On this day in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress and called for new legislation to guarantee every American’s right to vote. LBJ delivered the address on March 15 in response to events in Selma, Alabama that were the political and emotional peak of the civil rights movement. Just eight days earlier on March 7, 1965, also known as Bloody Sunday, some 600 civil rights demonstrators had set out to march from Selma. They were stopped after just six blocks and violently suppressed by state and local lawmen who attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas. In separate episodes around Selma, two demonstrators – a young black man and white minister – were also killed by white men. On March 9, Martin Luther King, Jr. led a “symbolic” march to the bridge where the march had been suppressed. Then, civil rights leaders sought court protection for a third march from Selma to Montgomery. Federal District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. ruled:
The law is clear that the right to petition one's government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups … and these rights may be exercised by marching, even along public highways.
On March 21, about 3,200 demonstrators set out for Montgomery and by the time they reached the capitol four days later, some 22,000 had joined them.
In his speech on March 15, 1965, President Johnson referred to the significance of Selma:
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. 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 the right to vote...Yet the harsh fact is that in many places in this country men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes... No law that we now have on the books...can insure the right to vote when local officials are determined to deny it... 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.
In his speech, President Johnson proposed legislation dictating clear, uniform guidelines for voting regardless of race or ethnicity and allowing all citizens to register to vote free from harassment. Outlining the main proposals of the legislation, LBJ explained:
This bill will strike down restrictions to voting in all elections—federal, state, and local—which have been used to deny Negroes the right to vote.
This bill will establish a simple, uniform standard which cannot be used, however ingenious the effort, to flout our Constitution.
It will provide for citizens to be registered by officials of the United States Government if the State officials refuse to register them.
It will eliminate tedious, unnecessary lawsuits which delay the right to vote.
Finally, this legislation will ensure that properly registered individuals are not prohibited from voting.
But President Johnson also noted that legislation was not enough, there would also be a battle for the hearts and minds of everyone in the nation:
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…
The time of justice has now come. I tell you that I believe sincerely that no force can hold it back. It is right in the eyes of man and God that it should come. And when it does, I think that day will brighten the lives of every American.
For Negroes are not the only victims. How many white children have gone uneducated, how many white families have lived in stark poverty, how many white lives have been scarred by fear, because we have wasted our energy and our substance to maintain the barriers of hatred and terror?...
This great, rich, restless country can offer opportunity and education and hope to all: black and white, North and South, sharecropper and city dweller. These are the enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease. They are the enemies and not our fellow man, not our neighbor. And these enemies too, poverty, disease and ignorance, we shall overcome.
Two days after the speech, President Johnson sent the bill to Congress and less than five months after the march from Selma to Montgomery, LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law.
Watch and read LBJ’s full speech before Congress on voting rights here.