The Prize

The Prize President Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, with Martin Luther King, Jr., looking on.
Photograph by Cecil Stoughton
Photograph courtesy of National Archives and Record Administration, LBJ Library #276-10-64
At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama. There is no Negro problem. There is no southern problem. There is no northern problem. There is only an American problem. Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex and most difficult. But about this there can and should be no argument. Every American citizen must have the right to vote...Yet the harsh fact is that in many places in this country men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes... No law that we now have on the books...can insure the right to vote when local officials are determined to deny it... There is no Constitutional issue here. The command of the Constitution is plain. There is no moral issue. It is wrong--deadly wrong--to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country. There is no issue of States' rights or National rights. There is only the struggle for human rights.
President Lyndon B. Johnson
Introducing the Voting Rights Act to Congress, March 15, 1965

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which required equal access to public places and outlawed discrimination in employment, was a major victory of the black freedom struggle, but the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was its crowning achievement. The 1965 Act suspended literacy tests and other voter tests and authorized federal supervision of voter registration in states and individual voting districts where such tests were being used. African Americans who had been barred from registering to vote finally had an alternative to the courts. If voting discrimination occurred, the 1965 Act authorized the attorney general to send federal examiners to replace local registrars.

The Act had an immediate impact. Within months of its passage on August 6, 1965, one quarter of a million new black voters had been registered, one third by federal examiners. Within four years, voter registration in the South had more than doubled. In 1965, Mississippi had the highest black voter turnout--74%--and led the nation in the number of black leaders elected. In 1969, Tennessee had a 92.1% turnout; Arkansas, 77.9%; and Texas, 73.1%.

[photo]President Lyndon Johnson with group including Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Clarence Mitchell, and Patricia Roberts Harris at the Signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Photograph courtesy of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum

Winning the right to vote changed the political landscape of the South. When Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, barely 100 African Americans held elective office in the U.S.; by 1989 there were more than 7,200, including more than 4,800 in the South. Nearly every Black Belt county in Alabama had a black sheriff, and southern blacks held top positions within city, county, and state governments. Atlanta boasted a black mayor--Andrew Young, and so did New Orleans--Ernest Morial. Black politicians on the national level included Barbara Jordan, who represented Texas in Congress, and former mayor Young, who was appointed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations during the Carter Administration. Julian Bond was elected to the Georgia Legislature in 1965, although political reaction to his public opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam prevented him from taking his seat until 1967. John Lewis currently represents Georgia's 5th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he has served since 1987. Lewis sits on the House Ways and Means and Health committees.

The enormous gains of the civil rights movement stand to last a long time. Yet the full effect of these gains is yet to be felt. "Equal rights" struggles now involve multiple races, as well as the issues of rights based upon gender and sexual orientation. Racism has lost its legal, political, and social standing, but the legacy of racism--poverty, ignorance, and disease--confronts us. "They are our enemies, not our fellow man, not our neighbor," said President Johnson at the end of his voting rights speech. "And these enemies too--poverty, disease, and ignorance--we shall overcome."

The Need For Change The Players The Strategy The Cost The Prize

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