The 1965 Voting Rights Act was a natural follow on to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Ironically, the 1964 Act had resulted in an outbreak of violence in the South. White racists had launched a campaign against the success that Martin Luther King had had in getting African Americans to register to vote. The violence reminded Johnson that more was needed if the civil rights issue was to be suitably reduced.
Johnson introduced to Congress the idea of a Voting Rights Act in what is considered to be one of his best speeches:
|“Rarely are we met with a challenge…..to the values and the purposes and the meaning of our beloved Nation. The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such as an issue…..the command of the Constitution is plain. It is wrong – deadly wrong – to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country.”|
With his commitment to the cause, Congress realised that Johnson would not back down on this issue and if they hindered or failed to back it, Americans would view the failure to be one by Congress alone.
The Act was passed. It outlawed literacy tests and poll taxes as a way of assessing whether anyone was fit or unfit to vote. As far as Johnson was concerned, all you needed to vote was American citizenship and the registration of your name on an electoral list. No form of hindrance to this would be tolerated by the law courts.
The impact of this act was dramatic. By the end of 1966, only 4 out of the traditional 13 Southern states, had less than 50% of African Americans registered to vote. By 1968, even hard-line Mississippi had 59% of African Americans registered. In the longer term, far more African Americans were elected into public office. The Act was the boost that the civil rights cause needed to move it swiftly along and Johnson has to take full credit for this. As Martin Luther King had predicted in earlier years, demonstrations served a good purpose but real change would only come through the power of Federal government. Johnson proved this. V Sanders has called what he did as a “legislative revolution”. Johnson had one break in that he worked with a Congress that had a majority of Democrats serving in it and as a Democrat president both could work well together.
In 1968, another Civil Rights Act was passed which prohibited racial discrimination in the sale or rental of houses. Signs such as “Negroes need not apply” were no longer tolerated in a society becoming more and more traumatised by the Vietnam War.