On this day, March 15 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress, urging legislation that would guarantee voting rights for all, regardless of race or color.
Using the phrase “We shall overcome,” borrowed from leaders of the civil rights movement such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Johnson declared that “every American citizen must have an equal right to vote.”
Johnson reminded the nation that the 15th Amendment, passed after the Civil War, granted all Americans the right to vote.
“Their cause must be our cause too,” Johnson said. “Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”
Despite the Constitution, states defiantly erected barriers to keep African-Americans from voting. Discrimination had taken the form of literacy, knowledge or so-called “character tests” for blacks designed to block them from registering to vote.
The speech was delivered eight days after racial violence erupted in Selma, Alabama.
Civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King and more than 500 supporters were attacked while planning a march to Montgomery to register African-Americans.
The police violence that erupted resulted in the death of a King supporter, a white Unitarian Minister from Boston named James J. Reeb.
Five months later on August 6, 1965, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. The legislation made it illegal to impose restrictions that would deny black Americans the ability to vote in federal, state and local elections.
The Voting Rights Act had it seeds in The Civil Rights Act of 1964, first proposed by President John F. Kennedy, Jr.