The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lyndon Johnson’s vision for voting rights offers a blueprint for protecting them

Voting rights uphold human dignity

President Lyndon B. Johnson at the White House in 1968. (Charles Tasnadi/AP)

Georgia’s new election law, as well as efforts in other Republican-run states to make it harder to vote, are reminders that a defining characteristic of American democracy has been the exclusion of racial minorities from the right to vote. The Georgia law, justified as preventing voter fraud, has led to charges of a new era of Jim Crow. By contrast, congressional Democrats argue that addressing inequality necessitates making it easier to vote through same-day voter registration, extended early voting and making Election Day a national holiday.

The gulf between the two parties underscores the chasm dividing Americans on voting rights. But rather than viewing the battle as a partisan brawl, one without a right or wrong, Americans can see the issue as President Lyndon B. Johnson saw it during the 1960s. Johnson’s understanding of how voting rights were linked to human dignity illustrated how crucial it is that we not backslide from one of his greatest achievements.

Serious battles over voting rights began after Reconstruction as Whites from both parties, particularly in the South and Southwest, disenfranchised minorities through any means possible. One of the most effective measures, the poll tax, began in Georgia in 1871. Other states adopted literacy tests and grandfather clauses to block African Americans and Latinos from voting, supplemented by violence and intimidation. In most cases, the courts upheld these measures well into the 1960s.

The result: Minority voting plummeted. By the early 1960s, only 6 percent of African Americans in Mississippi, for example, were registered to vote. The numbers were hardly better in many other states.

But African Americans and Latinos fought for voting rights, including activists such as Medgar Evers and Héctor Garcia, the former of whom was assassinated because of this advocacy in 1963. That same year, Johnson ascended to the presidency determined to crush Jim Crow segregation. He helped pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which included provisions protecting the right to vote. However, local and state authorities refused to enforce them.

In response, Johnson worked with civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and leaders of major organizations including the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and individuals like Vicente Ximenes. Johnson wanted people’s voices “translated into ballots” and expected “many other breakthroughs would follow.” He believed the vote ensured people’s “legitimate power as an American citizen, not as a gift from the white man.”

Johnson’s efforts received a boost in March 1965 when Americans recoiled at televised images of savage attacks by Alabama state troopers on people trying to march to advocate for voting rights in Selma. An outraged Johnson called for action before emotions dissipated.

Days later, he outlined his commitment to voting rights during a memorable speech to a joint session of Congress on March 15, 1965.

“I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy,” he opened, before putting the struggle into historical context, noting: “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 last week in Selma.”

Johnson emphasized that all Americans bore responsibility for ensuring the right to vote. “There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.” Wisely, Johnson focused not exclusively on the South and shone a light on other areas that discriminated against minorities, including the southwest.

Johnson framed the issue as one of fundamental morality, hammering home the importance of liberty and freedom and tying them to the concept of self-respect. “Dignity cannot be found in a man’s possessions. It cannot be found in his power or in his position,” he stressed. “It really rests on his right to be treated as a man equal in opportunity to all others.”

This focus brilliantly framed the discussion with key moral values to which all Americans could relate.

From his time teaching in a Mexican American school in Cotulla, Tex., in 1928, the president recalled, “you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child.” He remembered wanting desperately at the time to have more power to help his students, before promising millions of Americans: “But now I do have that chance — and I’ll let you in on a secret — I mean to use it.”

Johnson outlined the problem, explaining to Americans that “every device of which human ingenuity is capable has been used to deny” voting rights. Johnson talked about disqualifications by local registrars for not spelling out a middle name or other technicalities. “And if he manages to fill out an application, he is given a test” such as being “asked to recite the entire Constitution,” the president recounted. But in reality, “the only way to pass these barriers is to show a White skin. Experience has clearly shown that the existing process of law cannot overcome systematic and ingenious discrimination.”

Johnson announced a plan to send legislation to Congress that “will strike down restrictions to voting.” He warned state and local officials that if they wanted to avoid federal action and to retain control of elections, “the answer is simple: Open your polling places to all your people.”

Johnson acknowledged how the protest in Selma highlighted people wanting “the full blessings of American life. … Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.” And he emphatically stated the mantra of the Civil Rights movement: “And we shall overcome” — rendered even more powerful by Johnson’s Southern heritage. He consecrated the crusade for voting rights by noting that he could not help but believe that God “really favors the undertaking that we begin here tonight.”

A thunderous applause erupted in the chamber, except from conservative Southern Democrats like George Smathers (Fla.) and John McClellan (Ark.), from whom first lady Lady Bird Johnson observed seeing “practically no response.”

After some rearguard actions by segregationists, a bill passed outlawing literacy tests, appointing federal examiners to areas with a history of voting discrimination and requiring federal “preclearance” for any changes in voting procedures in those places. These measures intended to overcome the unwillingness of local officials to enforce the law. On Aug. 6, 1965, Johnson signed the legislation under the watchful eyes of King and Rosa Parks.

The results were immediate. By 1968, Mississippi had 59 percent of African Americans registered, with other states achieving similar gains. Yet conservatives, first in both parties, and then primarily in the Republican Party, have sought to undermine the Voting Rights Act. Over time, they became increasingly driven by the quest for partisan gain. In one of his more candid moments, former president Donald Trump admitted that, if enacted, recent Democratic proposals would ensure “levels of voting” that would guarantee “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

While bipartisan majorities have renewed special provisions of the Voting Rights Act five times (1970, 1975, 1982, 1992, 2006), there have been significant attacks on its requirements, especially in the courts. In 2013, the Supreme Court’s conservative bloc declared the law’s crucial preclearance provision unconstitutional, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. arguing that “‘[t]hings have changed in the South. Voter turnout and registration rates now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels.’ ”

Yet, without that provision, once again, Southern states, as well as other Republican-controlled states, are enacting measures that may on their face appear neutral, but which, if strictly and unevenly implemented, could curtail the right to vote for Americans, especially Americans of color.

Johnson’s framing of the debate offers a blueprint for those fighting such measures. He depicted the battle as being about fulfilling the American promise of equality. Voting was a source of human dignity, and the ballot box gave Americans, especially those of color, a chance to improve their lives by selecting representatives who reflected their needs. Such a framing, which exposes the human costs of restrictive voting laws, paints a compelling case for making it easier to vote and for why provisions that may seem innocuous on their face can do grave harm to our most sacred principles.