March 2014 marks the anniversary of a crucially important milestone in U.S. history: President Johnson’s 1965 speech calling on Americans—white Americans—to commit themselves to voting equality for black Americans.
The Fifteenth Amendment had guaranteed all U.S. citizens the right to vote regardless of race. But the concerted efforts of whites, particularly in the South, to prevent at first black American men, and then women, from exercising that right, meant that by 1965 only about 20% of black Americans qualified to vote (that is, at least 18 years of age and a U.S. citizen) were voting. Intimidation, torture, and murder were regularly used to keep black Americans from voting. Southern states passed laws requiring black Americans to pay poll taxes and pass literacy tests to be able to vote.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which Johnson pushed through Congress with all his considerable energy and powers of persuasion, outlawed discrimination in hiring and housing, but it had little impact on the number of black Americans being registered to vote. On March 7, 1965, nonviolent, unarmed marchers protesting repression of the vote in Selma, Alabama were brutally attacked by state police armed with clubs, bull whips, and tear gas. The attack was filmed by national television crews and broadcast to the nation. It was one thing to hear about police brutality, and to speculate that it must have been justified somehow; it was another thing entirely to see young people being beaten to the ground and then kicked and beaten further, all for asking that they be allowed to exercise a right they had been granted by the U.S. government almost exactly a century before.
President Johnson was one of those Americans who watched the footage from Selma and was infuriated and repelled by what he saw. Johnson was a sincere proponent of civil rights, and he had staked a lifetime of political clout on passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Everyone expected him to back down after that, and not “push” the Southern Democrats for anything more on the race front. Instead, Johnson went on TV himself, and spoke to the nation, one week after the attack at Selma, and asked the American people to live up to their creed and ensure the voting rights of black Americans.