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.