‘Let My People Vote’

In June 1965, the Voting Rights Act languished in the House Rules Committee after passage in the Senate. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote this letter to the New York Amsterdam News urging its passage as the first step in ensuring access to the ballot.

King casts his ballot in Atlanta in 1964
King casts his ballot in Atlanta in 1964, while his wife, Coretta, waits. (Bettman / Getty)
Editor’s Note: Read The Atlantic’s special coverage of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.

The Senate had passed its version of the Voting Rights Act but the House Rules Committee was holding up the legislation when King wrote an editorial in the black-owned New York Amsterdam News on June 19, 1965. The House panel approved the bill 12 days later, and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Congress’s final rendering into law on August 6, in the Capitol. King was in attendance and received one of the pens that LBJ used.

In a recent dinner with Vice President Hubert Humphrey at an American Jewish Committee Meeting in New York City, he assured me that we would have a voting bill by the end of June.

The Vice President’s assurances have already been reinforced by the Senate’s recent passage of a voting bill. Another victory in our hard struggle for equal rights looms before us. For not only is passage of voting legislation by the House expected, it is reliably predicted that the bill will be strengthened in that august Legislative Body.

We cannot rest. Laurels have not yet been earned. We must toil on during the hot sweltering summer months. We must get our long deprived people registered in the South’s infamous blackbelt counties.

Voting legislation does not put the names of Negroes on voting lists. We are not so naive as to believe persons who have traditionally opposed our right to vote will now desist from intimidating us.

There must be a change. There will be a change. For to deny a person the right to exercise his political freedom at the polls is no less a dastardly act as to deny a Christian the right to petition God in prayer.

kids at Freedom Summer office, 1964
Freedom Summer, a 1964 campaign to register and educate voters, drew these two workers in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. (Corbis / Getty)

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference has taken a giant step toward getting more Negro names on southern voting lists.

Many of the frustrations of a politically deprived people will surely be erased by SCLC’s Summer Community Organization and Political Education Project (scope).

scope is designed to involve entire communities in a coordinated program of massive voter registration, political education and community organization. There are surely difficult times ahead in the struggle to secure the rights of all Americans and our scope project will be an ambitious effort to change the political structure of the south.

Through scope we will launch one of the most intensive attacks ever conceived to fight disfranchisement, educational deprivation and poverty.

Our efforts will be concentrated in 75 counties within Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana.

The scope program will start June 22, just a week before expected passage of the voting bill. When the bill is signed in to law we anticipate having thousands of college and university personnel laboring in our scope program.

A vivid portrayal of the Negro disfranchised is found in voter registration statistics of three Alabama blackbelt counties.

In Dallas County where the Negro voting age population hits 51.2 per cent, registration figures level off at 3.3 per cent; Butler County presents a slightly improved situation, where the Negro voting age population comprises 43.3 per cent, and 4.7 per cent of those Negroes eligible to vote are registered; Wilcox County presents a vivid example of why voting legislation is sorely needed. Here 113 per cent of the white voting age population is registered compared to the 1.09 per cent of the Negro voting age population. Negroes make up 69.9 per cent of the County’s voting age population.

These counties are not an exception but rather the rule in an area where Negro disfranchisement is the main instrument for perpetuating racial injustice.

Through the efforts of scope and a strong voting rights bill we are confident of breaking the shackles which so long have crippled the Negro’s advancement in the South. Our battle cry is “Let My People Vote.”

© 1965 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., © Renewed 1992 Coretta Scott King. All works by Martin Luther King Jr. have been reprinted by arrangement with the Heirs to the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr., care of Writers House as agent for the proprietor, New York, New York.