"During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, voting rights activists in the South were subjected to various forms of mistreatment and violence. One event that outraged many Americans occurred on March 7, 1965, when peaceful participants in a Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights were met by Alabama state troopers who attacked them with nightsticks, tear gas and whips after they refused to turn back.
Some protesters were severely beaten and bloodied, and others ran for their lives. The incident was captured on national television.
In the wake of the shocking incident, Johnson called for comprehensive voting rights legislation. In a speech to a joint session of Congress on March 15, 1965, the president outlined the devious ways in which election officials denied African American citizens the vote.
Black people attempting to vote often were told by election officials that they had gotten the date, time or polling place wrong, that they possessed insufficient literacy skills or that they had filled out an application incorrectly. Black people, whose population suffered a high rate of illiteracy due to centuries of oppression and poverty, often would be forced to take literacy tests, which they sometimes failed.
Johnson also told Congress that voting officials, primarily in Southern states, had been known to force Black voters to “recite the entire Constitution or explain the most complex provisions of state laws,” a task most white voters would have been hard-pressed to accomplish. In some cases, even Black people with college degrees were turned away from the polls.
Voting Rights Act Signed into Law
The voting rights bill was passed in the U.S. Senate by a 77-19 vote on May 26, 1965. After debating the bill for more than a month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill by a vote of 333-85 on July 9.
Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law on August 6, 1965, with Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders present at the ceremony.
The act banned the use of literacy tests, provided for federal oversight of voter registration in areas where less than 50 percent of the non-white population had not registered to vote, and authorized the U.S. attorney general to investigate the use of poll taxes in state and local elections.
In 1964, the 24th Amendment made poll taxes illegal in federal elections; poll taxes in state elections were banned in 1966 by the U.S. Supreme Court."