On March 15, 1965, a week after Alabama state troopers brutally attacked civil rights protesters in Selma, President Lyndon Johnson delivered a stirring speech to a joint session of Congress introducing a bill to end voter discrimination against blacks. The law that it gave birth to, the Voting Rights Act, now hangs in the balance, with oral arguments next week before the Supreme Court. Five conservative justices are skeptical that a centerpiece of the nearly-half-century-old law is constitutional. “I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy,” Johnson said that night, nearly half a century ago. “A century has passed, more than a hundred years, since equality was promised. And yet the Negro is not equal. A century has passed since the day of promise. And the promise is unkept. The time of justice has now come.” Days later, he submitted legislation to Congress aimed at taking stringent, unprecedented steps to end voter discrimination and disenfranchisement. As Congress took it up, opponents rebelled. “I said it was worse than the Thaddeus Stevens legislation during Reconstruction, sir, and it is,” said Leander Perez, a pro-segregation Louisianan, at a subsequent Senate hearing. “It is the most nefarious — it is inconceivable that Americans would do that to Americans.”
Despite its intensity, the opposition failed. The Voting Rights Act overwhelmingly passed Congress that summer and was signed into law by Johnson on Aug. 6, 1965. A key part of the law, Section 5, required a slew of state and local governments with a history of voter discrimination to receive preclearance from the Justice Department before changing their voting laws. Today it is widely credited for helping minority voters participate equally in elections. The law played a key role in ending voter suppression tactics such as literacy tests and poll taxes.
“After a century of flouting the 15th Amendment, Congress acted to use its powers to protect the right to vote from racial discrimination,” said David Gans of the liberal-leaning Constitutional Accountability Center. “It is now seen as probably the most important federal civil rights law — one that sought to realize the promise of multiracial democracy.”