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THE SECOND EMANCIPATION
In December 1964, Lyndon Johnson was in a jubilant mood. He'd just routed Barry Goldwater by twenty-three points, winning 486 electoral votes to Goldwater's 52, the most lopsided victory in U.S. presidential history to date. Five months earlier, on his daughter Luci's seventeenth birthday, he'd signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a sweeping law that desegregated schools, restaurants, hotels, parks, and many other public places. When John F. Kennedy's advisers urged LBJ not to push the bill following the assassination, the new president replied, "Well, what the hell's the presidency for?"
Johnson's commitment to civil rights surprised his critics on the left and the right. He was the first southern president since the Civil War. His first vote in the House of Representatives in 1937 came against an antilynching law. His first major speech in the Senate was a defense of the filibuster, which had been used so often by southern Democrats to block civil rights legislation. He'd voted against every civil rights bill in Congress from 1937 to 1956. JFK put him on the ticket to win the southern segregationist vote.
Yet LBJ hadn't had a change of heart so much as a change of circumstances and constituency. He was no longer a congressman or senator from Texas, but the president of the United States. He was now free to say what he believed.
Johnson could be crude and manipulative, but he was also unexpectedly compassionate. After graduating from Texas State University-San Marcos, LBJ taught fifth through seventh grades at a segregated Mexican-American school in the south Texas town of Cotulla, where his students showed up barefoot because they were too poor to afford shoes. LBJ cried when he told the story. "It was a genuinely uncontrolled emotion," said Deputy Attorney General Ramsey Clark, a fellow Texan. "It was pretty deep and pretty impressive."
Now Johnson wanted to cement the civil rights revolution by giving African-Americans and other long-disenfranchised minority groups the right to vote, a goal that previous civil rights legislation in 1957, 1960, and 1964 had not accomplished. The ballot, the president believed, would give Mexican-Americans in Cotulla and blacks in Selma the power to change their circumstances. The vote was "the meat in the coconut," he liked to say.
"I want you to undertake the greatest midnight legislative drafting that has happened since Corcoran and Cohen wrote the Holding Company Act," the president instructed the acting attorney general, Nicholas Katzenbach, on December 14, 1964, referring to an obscure New Deal bill in 1935 regulating electric utilities that was written by two senior aides to Franklin Roosevelt. LBJ wanted "a simple, effective method of gettin' 'em registered." He urged Katzenbach and the top lawyers in the Justice Department to "scratch their tails" and "get me some things you'd be proud of, to show your boy, and say, 'Here is what your daddy put through in nineteen sixty-four, -five, -six, -seven.'"
Katzenbach, who'd succeeded Robert Kennedy as the nation's top law enforcement official after Johnson's archrival left to run for the U.S. Senate in New York in the summer of 1964, was not thrilled with the new assignment. He'd spent eight months on Capitol Hill lobbying for the Civil Rights Act, which endured a fifty-seven-day filibuster by southern Democrats, the longest in Senate history. The office of Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois had practically become his second home. Strong voting rights provisions were stripped from the bill to win congressional support.
"The 1964 Civil Rights Act was exhausting," said Ramsey Clark. "It about expended our goodwill with the Senate and the House. President Johnson insisted we were going to have another round of civil rights legislation, this time on voting ... There was no enthusiasm in the Justice Department, but Johnson insisted on it."
At the end of December, after consulting with lawyers from the Appeals and Research Section at the DOJ, Katzenbach sent LBJ three options, in order of preference, "to overcome voter apathy and discrimination." Katzenbach's top choice, a constitutional amendment prohibiting states from employing devices like literacy tests and poll taxes that disenfranchised minority voters, "would be the most drastic but probably the most effective of all the alternatives," he wrote. It was also the most "cumbersome," he admitted, because a constitutional amendment needed to be ratified by two-thirds of Congress and three-fourths of states. The second option would be to create a federal commission that would appoint federal officers to register voters for federal elections. The third option would be for the federal government "to assume direct control of registration for voting in both federal and state elections in any area where the percentage of potential Negro registrants actually registered is low."
Civil rights activists favored the last option. "This approach would quickly provide political power to Negroes in proportion to their actual numbers in areas in which they are now disenfranchised," Katzenbach wrote. "On the other hand, its effects on general voter apathy would be relatively minimal ... Moreover, its constitutionality is more dubious than that of the preceding suggestion."
In his State of the Union address a week later, Johnson vowed to "eliminate every remaining obstacle to the right and the opportunity to vote." Inside the White House, a debate raged among Johnson's inner circle over how and when to push voting rights legislation. "Certainly I have absolutely no problem with the desirability of such legislation, but I do have a problem about the timing and the approach," Lee White, one of LBJ's top advisers on civil rights, wrote to the special assistant Bill Moyers on December 30, 1964. The Civil Rights Act was less than a year old, White argued, and the prospects for passing voting rights legislation did not look particularly favorable. White proposed that 1965 "be a year of test" on civil rights.
Horace Busby, a Johnson aide since 1946 from Texas, was less charitable. "To southern minds and mores," he wrote to White and Moyers, "the proposals of this message would represent a return to Reconstruction."
The mercurial Johnson wanted to keep his legislative options open. Four days after talking with Katzenbach, LBJ met at the White House with Martin Luther King, Jr., who'd been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that week. King told Johnson that he would soon be launching a voting rights campaign in Selma, where only 2 percent of blacks were registered to vote. He asked the president for his support.
"Martin, you are right about that," Johnson replied. "I'm going to do it eventually, but I can't get voting rights through in this session of Congress." The president's ambitious Great Society agenda took priority. "I need the votes of the southern bloc to get these other things through," Johnson said. "And if I present a voting rights bill, they will block the whole program. So it's just not the wise and the politically expedient thing to do."
King left the meeting dispirited. His voter registration drive in Selma would be aimed as much at the federal government as at the segregated South. "I think we've got to find a way to get this president some power," King told Andrew Young as they departed the White House.
* * *
The Alabama senator William Rufus King founded Selma in 1820, naming it after the Ossian poem The Songs of Selma, about a town on the high bluffs above a river. "Selma," wrote the historian and LBJ adviser Eric Goldman, "was straight out of a thousand novels about the unreconstructed South, lovely to look at and ugly just beneath the surface." In the 1800s, white planters flocked to the Black Belt, which spanned from Texas to eastern Virginia, to grow cotton in its rich soil, bringing with them many slaves. Selma became a major slave-trading port. The city passed twenty-seven ordinances regulating the behavior of slaves, stipulating, for example, that "any Negro found upon the streets of the city smoking a cigar or pipe or carrying a walking cane must be on conviction punished with 39 lashes."
During the Civil War, Selma manufactured weapons for the Confederacy and was commanded by Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. The city was torched during the Battle of Selma in April 1865 and occupied during Reconstruction, when federal troops registered seven hundred thousand emancipated slaves across the South from 1867 to 1868. Following the Civil War, Selma elected numerous black officials, including two congressmen and thirteen state legislators.
Reconstruction prompted a vicious white backlash, which gained traction following the disputed election of 1876, when the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes pulled federal troops out of the South in return for the electoral votes of Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana. Segregationist whites, known as Redeemers, regained power and quickly targeted black voters, first through violence and fraud and then via devices like literacy and good character tests, poll taxes, and stringent residency requirements. Mississippi became the first state to change its constitution to disenfranchise black voters in 1890. Every other southern state quickly followed. Black voters disappeared seemingly overnight.
"When you pay $1.50 for a poll tax, in Dallas County, I believe you disenfranchise 10 Negroes," Henry Fontaine Reese, a delegate from Selma, argued at Alabama's Constitutional Convention of 1901. "Give us this $1.50 for educational purposes and for the disenfranchisement of a vicious and useless class." Reese represented what Ralph McGill of the Atlanta Constitution called "Black Belt thinking," which infected not only Selma but so much of the South. After adoption of the 1901 constitution, the number of black registered votes in Alabama fell from 182,000 to 4,000.
Following the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 ordering the desegregation of public schools, Selma became the Alabama headquarters of the White Citizens' Council, regarded by civil rights activists as the white-collar Klan, which maintained segregation through political and economic power. The city embodied the southern Democratic policy of massive resistance to civil rights. Its native sons included the Birmingham sheriff, Bull Connor, and the Dallas County sheriff, Jim Clark, who vied for the title of Alabama's most tyrannical segregationist. Clark fashioned himself after Gen. George Patton, carried a cattle prod as a weapon against civil rights activists, and wore a black-and-white pin that read "Never" ("Clark's rejoinder to 'We Shall Overcome,'" wrote Ramparts magazine). The Dallas County board of registrars used every device imaginable to keep black voters off the rolls, most notably a literacy test that required them to name all sixty-seven county judges in the state.
Two days after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Sheriff Clark arrested four SNCC workers for trying to desegregate the Thirsty Boy drive-in restaurant. Days later Clark arrested John Lewis (his thirty-seventh arrest) and seventy blacks who attempted to register to vote at the Dallas County Courthouse, on one of the two days each month the board of registrars was open. The Circuit Court judge James Hare, who compared blacks with "backward" jungle tribes in his courtroom, issued an injunction banning any meeting of three or more African-Americans in Selma, which effectively ended all civil rights protests.
King had come to Selma to challenge that injunction. "Today marks the beginning of a determined, organized, mobilized campaign to get the right to vote everywhere in Alabama," King told a packed house at Brown Chapel on January 2, 1965, the 102nd anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. "If we are refused, we will appeal to Governor George Wallace. If he refuses to listen, we will appeal to the legislature. If they don't listen, we will appeal to the conscience of the Congress in another dramatic march on Washington." He repeated the refrain from his first major speech on voting rights in 1957 at the Lincoln Memorial: "Give us the ballot."
Beginning on January 18, SNCC and King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) teamed up to lead joint voter registration marches to the Dallas County Courthouse, which Clark had guarded like a prison since becoming sheriff in 1955. He'd even moved his family into the county jail next door when the demonstrations began so that he'd be closer to work, where he could spy on the SNCC office across the street from his jailhouse window.
On day one, the six-foot-two, 220-pound Clark, wearing his trademark Eisenhower jacket and military helmet, herded four hundred prospective black voters into an alley behind the courthouse, where they waited all day without ever making it inside to register. When they returned the next day, he arrested sixty-two blacks for unlawful assembly and five more for "criminal provocation." He yanked Amelia Boynton, the stately godmother of Selma's voting rights movement, by the collar of her jacket and threw her into his squad car. The photo appeared on the front page of The New York Times.
Clark's crackdown increased pressure on the president to expedite his timetable for voting rights legislation. On February 1, King and five hundred schoolchildren were thrown in jail. "All of us should be concerned with the efforts of our fellow Americans to register to vote in Alabama," Johnson said at a news conference while King sat in his cell.
The turning point in the fight for the right to vote came on February 18, thirty miles from Selma, in the small town of Marion, Coretta Scott King's hometown. Beneath a full orange moon, two hundred blacks held a rare night march from Zion United Methodist Church to the Perry County jail to protest the arrest of the SCLC worker James Orange, who was behind bars for "contributing to the delinquency of minors" after encouraging students to sing freedom songs outside the courthouse.
In a precursor to Bloody Sunday, Alabama state troopers attacked the marchers with nightsticks, sending them fleeing for safety. Jimmie Lee Jackson, his mother, Viola, and his grandfather Cager Lee hid in Mack's Café. Ten state troopers entered and beat Jackson's mother to the ground. When Jackson lunged to protect her, a state trooper shot him point-blank in the stomach. "For the state troopers the action in Marion was like a shot of amphetamine to a speed freak," wrote the civil rights activist Chuck Fager.
In a final indignity, Col. Al Lingo of the Alabama Department of Public Safety served Jackson in the hospital with a warrant for assault and battery with the intent to murder an Alabama state trooper. Jackson died a week later, the "first martyr of the current campaign for the vote," wrote Taylor Branch.
Four thousand people attended two funeral services for Jackson, in Selma and Marion. RACISM KILLED OUR BROTHER, said a large banner on the front of Brown Chapel. Jackson was given a "freedom funeral" in a small tract of woods alongside County Road 183; he was buried in blue denim overalls, a blue denim jumper, white shirt, and necktie-the uniform of the SCLC.
At a mass meeting in Selma, the King aide James Bevel first suggested the idea of marching from Selma to Montgomery to protest Jackson's death at the state capitol. "We are going to bring a voting bill into being in the streets of Selma, Alabama," King vowed.
King met with Johnson in Washington again on March 5, the same day the DOJ's Civil Rights Division finished a rough draft of a voting rights bill. The legislation was based on the last option in Katzenbach's December 1964 memo, a powerful blueprint giving the federal government extensive power over voter registration in the South. Then came Bloody Sunday. "It required the atrocities of Selma," said Senator Paul Douglas of Illinois, "to invoke the Fifteenth Amendment's instructions."
* * *
On March 6, 1965, the meeting in the basement of Frazier's Café Society, a popular soul food restaurant in Atlanta, lasted well into the night. Over yams, collard greens, green beans, and corn, a dozen members of the executive committee of SNCC debated whether to march from Selma to Montgomery.
SNCC's executive committee had grown disillusioned with the prospects of changing Selma and doubted the willingness of the federal government to respond to the group's problems. Since 1960 these pioneering young activists had integrated lunch counters in Nashville, desegregated bus travel throughout the Deep South, and organized Freedom Summer in Mississippi. But winning the right to vote, which King called "civil right No. 1," had become their most difficult task. They voted not to march. "We strongly believe that the objectives of the march do not justify the danger and the resources involved," SNCC's leaders wrote to King.
But SNCC's chairman, John Lewis, insisted on marching. "I've been to Selma many times," he said. "I've got arrested with the people there. If they want to march, I'm going to march with them." Lewis, the third of nine kids in a family of impoverished farmers, had grown up only a hundred miles northeast of Selma, outside the small city of Troy. At twenty-five, he'd already been arrested nearly forty times for his civil rights activism, including four times in Selma, and had been badly beaten during Freedom Rides in South Carolina and Montgomery. A devoted adherent to King's gospel of nonviolent resistance, he described his mission as "bringing the Gandhian way into the belly of the Black Belt."
Lewis lacked the eloquence of King, the movie star looks of Julian Bond, or the brash charisma of Stokely Carmichael. He was five feet six, 155 pounds, and spoke with a stutter. But no one doubted his determination and commitment to the cause. "He was fearless, and he didn't mind taking on any danger," said the King aide Andrew Young. He was going to march even if SNCC did not. Shortly after midnight, Lewis hopped into a white Dodge with his friends Bob Mants and Wilson Brown and drove four hours from Selma to Atlanta; he arrived at the SNCC Freedom House at 2021 Eugene Street just before dawn.
At home in Atlanta, King had doubts of his own about the march. The Department of Justice urged him to stay away from Selma because of threats on his life. Since King's SCLC had launched its drive for voting rights in Selma, three thousand civil rights activists, King included, had been arrested, but almost nobody had been registered. "This is Selma, Alabama," King wrote in The New York Times from his cell in the Dallas County jail on February 5, 1965. "There are more Negroes in jail with me than there are on the voting rolls."
Alabama's governor, George Wallace, who had vowed, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," at his inauguration in 1963, made clear his intention to block the march. "I'm not going to have a bunch of niggers walking along a highway in this state as long as I am governor," Wallace said.
On the morning of March 7, King sent Andrew Young to Selma to cancel the march. He caught the 8:00 a.m. flight from Atlanta to Montgomery and sped over to Selma as fast as he could. "The march was a mistake," he said. But it was too late. By the time Young arrived, hundreds of people from Dallas and Perry counties had assembled at Brown Chapel. They were wearing their Sunday best, ready to march.
At 1:45 p.m. Lewis and the King aide Hosea Williams, an idiosyncratic chemist from Savannah, led six hundred local residents in a "Walk for Freedom" from Brown Chapel. They marched in two single-file lines down dusty Sylvan Street, passing a massive foundry that had manufactured weapons for the Confederacy during the Civil War. After a few blocks they turned right on Water Avenue, entering Selma's picturesque business district, and headed for the bridge toward Montgomery, the state capital.
Lewis wore a tan trench coat and a black tie. The streets of downtown Selma were eerily quiet. For once there were no police in sight. "There was no singing, no shouting-just the sound of scuffling feet," Lewis wrote. "There was something holy about it, as if we were walking down a sacred path. It reminded me of Gandhi's march to the sea." Lewis thought the marchers would be arrested but had no idea that the ensuing events would profoundly alter the arc of American history.
As Lewis crossed the muddy Alabama River on Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge, named after a former Confederate general, he saw "a sea of blue-helmeted, blue-uniformed Alabama state troopers, line after line of them, dozens of battle-ready lawmen stretched from one side of U.S. Highway 80 to the other." Behind them stood Jim Clark's segregationist posse, some of them on horseback, carrying bullwhips and batons wrapped in barbed wire. Reporters gathered on the side of the bridge at Lehmann's Pontiac.
After the Alabama state troopers charged toward Lewis, Clark's posse quickly entered the fray, mimicking the rebel yells of Confederate soldiers while trampling the marchers on horseback. "Tear gas!" someone yelled. The bridge resembled a war zone. The state troopers and Clark's posse chased and beat the fleeing marchers all the way back to Brown Chapel.
Lafayette Surney, a young SNCC worker from Ruleville, Mississippi, filed panicked minute-by-minute reports to SNCC headquarters in Atlanta from a corner pay phone near the bridge. "Police are beating people on the streets," he reported at 3:16 p.m. "Oh, man, they're just picking them up and putting them in ambulances. People are getting hurt bad."
The federal government did nothing to stop the violence. Two Justice Department lawyers watched with horror from the Selma side of the bridge. The FBI agent in charge of Selma had gone fishing that day.
An ambulance supplied by the Medical Committee for Human Rights in New York rescued Lewis and took him back to Brown Chapel. He had no memory of how he escaped from the bridge. "John, speak to the people," the anguished crowd urged him. The bloodied civil rights leader rose to speak. "I don't know how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam," said the impassioned Lewis, his fractured skull wrapped in a makeshift bandage. "I don't know how he can send troops to the Congo. I don't see how he can send troops to Africa, and he can't send troops to Selma, Alabama. Next time we march, we may have to keep going when we get to Montgomery. We may have to go on to Washington."
He saw double as he spoke from the pulpit. He was soon rushed, along with eighty-three others, to the segregated Good Samaritan Hospital, where "the bitter, acrid smell [of tear gas] filled the room."
In the forty-eight hours following Bloody Sunday there were sympathy marches in eighty American cities, sit-ins at the Justice Department, twenty-four-hour pickets outside the White House, and all-night vigils at Brown Chapel. Hundreds of white ministers heeded King's call and descended on Selma, many demonstrating in the civil rights movement for the first time. Fifteen thousand people marched in Harlem; white sisters from the Nuns of Charity in their black habits linked arms with radical black activists from SNCC. In solidarity Wisconsinites walked fifty-four miles from Beloit to Madison, the same distance as Selma to Montgomery. Olympic medalists ran from New York to Washington along U.S. 1 carrying an unlit freedom torch to deliver to the president.
Lying in his hospital bed in Selma, Lewis received a telegram from Nathan Schwerner, whose twenty-four-year-old son Mickey had been murdered in Mississippi a year earlier, along with the civil rights workers Andrew Goodman and James Chaney. "Thousands of us all over the country are praying for you and your early recovery," Schwerner wrote to Lewis from New York. "To Dr. King and all gallant fighters for human dignity, I want to send my warmest love and assurance that we will continue this great fight wherever discrimination raises its ugly head."
"What the public felt on Monday, in my opinion, was the deepest sense of outrage it has ever felt on the civil rights question," the president's counsel, Harry McPherson, wrote to Johnson.
* * *
The president faced intense criticism from Democrats and Republicans. Why hadn't he sent federal marshals to protect the marchers? Where was his promised voting rights bill? The GOP mocked him as "Lyndon Come Lately" on civil rights. LBJ instructed Katzenbach, whom he'd appointed attorney general in late January, to make completion of a voting rights bill "top billing." The former Senate majority leader wanted to see the particulars of the legislation before he spoke publicly about it.
King returned to Selma a day after Bloody Sunday and called for a second march from Selma to Montgomery for the following day. "A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice," King told the packed congregation at Brown Chapel. "So we're going to stand up right here amid horses. We're going to stand up right here in Alabama amid the billyclubs ... We're going to stand up amid tear gas. We're going to stand up amid anything they can muster up, letting the world know that we are determined to be free."
Lewis was released from the hospital on the morning of March 9. He was greeted by spontaneous applause when he arrived at Brown Chapel. Governor Wallace had obtained an injunction from a federal court in Montgomery blocking a second march from Selma. Lewis urged King to defy it; King had never done that before. "The march is legitimate, injunction or no injunction," Lewis said. "Whatever we do depends on what the people want to do."
The president leaned heavily for advice on Katzenbach, the youngest member of his cabinet. The forty-three-year-old lawyer, known for his rumpled suits and dry humor, had impeccable credentials: boarding school at Phillips Exeter Academy, college at Princeton, law school at Yale. His middle name, deBelleville, came from a forebear who was Napoleon's brother's doctor. John Doar, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, had been his roommate at Princeton. The journalist Victor Navasky called them the "Ivy League Gentlemen" of the Justice Department.
But Katzenbach was also no stranger to a crisis. He'd been shot down over the Mediterranean as an army pilot during World War II and twice escaped from Italian prison camps before finishing college by reading books supplied by the Red Cross at a prisoner of war camp near Munich. He was most famous inside the administration for squaring off against George Wallace when the Alabama governor tried to block the integration of the University of Alabama in 1963 by standing in the doorway of Foster Auditorium. Life magazine called him "a calm enforcer," with "the best poker face in the Johnson administration."
Katzenbach woke King at 5:00 a.m. to ask him to cancel the march, which the Justice Department feared could lead to another episode of violence. King refused. "I would rather die on the highways of Alabama," he told the congregation at Brown Chapel, "than make a butchery of my conscience." Katzenbach dispatched Doar, a lanky, no-nonsense Wisconsinite well liked by civil rights activists, to monitor events on the ground.
Doar had grown up in New Richmond, Wisconsin, in a family of Lincoln Republicans. He'd been with the Civil Rights Division since its inception in 1957 and had handled some of the federal government's most sensitive assignments in the South. He'd escorted James Meredith to integrate the University of Mississippi amid a frenzied white mob. He'd prosecuted the killers of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner in Philadelphia, Mississippi. No one worked harder than the gruff and demanding Doar. "He was a straight arrow if there ever was one," said Ramsey Clark. "He was like Sergeant Friday: 'Just the facts, ma'am.'"
That afternoon King and two thousand demonstrators, black and white, representing all religions, left Brown Chapel and once again headed for the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Lewis, who stayed behind to heal, described the scene as "very, very tense." The left-wing magazine Ramparts dubbed it the "charge of the Bible Brigade." The marchers locked arms and sang "We Shall Overcome" as they crossed the bridge, facing off with the Alabama state troopers for a second time.
Katzenbach rolled up his sleeves and chain-smoked cigarettes in his mammoth walnut-paneled Washington office, as two hundred young activists held a sit-in in the corridor outside. He listened to dispatches from Doar over a squawk box hooked into two telephone lines while examining a large map of Selma borrowed from the Agriculture Department. "They were allowed to go over the bridge," Doar reported from the Justice Department's third-floor office in Selma's federal building, overlooking the bridge. "Dr. King is there, and several elderly ladies. They're over the bridge. They have halted ...
"King is walking back this way," Doar said. "He's asking the marchers to turn back." Afraid of violating the federal injunction, King had knelt in prayer, then asked the marchers to return to Brown Chapel. "King has turned around," Katzenbach told Bill Moyers at the White House. "It looks very good. More like the March on Washington than anything. They're going back to the church. John Doar feels this will take away a lot of the bad taste of the brutality on Sunday. It looks O.K. for the moment."
But following the march, events took another tragic turn. James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister from Boston, and two friends walked the wrong route back from dinner and passed the Silver Moon Café, a notorious white supremacist hangout. They were assaulted by four white hoodlums, one of whom smashed Reeb on the temple with a club before the others jumped on him. Customers inside the Silver Moon could see the fight, but no one went outside to stop it. The thirty-eight-year-old father of four, who directed a low-income housing project for the American Friends Service Committee in the black ghetto of Roxbury, Massachusetts, where he sent his children to a predominantly black school, was rushed to a hospital in Birmingham in critical condition.
Johnson received the news at Camp David, where he was huddling with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk to discuss Vietnam. "How many Jim Reebs is it going to take before those people understand the intensity of this movement?" he wondered.
Reeb died in Birmingham the next day, the second martyr of Selma. Lewis held a moment of silence for his "fallen brother" at Brown Chapel. Students from Howard staged a sit-in at the White House. The picketers grew outside, marching back and forth along Pennsylvania Avenue, chanting at LBJ: "Just you wait for '68." The death of a white man in Selma shocked the country and increased pressure on Johnson to act swiftly.
The president spent four hours on Friday meeting with two delegations of religious and civil rights leaders. Sending federal marshals to Selma, Johnson argued, would alienate the moderate whites whose support the White House needed to pass a voting rights bill. The Episcopal bishop Paul Moore, Jr., of New York asked the president why it had taken so long for legislation to reach Congress. "Two reasons," Johnson replied. "First, it's got to pass. We can't risk defeat or dilution by filibuster on this one. This bill has got to go up there clean, simple and powerful. Second, we don't want the law declared unconstitutional. This can't be just a two-line bill, as somebody suggested. The wherefores and therefores are insurance against that."
On Friday evening Johnson received word that George Wallace had requested a meeting in Washington, which the president hoped to use to his advantage. They met the next morning, as chants of "Freedom now, freedom now" blanketed the White House. For three hours the president lectured Wallace on civil rights, sitting close and never averting his gaze. Johnson's six-foot-four-inch frame towered over the five-foot-seven-inch governor.
"You can't stop a fever by putting an ice pack on your head," Johnson said to Wallace. "You've got to get to the cause of the fever." If Wallace wanted to end all demonstrations, Johnson told him, he should issue an immediate declaration for "universal suffrage in the State of Alabama and the United States of America." The Alabama governor left the White House in a tizzy. "If I hadn't left when I did, he'd have me coming out for civil rights," Wallace joked to friends afterward.
On Saturday morning a finished voting rights bill finally reached the president's desk. Johnson went directly from the meeting with Wallace to a hastily arranged press conference in the Rose Garden, where he spoke publicly for the first time since Bloody Sunday. "The events of last Sunday cannot and will not be repeated, but the demonstrations in Selma have a much larger meaning," the president said. "They are a protest against a deep and very unjust flaw in American democracy itself. Ninety-five years ago our Constitution was amended to require that no American be denied the right to vote because of race, or color. Almost a century later, Americans are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes. Therefore, this Monday, I will send to Congress a request for legislation to carry out the amendment of the Constitution. Wherever there is discrimination, this law will strike down all restrictions used to deny the right to vote."
A bill to guarantee all Americans the right to vote free of discrimination, once and for all, would be announced Monday night. "The Attorney General can draft, and Congress can pass a law," Johnson said, "but only the President can use his office as a great moral instrument."
* * *
"Mistuh Speak-ah!" shouted the House doorkeeper William "Fish Bait" Miller of Pascagoula, Mississippi. "The Prez-dent of the Yoo-nited States." LBJ entered the Capitol chamber at 9:00 p.m. on March 15 to deliver one of the most important speeches of his presidency, addressing a joint session of Congress for the first time since Harry Truman had called on the body to break a railroad strike in 1946.
Johnson rubbed his nose, looked down at his text, and began in a methodical Texan drawl. "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," he said. "So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama."
Seventy million Americans-more than a third of the total U.S. population-tuned in. LBJ underlined important words on his reading copy for emphasis: Lexington, Concord, Appomattox, Selma. "I could feel the tension in the chamber," LBJ later wrote. "I could hear the emotion in the echoes of my words. I tried to speed it up a little."
The first applause in the hushed chamber didn't come until after he'd spoken for four minutes, when the president quoted a verse from Matthew 16:26: "For with a country as with a person, 'What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?'"
The speech, drafted in less than twelve hours by the former Kennedy speechwriter Richard Goodwin, brilliantly framed the cause of voting rights not as an issue of black versus white but as right versus wrong. Despite the country's tortured racial history, the president argued that denying the right to vote undermined the ideals of liberty and freedom that made America exceptional. "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 an equal right to vote," the president said to a fourth round of applause.
Events in Selma ensured that 1965 would not be like 1957, 1960, or 1964, when Congress had stalled or watered down previous civil rights bills. "This time, on this issue, there must be no delay, or no hesitation and or no compromise with our purpose," the president said to his first standing ovation. The applause lasted a minute before Emanuel Celler, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, jumped to his feet. The rest of the chamber soon followed, minus the absent Mississippi and Virginia delegations, who'd boycotted the speech.
"What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America," the president said. "It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice."
The president paused. He thought about the picket lines in Birmingham, the sit-ins in Greensboro, the marches in Selma. Then he leaned forward, scrunched his eyes, and uttered the four most transcendent words of his presidency: "And ... we ... shall ... overcome."
The words shocked friends and foes alike. "I almost fell out of my chair when the president spoke," wrote Katzenbach.
Lewis watched the address with King and his aides in Selma, squeezed into the living room of the local dentist Sullivan Jackson. MLK's confidants saw the civil rights leader cry for the first time in his life. Andrew Young thought about how three months earlier LBJ had told King that a voting rights bill would not be possible in 1965. "We were all teary eyed," Young said. "It was moving from complete rejection to complete acceptance. I didn't believe in ninety days he would be making a 'We Shall Overcome' speech."
"That speech was the most meaningful speech that any American president has given in modern times on the whole question of civil rights," Lewis said. "To hear Lyndon Johnson say, 'And we shall overcome,' it was beautiful."
The president ended the address by telling the story of his time as a teacher in Cotulla, describing how his students "were poor and they came to class without breakfast, hungry." He remembered "the pain of prejudice" in their eyes. "I never thought then, in 1928, that I would be standing here in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country," the president said. "But now I do have that chance-and I'll let you in on a secret-I mean to use it," he said forcefully, to a thirty-fifth round of applause and second standing ovation.
The speech lasted forty-five minutes and twenty seconds, with eight minutes and forty seconds of applause. The president exited to another standing ovation, blowing two kisses to his wife and elder daughter in the ladies' balcony. He'd just delivered the greatest speech of his presidency, which King called "the most moving, eloquent, unequivocal and passionate plea for human rights ever made by any president." The White House titled the address "The American Promise." Civil rights activists, for decades to come, would call it the We Shall Overcome speech.
The White House switchboard was jammed to capacity with enthusiastic responses. At a midnight dinner with Goodwin and the legislative aide Larry O'Brien, Johnson read aloud the blue telegrams as they arrived. "Mr. President, you made me feel ten feet tall as an American citizen but you were a good twenty feet taller than I," wrote Albert Herling, the managing editor of ABC News.
Not everyone was so enthusiastic. The Atlanta Journal agreed with the substance but found the address "too long, too tedious, too melodramatic." Many southern newspapers and politicians condemned it. The Richmond Times-Dispatch said LBJ had exploited the "near-hysteria generated by events in Selma." George Wallace accused the president of singing "the song of the Communist street marchers and their poor dupes."
But that was a minority opinion. A Gallup Poll showed Johnson with the highest approval rating ever by a president on the issue of civil rights. Four out of five Americans, including a majority of white southerners, supported the voting rights bill. Bloody Sunday "was a considerable force for movement, legislatively," said O'Brien, LBJ's liaison to Capitol Hill. "You can understand a march; you can see some cop belting some poor black guy. That has a greater impact than citing a lot of statistics."
"We will make it from Selma to Montgomery," King told Lewis when the speech was over, "and the Voting Rights Act will be passed."
* * *
Two days after LBJ's speech, Judge Frank Johnson authorized the march from Selma to Montgomery. The first march, on Bloody Sunday, Johnson wrote, "involved nothing more than a peaceful effort on the part of Negro citizens to exercise a classic constitutional right; that is, the right to assemble peaceably and to petition one's government for the redress of grievances."
King announced Johnson's order over a bullhorn to a cheering throng of supporters during a news conference in Montgomery, where just a day earlier police on horseback had attacked a civil rights demonstration downtown. Wallace refused to provide protection for the "so-called march from Selma," so LBJ federalized 1,863 Alabama national guardsmen to police the route, along with 1,000 U.S. Army troops, 100 FBI men, and 100 federal marshals. Katzenbach sent Clark and Doar to lead the DOJ's efforts. They encountered a city, once the most oppressive in the South, now "hovering between festivity and chaos," The New York Times reported.
At 12:47 p.m. on March 21, two weeks after Bloody Sunday, thirty-two hundred marchers embarked on a third attempt from Selma. In the front row, wearing pink-and-white leis donated by a minister from Hawaii, stood Lewis, the Episcopal Church deacon Phyllis Edwards of San Francisco, the SCLC vice president Ralph Abernathy, King, UN undersecretary and fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmingham. "When we get to Montgomery, we are going to go up to Governor Wallace's door and say, 'George, it's all over now,'" joked Abernathy. "'We've got the ballot!'"
Next to Lewis marched Cager Lee, the eighty-three-year-old grandfather of Jimmie Lee Jackson, in a fedora and heavy wool coat. "He had to die for something," Lee said. "And thank God it was for this." Lee's father had been a slave, sold from Bedford, Virginia, to the Alabama Black Belt. Jimmie Jackson's middle name, Lee, came from the owner of his great-grandfather's slave. "How could you ever think a day like this would come?" Lee said. He marched a few miles each day with tears in his eyes, repeating to himself, "Just got to tramp some more."
The procession of rabbis, priests, nuns, ministers, lawyers, doctors, farmers, and housewives marched 7.3 miles the first day to the east end of Selma, where they pitched four large tents in a farmer's field. On day two, after 11 miles, they exited Dallas County and entered Lowndes County, where not a single black voter had been registered until the week before. "We are not afraid," the marchers sang as they crossed the county line. When Jefferson Davis Highway narrowed to two lanes, the number of marchers was reduced to three hundred, on Judge Johnson's orders.
White supremacists did their best to intimidate the marchers. A massive billboard in Selma showed King at an alleged "Communist training school." The Alabama legislature passed a resolution alleging that there had been "evidence of much fornication" in the tents, as lurid stories of interracial orgies circulated among conservative segregationists. "The sex orgies in the streets and churches were worse then [sic] in the days of ancient Rome," said Jim Clark. To which Lewis replied: "All these segregationists can think of is fornication, and that is why there are so many different shades of Negroes."
Scarier plots were alleged. The FBI notified agents that twelve hundred adult white males with past felony convictions for racist offenses had driven to the Selma/Montgomery area with rifles in their car. "It was like a magnet for racial hatred," Ramsey Clark said. He drove back and forth between Selma and Montgomery, looking behind trees, checking out barns.
On day five, as the marchers entered Montgomery, the crowd swelled to twenty-five thousand. Despite having suffered a concussion on Bloody Sunday, Lewis walked the entire fifty-four-mile route. It was like a second March on Washington, with the civil rights leaders Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, James Farmer, Lewis, and King reunited in Montgomery. All the struggles of the civil rights movement-the bus boycott in Montgomery, the sit-ins in Greensboro and Nashville, the Freedom Rides through the Deep South, the March on Washington, the desegregation of Birmingham, the Mississippi Freedom Summer, Bloody Sunday-culminated in the triumphant walk from Selma to Montgomery. "The march was like a holy crusade," said Lewis. "You felt like you were participating in something so mighty, it was bigger than any of us."
They marched down the wide lanes of Dexter Avenue, past the church where King had preached from 1954 to 1960, toward the Greek Revival Alabama state capitol, where Jefferson Davis had taken the oath as the first Confederate president. They came within seventy-five yards of the governor's office, where Wallace could be seen peeking through his Venetian blinds, muttering, "That's quite a crowd."
"We have walked on meandering highways and rested our bodies on rocky byways," said King on the steps of the capitol. "They told us we wouldn't get here. And there were those who said that we would get here only over their dead bodies, but all the world today knows that we are here and that we are standing before the forces of power in the state of Alabama, saying, 'We ain't goin' let nobody turn us around.'"
When King finished, the huge crowd locked arms and sang "We Shall Overcome" one last time. Selma to Montgomery was the last great march of the 1960s civil rights movement. "There was never a march like this one before and there hasn't been once since," Lewis said.
* * *
Emanuel Celler, a seventy-seven-year-old Democrat from Brooklyn, began hearings on the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in Subcommittee Number 5 of the House Judiciary Committee three days after Johnson's speech, convening morning and night. "The climate of public opinion throughout the Nation has so changed[,] because of the Alabama outrages, as to make assured passage of this solid bill-a bill that would have been inconceivable a year ago," Celler said in his opening statement.
The legislation had been drafted by a small group of lawyers in the Appeals and Research Section of the Justice Department, under the supervision of Harold Greene, who had escaped Nazi Germany in 1938 and earned his law degree through night classes at George Washington University. Solicitor General Archibald Cox, a brilliant lawyer from Harvard, and his top aide, Louis Claiborne, contributed important revisions.
The most important feature of the law eliminated literacy tests and other disenfranchising devices in states where less than 50 percent of eligible voters had registered or cast ballots in the 1964 presidential election, which covered Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia, and thirty-four counties in North Carolina, along with Alaska; Apache County, Arizona; Elmore County, Idaho; and Aroostook County, Maine. This formula, though imperfect, captured the key southern states where the bulk of black voters were disenfranchised.
"We knew where the problems were-what states had to be covered-but you just couldn't name the states in the legislation," said Howard Glickstein, who as a young lawyer in the Appeals and Research Section helped draft the bill. "So we kept fooling around, trying to find a formula. Eventually the idea of basing it on registration and voting turnout came up."
In addition, to guard against future discrimination, the legislation compelled those states and jurisdictions with the worst histories of voting discrimination to clear any subsequent voting changes with a three-judge federal district court in Washington or the attorney general. It authorized the attorney general to send federal examiners to register voters in counties with well-documented records of using discriminatory voting tests or from which the AG received twenty-five complaints from local residents. It dispatched federal observers to monitor elections for compliance. And it applied to all elections-local, state, and federal.
Katzenbach testified first on behalf of the VRA. The previous civil rights acts of 1957, 1960, and 1964 had failed, he explained, by relying on obstructionist southern courts to adjudicate voting rights cases on a lengthy case-by-case basis. The DOJ had filed seventy-one voting rights lawsuits since 1961, but only 31 percent of eligible black citizens were registered to vote in seven southern states. From 1958 to 1964 the number of African-Americans registered rose by only 2 percent in Mississippi and 5 percent in Alabama. "The lesson is plain," said Katzenbach. "The three present statutes have had only minimal effect. They have been too slow."
Selma was a perfect case study. It took thirteen months before the DOJ's first case against the Dallas County Board of Registrars, filed in April 1961, went to trial. The court found evidence of past discrimination but alleged that the current board of registrars was not discriminating against African-Americans, even though prospective black voters were forced to spell words like "emolument" or explain complicated excerpts of the Alabama Constitution to the registrar's satisfaction.
Two and a half years after the original suit was filed, the court of appeals reversed the district court but refused to order that the board of registrars treat blacks the same as whites, who almost never had to pass a literacy test. Even after a federal judge struck down Dallas County's stringent literacy test in early 1965, the board of registrars still failed three-fourths of black applicants.
Frustrated voting rights lawyers in the 1960s liked to tell a joke encapsulating their experiences:
A black college professor who is fluent in multiple languages walks into a county registrar's office in the Deep South. The registrar hands him a paper in Chinese and says, "OK, that's your literacy test. Can you read that?"
"Oh, I can read that real good," the professor replies.
"Oh, yeah?" the registrar responds. "What does it say?"
"Ain't no black people votin' in this county this year."
Justice Department lawyers spent an average of twenty-eight months on each case, reviewing up to thirty-six thousand pages of voter registration records, only to be rebuffed by local courts or ignored by local registrars. "What is necessary, what is essential, is a new approach, an approach which goes beyond the tortuous, often-ineffective pace of litigation," Katzenbach testified. "What is required is a systematic, automatic method to deal with discriminatory tests, with discriminatory testers, and with discriminatory threats." By immediately outlawing devices like literacy tests, transferring voter registration authority to the federal government when necessary, and applying federal standards to state elections, the VRA would succeed where previous laws had failed.
A series of southern congressmen, state attorneys general, and local officials testified against the bill. "If the president's law is passed, the South will disappear from the civilized world just as surely and certainly as Haiti did in 1804," predicted W. B. Hicks, the executive secretary of the Virginia-based Liberty Lobby, a spin-off of the right-wing John Birch Society.
When the Senate Judiciary Committee began hearings on March 23, the North Carolina senator Sam Ervin, who fancied himself the country's leading constitutional scholar, quizzed the attorney general for three days about technicalities of the law. He then invited a score of renowned segregationist local officials to publicly denounce it.
"Have you ever seen a more drastic proposal to vest more arbitrary power in public officials than that one?" Ervin asked Leander Perez, the notoriously hard-line political boss of Louisiana's Plaquemines Parish, where only ninety-six of two thousand eligible blacks were registered to vote.
"I said it was worse than the Thaddeus Stevens legislation during Reconstruction, sir, and it is," Perez responded. "It is the most nefarious-it is inconceivable that Americans would do that to Americans." He described the VRA as a Communist plot for the Black Belt, which the Republican senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois called "about as stupid a statement as has ever been uttered in this hearing."
Other opponents criticized the VRA's formula, which they noted covered six Deep South states and parts of North Carolina but not Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee, or Texas. The Republican congressman Bo Callaway of Georgia sarcastically suggested that the DOJ should instead have chosen "all states which have an average altitude of 100 to 900 feet, an average yearly temperature of 68 degrees to 77 degrees at 7 a.m., average humidity of 80 to 87%, and a coastline of 50 to 400 miles. With this formula we encompass all the Southern states attacked by H.R. 6400, but have the added advantage of including all of North Carolina and excluding Alaska."
Such criticism had little impact on the law's prospects in Congress, especially as prominent opponents of previous civil rights bills, like the Louisiana senator Russell Long, the Senate's second most powerful Democrat, voiced their early support for the VRA. "Congress has attempted on a number of occasions to implement the 15th Amendment but has failed in its efforts due to dilatory and evasive action by certain state and local officials and in some instances by outright defiance of the law," Long testified. "Mr. Chairman, it is way past time when our patience must come to an end. Freedom demands that legislative action be taken now to remove effectively all racial barriers to the right to vote."
The murder of the white Detroit housewife Viola Liuzzo, a thirty-nine-year-old mother of five gunned down on Route 80 by Alabama Klansmen after she had attended the Selma to Montgomery march, had further solidified support for the legislation. She was the third martyr of the Selma protests.
The Mississippi senator James Eastland, the cigar-chomping chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was renowned for killing 121 of 122 civil rights bills in his committee since 1953. Only 161 of 13,524 African-Americans in his hometown of Sunflower County were registered to vote. He said of the VRA, "I am opposed to every word and every line in [it]." But the Senate voted, 67-13, on March 18 to limit debate in Eastland's committee to three weeks, eliminating his ability to stonewall the bill.
The legislation passed the Senate, 73-19, on May 25 and the House, 333-85, on July 9. A dispute over the poll tax temporarily held up final passage. Liberals wanted to automatically ban the tax, as with literacy tests, but Katzenbach preferred to fight it through litigation, which he thought would soon succeed before the Supreme Court. Katzenbach secured an endorsement from King in late July for a compromise that authorized the attorney general to file suits against the poll tax in select southern states, which ended the logjam. The legislation passed largely as introduced five months earlier, unscathed by southern opposition.
The VRA's overwhelming passage resulted from a number of converging factors: the clear denial of black voting rights in the South under Jim Crow; profound public outrage about the violence in Selma; a disciplined and compelling civil rights movement; the most liberal Congress since the New Deal; a Republican Party filled with northern moderates, many of them senior figures; and a president in LBJ who specialized in steering complex legislation through the Congress.
When both houses of Congress reached agreement on final legislation, Dirksen invited LBJ over to his office for a "good, stiff bourbon" after the president complained that "I can't even drink Sanka [at the White House], I just have to drink this damned old root beer." One of his signature achievements at hand, LBJ happily returned to his old stomping grounds.
* * *
On the morning of August 6, 1965, the day he signed the VRA, Johnson invited John Lewis of SNCC and James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to the Oval Office for a chat. Lewis got there early and talked with the president for fifteen minutes before Farmer arrived. Lewis had met the president a few times at the White House in meetings with other civil rights leaders, but this was their first one-on-one conversation.
They both were poor country boys who had grown up with no electricity or running water. Johnson came from the hardscrabble Texas Hill Country; Lewis, from the impoverished Alabama Black Belt. Stylistically, however, they couldn't have been more different. LBJ was loud and profane; Lewis, quiet and devout. The White House was the last place Lewis had ever expected to visit after growing up in Troy.
He had been raised on a hundred-acre farm bought for three hundred dollars in cash, "every penny my father had to his name," he said. They grew cotton, corn, and peanuts. Lewis read via smoky kerosene lamps and used the Sears, Roebucks catalog for toilet paper in the outhouse. He was a serious, studious child, who liked to preach to his family's chickens, baptizing the birds in empty syrup cans filled with water.
Lewis became taken with the civil rights movement when he first heard King preach on WMRA radio out of Montgomery at the beginning of 1955, when he was a sophomore in high school. "The Montgomery bus boycott changed my life more than any other event before or since," he wrote. He followed the news every day on the radio or in the newspapers. Lewis gave his first sermon five days before his sixteenth birthday, in 1956. The Montgomery Advertiser called him the "boy preacher" of Pike County.
Lewis wanted to integrate local Troy State University, but his parents wouldn't let him, so he attended American Baptist College in Nashville instead. His roommate, Bernard Lafayette, was the first SNCC worker sent to Selma. Lewis became one of a groundbreaking group of students who desegregated Nashville's lunch counters in 1960, under the tutelage of the theologian James Lawson, a devotee of Gandhi. "I was like a soldier in a nonviolent army," Lewis said.
Since Bloody Sunday, Lewis had become more closely identified with the cause of voting rights than any other civil rights leader besides King. Perhaps that was why Johnson invited him to the White House on that historic day. Lewis sat upright on a couch; Johnson sprawled on a lounge chair. "Now John, you've got to go back and get all those folks registered," the president told him. "You've got to go back and get those boys by the balls. Just like a bull gets on top of a cow. You've got to get 'em by the balls and you've got to squeeze, squeeze till they hurt." A shocked Lewis could barely get a word in.
After meeting with Lewis and Farmer, Johnson called his eighteen-year-old daughter Luci, who was on "daddy duty" that day. She usually met him in the East Room for presidential receptions. That day the president told her to meet him in the Diplomatic Room, because they were heading to the U.S. Capitol.
"Daddy, why are we going to the Capitol?" she asked her father.
"Luci Baines, we have to go to the Capitol," Johnson said to his daughter. "It's the only place to go. As a result of this great legislation becoming the law of the land, there will be many men and women who will not be returning to these hallowed halls because of the decision they have made to support it. And because of this great legislation that I will be signing into law, there will be many men and women who will have an opportunity to come to the halls of Congress who could have never have come otherwise."
They arrived at the Capitol Rotunda at noon for the nationally televised announcement. To Johnson's right was a statue of Abraham Lincoln; to his left, a bust of the Great Emancipator; behind his podium, John Trumbull's massive painting of the surrender of Cornwallis by the British army in Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, the last battle of the Revolutionary War. "Today is a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield," the president said.
After his twenty-minute speech, Johnson headed to the ornate President's Room near the Senate chamber, where he signed the bill at a wooden desk from the 1860s that he'd used as Senate majority leader. He sat beneath a giant chandelier in the room where Lincoln had signed the precursor to the Emancipation Proclamation 104 years earlier. Members of Congress congratulated Johnson as they walked past his desk: "a great, great speech," "a magnificent presentation." He used fifty pens to sign the law, giving the first one to Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the second to Dirksen, the third to the New York senator Robert Kennedy.
After handing pens to congressional leaders, Johnson got up and gave one to King, who was standing next to Rosa Parks. The leaders of the civil rights movement looked on with triumph, including Lewis, the only veteran of Bloody Sunday who made it to Washington that day.
"C'mon around here," Johnson told Lewis, handing him a pen from his desk. Lewis later framed the pen and hung it in his living room, along with a copy of the bill. He called the VRA's signing "a high point in modern America, probably the nation's finest hour in terms of civil rights."
Johnson's own feelings were more complex. After signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he'd famously remarked to Bill Moyers: "I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come." Upon signing the VRA, Johnson "felt a great sense of victory on one side and a great sense of fear on the other," his daughter Luci remembered. The president knew that the legislation, more than any previous civil rights bill, would fundamentally transform American democracy, unleashing deep changes in American politics that would be well beyond his control. "It would be written in the history books," Luci Baines Johnson said. "But now the history had to be made."
Copyright © 2015 by Ari Berman