“And We Shall Overcome”: President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Special Message to Congress
"Although the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, guaranteed citizens the right to vote regardless of race, by 1957 only 20 percent of eligible African Americans voted, due in part to intimidation and discriminatory state requirements such as poll taxes and literacy tests. Despite the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination in employment and public accommodations based on race, religion, national origin, or sex, efforts to register African Americans as voters in the South were stymied. In 1965, following the murder of a voting rights activist by an Alabama sheriff’s deputy and the subsequent attack by state troopers on a massive protest march in Selma, Alabama, President Lyndon B. Johnson pressed Congress in the following speech to pass a voting rights bill with teeth. As Majority Leader of the Senate, Johnson had helped weaken the 1957 Civil Rights Act. When he assumed the presidency following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963, however, Johnson called on Americans “to eliminate from this nation every trace of discrimination and oppression that is based upon race or color,” and in the following speech adopted the “We Shall Overcome” slogan of civil rights activists. His rhetoric and subsequent efforts broke with past presidential precedents of opposition to or lukewarm support for strong civil rights legislation. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law on August 6."