The current generation of laws could disenfranchise millions.
Lyndon Johnson was riled up.
The Texas senator hadn't yet announced his candidacy for the presidency, wouldn't announce it until it was too late as it turned out, but there he was, privately campaigning, secretly moving to assure key journalists that he was not the scourge of civil rights they thought he was. As Senate Majority Leader, he had helped pass the 1957 Civil Rights Act, had he not? Breaking through nearly a century of Southern intransigence on civil rights, he had herded the "old bulls" of the Senate, some of them unabashed racists, into passing a federal law that made it easier for blacks to vote.
So there he was, in April 1960, already playing catch up to the aggressive Kennedy machine, on an airplane with a journalist named Howard B. Woods, the editor of a black newspaper called the St. Louis Argus. And Johnson was in full throat. Here's how Robert Caro, in Passage of Power, his masterful new installment of his colossal biographical series on the life and times of Johnson, recounts what happened next:
The Senator, tie-less and in shirtsleeves, was eating cookies and drinking a tall, and stiff, Scotch, but when Woods ask him about the civil rights bill "which seems to please no one," saying, "Senator, the bill, as it was finally passed, was admittedly watered down," Johnson forgot about the cookies and the Scotch, and leaned forward across the table, looking Woods "straight in the eye" in a way the editor found quite memorable.
"When we say every man has a right to vote, that is not watered down," Lyndon Johnson said." The important thing in this country is whether or not a man can participate in the management of his government. When this is possible, he can decide that I'm no good." George Reedy slipped into the seat next to Woods, but Johnson didn't need Reedy now. "Civil rights are a matter of human dignity," he said.
"It's outrageous that all people do not have the dignity to which they are entitled. But we can't legislate human dignity -- we can legislative to give a man a vote and a voice in in his own government. Then with his vote and his voice he is equipped with a very potent weapon to guarantee his own dignity." [Emphasis added.]
Just four years later, Johnson, successor to a martyred president, astonished the country and the world by using his preternatural political skills to push passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The next year, he used the same combination of bluff and bluster, of carrot and stick, to push passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The old Senate bulls were done, finished. Those two pieces of federal legislation brought the vote to millions of Americans who had been effectively disenfranchised because of their race. American politics has never been the same since.