President Johnson signs Voting Rights Act

On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act, guaranteeing African Americans the right to vote. The bill made it illegal to impose restrictions on federal, state, and local elections that were designed to deny the vote to Black people.

Johnson assumed the presidency in November 1963 upon the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In the presidential race of 1964, Johnson was officially elected in a landslide victory and used this mandate to push for legislation he believed would improve the American way of life, which included stronger voting-rights laws. A recent march in Alabama in support of voting rights, during which Black people were beaten by state troops, shamed Congress and the president into passing the law, meant to enforce the 15th Amendment of the Constitution ratified by Congress in 1870.

In a speech to Congress on March 15, 1965, Johnson had outlined the devious ways in which election officials denied African-American citizens the vote. Black people attempting to vote were often told by election officials that they have gotten the date, time or polling place wrong, that the officials were late or absent, that they possessed insufficient literacy skills, or had filled out an application incorrectly. Often African Americans, whose population suffered a high rate of illiteracy due to centuries of oppression and poverty, would be forced to take literacy tests, which they inevitably failed. Johnson also told Congress that voting officials, primarily in southern states, had been known to force black voters to “recite the entire Constitution or explain the most complex provisions of state laws”–a task most white voters would have been hard-pressed to accomplish. In some cases, even Black people with college degrees were turned away from the polls.

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