For most people, the 1963 March on Washington brings to mind the phrase “I have a dream.” Four simple words became the music that turned Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech into one of history’s greatest. But despite their elegance, they actually are not my favorite part of the speech. I love the beginning, where King defines the need for a civil rights movement in the first place. “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir,” King said. “. . . Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ “But,” King added, “we refuse to believe . . . that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.” In this statement King speaks to the heart of black idealism and identifies the core of the American civil rights movement of the past 50 years. This vision of simple justice affirms that the rights and privileges of citizenship should not be reserved for some but should be available to all.
In many ways, this is the starting point of Ari Berman’s must-read book that documents the long, hard struggle for the equal right to vote in America. It begins with the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement, the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Berman clarifies beyond any doubt President Lyndon Johnson’s commitment to voting rights and skillfully describes the complex political landscape he faced in a Congress populated by legendary opponents of equality such as Sens. James Eastland of Mississippi, then chairman of the Judiciary Committee; Sam Ervin of North Carolina; and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.
This book should become a primer for every American, but especially for congressional lawmakers and staffers, because it so capably describes the intricate interplay between grass-roots activism and the halls of Congress. Berman evenhandedly recounts how the success of the nonviolent Selma march empowered Johnson to act. But he also discusses the role that violence played in the history of the Voting Rights Act. The Ku Klux Klan murder of Viola Liuzzo, a Detroit housewife who assisted in the Selma march, paved the way for passage of the bill; but the Watts riots, which ignited just five days after the law was signed, fueled a cynical, destructive backlash against the legislation.