The Voting Rights Act of 1965, passed in the wake of voting demonstrations in Selma, Alabama, provided the capstone to many years' efforts to strengthen voting rights for African-Americans. It gave the Attorney General the power to appoint federal examiners to supervise voter registration in states or voting districts where a literacy or other qualifying test was in use and where fewer than 50 percent of voting age residents were registered or had voted in 1964. Eight states were affected in a major way: Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Caroline, South Carolina, and Virginia.
Although it may not seem such a radical concept in 2002, the Voting Rights Act departed from the pattern of civil rights bills by providing for direct federal action to enable African-Americans to register and vote. Previous laws required individuals to file suits in courts, a process that often took years to conclude. [Congress and the Nation, p. 356].
On January 18, 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, opened a campaign in Selma, Alabama, to call attention to the discrimination against the right of African-Americans to vote. Selma was notorious. For example, someone registering to vote was required to complete a form with more than 50 blanks, write from dictation a part of the Constitution, answer four questions on the governmental process, read four passages from the Constitution and answer four questions about the passages, and sign an oath of loyalty to the United States and to Alabama. When Dr. King began his registration drive, of the 9,877 who were registered to vote, 9,542 were white and 335 were black [Congress and the Nation, p. 357].
Within days, the brutality of the state police in suppressing King's peaceful protests shocked the country and Congress. In the first week of February 1965, President Lyndon Johnson invited Dirksen to the White House, and there they discussed the possible need for a new civil rights bill. Continuing social unrest led Johnson and congressional leaders to conclude that a new law would have to be enacted. This surprised Dirksen and other sponsors of the omnibus Civil Rights Act of 1964. "We felt, "Dirksen opined, "we had made some real honest-to-God progress last year. We felt everything would fall into its slot. We thought we were out of the civil rights woods, but we weren't." [Quoted in MacNeil, Dirksen, p. 252]
On February 11, Dirksen met with Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and Johnson's new Attorney General, Nicholas Katzenbach. They agreed on enacting a stringent new law to guarantee the right to vote, one that would inflict severe penalties on anyone obstructing any citizen's right to vote.
Working out the details took time, however. Dirksen, Mansfield, and Katzenbach labored for weeks, as demonstrations continued in Alabama. Dirksen and his staff produced a bill that gave the federal courts responsibility for enforcing the right to register and vote. This did not satisfy Mansfield or the White House, both of whom were suspicious of federal judges in the South. Dirksen relented and endorsed the use of federal registrars, called "examiners."
Once Dirksen was on board, President Johnson went before a joint session of Congress on March 15 and asked that the legislation be passed. On March 18 Dirksen and Mansfield jointly introduced the President's bill, S 1564, which had been drafted in Dirksen's office. The bill went to the Judiciary Committee for consideration - with an April 9 deadline for reporting.
Dirksen explained the context for the voting rights bill in a television and radio broadcast to his constituents in Illinois during that same week. He dealt with the Constitution's treatment of slavery, the post-Civil War amendments, and the series of civil rights bills passed beginning in 1957. He issued a strong call for action by Congress: ". . . the right to vote is still an issue in this free country. There has to be a real remedy. There has to be something durable and worthwhile. This cannot go on forever, this denial of the right to vote by ruses and devices and tests and whatever the mind can contrive to either make it very difficult or to make it impossible to vote." A week later, Dirksen's staff created a form letter to respond to growing volume of mail on the subject.
Proponents of action battled among themselves over particular provisions, however, some preferring stronger action than others. For example, Dirksen differed sharply with Democratic liberals in the Senate led by Ted Kennedy over the latter's anti-poll tax amendment. The Judiciary Committee reported the bill shortly before midnight on April 9. It now contained stronger provisions than the original, reflecting intense lobbying by liberals.
Senate floor debate on the voting bill began April 22. Minority Leader Dirksen prepared his remarks carefully, writing a draft in one of the scores of personal notebooks he kept. As was often his practice, the Senator from the Land of Lincoln provided historical background for the current debate. He emphasized the constitutional principle of "consent of the governed" before posing this rhetorical question: "How then shall there be government by the people if some of the people cannot speak?" One hundred years to the month after the Civil War ended, in Dirksen's words, "we seek a solution which overrides emotion and sentimentality, prejudice and politics and which will provide a fair and equitable solution."
Southern opponents of S 1564 argued that the measure was unconstitutional in circumventing a state's right to impose its own voting criteria. But an expected filibuster never materialized. Instead, the Southerners attempted to alter the bill's main provisions by proposing many amendments.
For weeks the bickering continued. The White House needed Dirksen and his Republicans to support cloture to end debate, but Dirksen found it more difficult than expected to bring Republicans to support cloture. The battle over voting rights legislation become a test of Dirksen's ability to lead the Republicans, some of whom supported a rival, Bourke Hickenlooper of Iowa. Despite being hospitalized three times in the Spring of 1965, Dirksen worked relentlessly. "This involves more than you," Dirksen told one of his colleagues. "It's the party. Don't' drop me in the mud." [Quoted in MacNeil, Dirksen, p. 259]
Dirksen had to disarm and satisfy Republican conservatives who opposed the expansion of federal authority into realms typically reserved to the states and localities. In his effort to forge a majority, he tailored the legislative language to limit the ban on poll taxes to those states actually using them to prevent voter registration. Senate liberals, including Illinois's other Senator, Paul Douglas, blasted Dirksen for watering down the bill, but President Johnson understood the political realities and instructed Majority Leader Mike Mansfield to go along with Dirksen to get a cloture vote.
By late May, Dirksen found the votes. He told Mansfield to proceed, and on May 21 a petition for a cloture motion was filed. The motion for cloture was adopted by a 70-30 roll-call vote on May 25. The very next day, Dirksen again exhorted his colleagues to pass the voting rights bill, and by this time approval was well-assured. It passed on a 77-19 roll-call vote.
The House approved its version of voting rights legislation (HR 6400) on July 9 by a vote of 333-85. A conference committee was named, and Dirksen served on it (for an example of a letter from a House member asking for Dirksen's support during those deliberations, click here). The committee settled the differences in relatively short order and issued its report on July 29. The House approved the conference report on August 3, the Senate a day later.
Lyndon Johnson signed the bill into law (S 1564 - PL 89-110) on August 6, 1965. At the signing ceremony, broadcast nationwide from the U.S. Capitol rotunda, President Johnson said that the Act would "strike away the last major shackle" of black Americans' "ancient bonds."
Congress and the Nation, vol. 2, 1965-68 (Washington DC: Congressional Quarterly Service, 1969): 356-364
Neil MacNeil, Dirksen: Portrait of a Public Man (New York and Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1970), pages 252-260.
Edward L. and Frederick H. Schapsmeier, Dirksen of Illinois: Senatorial Statesman (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1985)
The 1965 Voting Rights Act http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/1965_voting_rights_act.htm
Alabama Department of Archives and History http://www.archives.state.al.us/teacher/rights/rights5.html
The Everett McKinley Dirksen Papers, The Dirksen Congressional Center, Pekin, Illinois
The following are documents drawn from the Everett M. Dirksen Papers housed at The Dirksen Congressional Center in Pekin, IL.
Radio-TV Weekly Report, March 15, 1965, "The Old Problem of Voting Rights," Dirksen Papers, Remarks and Releases
Form Letter, "Voting Rights Act of 1965," March 22, 1965, Dirksen Papers, Chicago Office File, f. 2154
"Voting Rights.The Consent of the Governed," Dirksen Papers, Notebooks, f. 162Letter, J. Bingham to E. Dirksen, July 22, 1965, Dirksen Papers, Working Papers, f. 277