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An Unintended Legacy of the Voting Rights Act of 1965

August 6, 1965

Image: President Lyndon Johnson in the President's Room

On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson came to the Capitol to sign the Voting Rights Act. Following a ceremony in the Rotunda, the president, congressional leaders, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and others crowded into the President's Room near the Senate Chamber for the actual signing.

President Johnson noticed that the enrolled copy of the act rested on a familiar-looking writing desk. That desk had been handmade in the 1860s for use in the Supreme Court during its residence in the Capitol. When the Court finally got a building of its own in 1935, some of its furniture remained behind.

In the mid-1950s, the forsaken desk had attracted the acquisitive eye of then-Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, relentlessly on the lookout for historic furnishings to embellish his Capitol office. So, in 1965, when President Johnson spied that familiar object at the signing ceremony, he told Majority Leader Mike Mansfield that he wished to have it to sent to Austin, Texas, where his presidential library would be located.

A keen student of history and defender of Senate institutional prerogatives, Mansfield instinctively bridled at Johnson's request, but, who wants to say "no" to the president? Any response along the lines of, "But, Mr. President, this desk has been in the Capitol's Senate wing for more than a century," would likely have been met with an uncomprehending stare. So, Mansfield reluctantly allowed it to be moved to Texas.

Decades later, in 2005, Senate officials asked that the desk be returned to the Capitol for eventual display in the Capitol Visitor Center. Johnson Library officials sent their regrets with an explanation that it was on "permanent" exhibition. That same Johnson Library collection had also come to include mahogany Senate office desks, constructed a century ago for senators' use in the Russell Building—not one, not two, but three of them!

Following the 1965 episode, Leader Mansfield determined that such a loss of Senate antiquities must not be repeated. After several unsuccessful attempts to interest House leaders in a Congress-wide preservation program, Mansfield, along with Republican Leader Everett Dirksen, arranged in 1968 for the creation of the Senate Commission on Art. That panel, composed of the Senate's floor leaders, president pro tempore, and the chair and ranking member of the Rules and Administration Committee, would have the muscle to ward off any further diminishing of the Senate's cultural heritage. Today, the commission's accomplishments range from the restoration of the Old Senate and Supreme Court chambers in the mid-1970s to the acquisition of a giant portrait of Henry Clay.

President Johnson described the 1965 Voting Rights Act as "a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory won on any battlefield." An unintended legacy of that epochal day lies in the Senate's ongoing programs to preserve and document its past for the benefit of current and future generations.