Today in History: President Johnson signs Voting Rights Act into law

August 6th, 2013

On August 6, 1965, surrounded by civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. The landmark piece of legislation was designed to enforce the 15th Amendment and prohibited states from imposing any race-based voting qualifications that would abridge the right of any citizen to vote. In particular, the legislation prohibited the imposition of literacy tests as a prerequisite to registering to vote.

Following the infamous “Bloody Sunday” violence during the Selma to Montgomery marches in February 1965, Johnson sought to enact new comprehensive voting rights legislation. In March 1965, President Johnson sent Congress the Voting Rights Act, which established new federal oversight of election procedures in certain states. The act passed overwhelmingly in both chambers, with 77 votes in the Senate and 333 votes in the House of Representatives. On August 6, 1965, President Johnson delivered a stirring address to Congress shortly before signing the bill into law:

Thus, this is a victory for the freedom for the American Negro. But it is also a victory for the freedom of the American Nation. And every family across this great, entire, searching land will live stronger in liberty, will live more splendid in expectation, and will be prouder to be American because of the act that you have passed that I will sign today.

The Voting Rights Act made headlines earlier this year when the Supreme Court struck down one portion of the law as unconstitutional in Shelby County v. Holder. The court held that the act’s coverage formula for selecting which jurisdictions needed to obtain federal pre-clearance before implementing changes to their voting laws was no longer constitutional. Justice Roberts, writing the majority opinion, held that the coverage formula is “based on 40 year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.”

For more on the Voting Rights Act of 1965, read President Johnson’s speech, “To Fulfill These Rights,” which was given on June 4, 1965 at Howard University, while the Voting Rights Act was being debated in the House of Representatives.

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