compromise. It was just this possibility of a bill-killing deadlock that brought liberals and civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King to their senses. Once they had derided the Senate bill as a sellout because of its weaker poll tax provision. Now reality began to set in. Disagreements over the poll tax, which was then employed to discriminate in only four states, were simply not serious enough to risk bringing down an otherwise strong and effective bill. “While I would have preferred that the bill eliminate the poll tax at this time – once and for all,” King told Attorney General Katzenbach on July 28, “it does contain an express declaration by Congress that the poll tax abridges and denies the right to vote.” King expressed confidence that the Senate’s poll tax provision, if vigorously pursued by the attorney general, “will operate finally to bury this iniquitous device.” The next day, with King’s statement in hand, Katzenbach persuaded House liberals to yield to the Senate. Senate conferees responded by dropping several provisions to which the liberals objected, including one that exempted from the bill those areas whose voting-age populations were less than 20 percent nonwhite. On August 3 House members passed the conference report on the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in a lopsided vote, 328-74. The following day, after a perfunctory debate, the Senate adopted the report, 79-18. This time, six “southerners” supported the bill: Smathers, Bass, Gore, Harris, Monroney, and Yarborough. Only one Republican, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, voted no.
Two days later, on August 6, a joyous Lyndon Johnson – “I would rarely see him happier,” aide Joseph Califano later said – went to the Capitol to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Speaking in the Capitol Rotunda before the signing, Johnson seized the moment to deliver another memorable and emotional speech:
Today is a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield. Yet to seize the meaning of this day, we must recall darker times.
Three-and-a-half centuries ago the first Negroes arrived at Jamestown. They did not arrive in brave ships in search of a home for freedom. They did not mingle fear and joy, in brave expectation that in this new world anything would be possible to a man strong enough to reach for it.
They came in darkness and they came 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 . . .
This law covers many pages. But the heart of the act is plain. Wherever – by clear and objective standards – states and counties are using regulations, or laws, or tests to deny the right to vote, they will he struck down. If it is clear that state officials still intend to discriminate, the federal examiners will he sent in to register all eligible voters. When the prospect of discrimination is gone, the examiners will he immediately withdrawn.
Under this act, if any county anywhere in this nation does not want federal intervention it need only open its polling places to all of its people.
Johnson told a national television audience and the assembled members of Congress that the attorney general would begin filing lawsuits the next morning. The Justice Department would challenge the constitutionality of Mississippi’s poll tax and would officially begin to certify states where voting discrimination existed. By the following Monday, Johnson said, the Justice Department would begin designating “many counties where past experience clearly shows that federal action is necessary and required. And by Tuesday morning, trained federal examiners will be at work registering eligible men and women in ten to fifteen counties.” On that day, he said, the Justice Department would file poll tax suits in Texas, Alabama, and Virginia.
And I pledge you that we will not delay or we will not hesitate or we will not turn aside, until Americans of every race and color and origin in this country have the same right as all others to share in the process of democracy.
But these new rights carried responsibilities, Johnson said:
Presidents and Congresses, laws and lawsuits can open the doors of the polling places, and open the doors to the wondrous rewards which await the wise use of the ballot.
But only the individual Negro, and all others who have been denied the right to vote, can really walk through those doors and can use that right and can transform the vote into an instrument of justice and fulfillment.
So, let me now say to every Negro in this country: You must register. You must vote. You must learn, so your choice advances your interest and the interest of our beloved nation. Your future, and your children’s future, depend on it, and I don’t believe that you are going to let them down.
Johnson directed his closing words to the nation at large:
The central fact of American civilization – one so hard for others to understand – is that freedom and justice and the dignity of man are not just words to us. We believe in them. Under all the growth and the tumult and abundance, we believe. And so, as long as some among us are oppressed – and we are part of that oppression – it must blunt our faith and sap the strength of our high purpose.
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.