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The Senate Passes the Voting Rights Act

August 4, 1965

Image: Signing Ceremony for the Voting Rights Act, August 6, 1965

On August 4, 1965, the United States Senate passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The long-delayed issue of voting rights had come to the forefront because of a voter registration drive launched by civil rights activists in Selma, Alabama. Among Selma’s 15,000 black citizens of voting age, only 335 were registered to vote. On March 7, 1965, 600 civil rights protesters attempted to march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery. On what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” they were stopped by police using tear gas, night sticks, and whips. Media coverage of the event shocked and inspired citizens from across the country to travel to Alabama in support, and some 25,000 people, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., completed the march to Montgomery on March 25, protected by U.S. troops, the National Guard, and the FBI. That route has been designated a U.S. National Historic Trail.

Following Bloody Sunday, President Lyndon Johnson sent a voting rights bill to Congress. It provided for direct federal intervention to enable African Americans to register and vote and banned tactics long designed to keep them from the polls. With 66 sponsors in the Senate, the bill went to the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose chairman, Mississippi senator James Eastland, had a record of resisting civil rights legislation. To avoid his power to delay action, the Senate instructed the committee to report the bill out no later than April 9. Working down to the wire, committee members added amendments to strengthen the bill. Those amendments were the work of a bipartisan group of senators, consisting of Democrats Philip Hart of Michigan, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, Birch Bayh of Indiana, Edward Long of Missouri, Quentin Burdick of North Dakota, and Joseph Tydings of Maryland, together with Republicans Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, Hiram Fong of Hawaii, and Jacob Javits of New York.

Once the bill emerged from the Judiciary Committee, it faced a filibuster on the Senate floor. On May 25, the Senate mustered the necessary two-thirds vote and achieved cloture by a margin of 70 to 30. The next day, the bill passed 77 to 19. Then it went to the House, where the Republican leadership offered a substitute. When southern Democrats endorsed this substitute as less objectionable, they caused moderate Republicans to bolt, and the substitute failed. Instead, the House passed the stronger bill that had been reported from the House Judiciary Committee. A conference committee reconciled the House and Senate versions, which both bodies adopted.

On August 6, 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in the President’s Room just off the Senate Chamber. The bill flowed from a “clear and simple wrong,” Johnson asserted, and its purpose was “to right that wrong.” The “outrage of Selma” had spurred the federal government’s response, and the efforts of that bipartisan group on the Senate Judiciary Committee helped ensure that the previously disenfranchised would gain political equality through the power of the ballot.