Fifty years ago, Lyndon Baines Johnson delivered one of the most powerful pieces of oratory in presidential history. Standing before Congress at 9 p.m. on March 15, just a few days after the shocking violence that civil-rights protesters confronted during the march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge on “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Johnson called on members of both parties to pass a bill that ensured the federal government would take the steps that were necessary to protect voting rights.
Delivering that speech was a courageous decision. When the grassroots civil-rights movement tried to force Johnson’s hand by creating unbearable pressure to send a voting-rights bill to Congress, the president might have ignored or stifled their dissent. Instead, he fully embraced their cause by connecting himself and his White House to the fate of this legislation. He didn’t equivocate. Despite strong opposition in Washington to the federal government committing itself to the protection of African American voters, Johnson delivered a powerful speech that left no doubt of where he stood in this debate.
The speech was a response to mounting public pressure to do something about the violence against voting-rights protesters that Americans had seen on their television screens. Until that moment, President Johnson had favored a major voting-rights bill but had insisted that he wanted to wait until later in the year before sending it to Congress. When Martin Luther King Jr. implored the president to move sooner in January for fear that the window of opportunity for a bill would pass (liberals wanted to take every advantage of the 1964 election landslide victory for Democrats), Johnson said that he didn’t think Congress could handle another civil rights measure so soon after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Johnson also worried that moving too soon with voting-rights legislation would tie up other major bills like Medicare and federal education assistance. These and other bills, in his mind, were essential to achieving racial justice.