Give Us The Ballot: The Modern Struggle For Voting Rights In America

By Ari Berman
In December 1964, Lyndon Johnson was in a jubilant mood. He'd just routed Barry Goldwater by twenty-three points, winning 486 electoral votes to Goldwater's 52, the most lopsided victory in U.S. presidential history to date. Five months earlier, on his daughter Luci's seventeenth birthday, he'd signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a sweeping law that desegregated schools, restaurants, hotels, parks, and many other public places. When John F. Kennedy's advisers urged LBJ not to push the bill following the assassination, the new president replied, "Well, what the hell's the presidency for?"

Johnson's commitment to civil rights surprised his critics on the left and the right. He was the first southern president since the Civil War. His first vote in the House of Representatives in 1937 came against an antilynching law. His first major speech in the Senate was a defense of the filibuster, which had been used so often by southern Democrats to block civil rights legislation. He'd voted against every civil rights bill in Congress from 1937 to 1956. JFK put him on the ticket to win the southern segregationist vote.

Yet LBJ hadn't had a change of heart so much as a change of circumstances and constituency. He was no longer a congressman or senator from Texas, but the president of the United States. He was now free to say what he believed.

Johnson could be crude and manipulative, but he was also unexpectedly compassionate. After graduating from Texas State University–San Marcos, LBJ taught fifth through seventh grades at a segregated Mexican-American school in the south Texas town of Cotulla, where his students showed up barefoot because they were too poor to afford shoes. LBJ cried when he told the story. "It was a genuinely uncontrolled emotion," said Deputy Attorney General Ramsey Clark, a fellow Texan. "It was pretty deep and pretty impressive."

Now Johnson wanted to cement the civil rights revolution by giving African-Americans and other long-disenfranchised minority groups the right to vote, a goal that previous civil rights legislation in 1957, 1960, and 1964 had not accomplished. The ballot, the president believed, would give Mexican-Americans in Cotulla and blacks in Selma the power to change their circumstances. The vote was "the meat in the coconut," he liked to say.

"I want you to undertake the greatest midnight legislative drafting that has happened since Corcoran and Cohen wrote the Holding Company Act," the president instructed the acting attorney general, Nicholas Katzenbach, on December 14, 1964, referring to an obscure New Deal bill in 1935 regulating electric utilities that was written by two senior aides to Franklin Roosevelt. LBJ wanted "a simple, effective method of gettin' 'em registered." He urged Katzenbach and the top lawyers in the Justice Department to "scratch their tails" and "get me some things you'd be proud of, to show your boy, and say, 'Here is what your daddy put through in nineteen sixty-four, -five, -six, -seven.'"

Katzenbach, who'd succeeded Robert Kennedy as the nation's top law enforcement official after Johnson's archrival left to run for the U.S. Senate in New York in the summer of 1964, was not thrilled with the new assignment. He'd spent eight months on Capitol Hill lobbying for the Civil Rights Act, which endured a fifty-seven-day filibuster by southern Democrats, the longest in Senate history. The office of Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois had practically become his second home. Strong voting rights provisions were stripped from the bill to win congressional support.

"The 1964 Civil Rights Act was exhausting," said Ramsey Clark. "It about expended our goodwill with the Senate and the House. President Johnson insisted we were going to have another round of civil rights legislation, this time on voting ... There was no enthusiasm in the Justice Department, but Johnson insisted on it."

At the end of December, after consulting with lawyers from the Appeals and Research Section at the DOJ, Katzenbach sent LBJ three options, in order of preference, "to overcome voter apathy and discrimination." Katzenbach's top choice, a constitutional amendment prohibiting states from employing devices like literacy tests and poll taxes that disenfranchised minority voters, "would be the most drastic but probably the most effective of all the alternatives," he wrote. It was also the most "cumbersome," he admitted, because a constitutional amendment needed to be ratified by two-thirds of Congress and three-fourths of states. The second option would be to create a federal commission that would appoint federal officers to register voters for federal elections. The third option would be for the federal government "to assume direct control of registration for voting in both federal and state elections in any area where the percentage of potential Negro registrants actually registered is low."

Civil rights activists favored the last option. "This approach would quickly provide political power to Negroes in proportion to their actual numbers in areas in which they are now disenfranchised," Katzenbach wrote. "On the other hand, its effects on general voter apathy would be relatively minimal ... Moreover, its constitutionality is more dubious than that of the preceding suggestion."

In his State of the Union address a week later, Johnson vowed to "eliminate every remaining obstacle to the right and the opportunity to vote." Inside the White House, a debate raged among Johnson's inner circle over how and when to push voting rights legislation. "Certainly I have absolutely no problem with the desirability of such legislation, but I do have a problem about the timing and the approach," Lee White, one of LBJ's top advisers on civil rights, wrote to the special assistant Bill Moyers on December 30, 1964. The Civil Rights Act was less than a year old, White argued, and the prospects for passing voting rights legislation did not look particularly favorable. White proposed that 1965 "be a year of test" on civil rights.

Horace Busby, a Johnson aide since 1946 from Texas, was less charitable. "To southern minds and mores," he wrote to White and Moyers, "the proposals of this message would represent a return to Reconstruction."

The mercurial Johnson wanted to keep his legislative options open. Four days after talking with Katzenbach, LBJ met at the White House with Martin Luther King, Jr., who'd been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that week. King told Johnson that he would soon be launching a voting rights campaign in Selma, where only 2 percent of blacks were registered to vote. He asked the president for his support.

"Martin, you are right about that," Johnson replied. "I'm going to do it eventually, but I can't get voting rights through in this session of Congress." The president's ambitious Great Society agenda took priority. "I need the votes of the southern bloc to get these other things through," Johnson said. "And if I present a voting rights bill, they will block the whole program. So it's just not the wise and the politically expedient thing to do."

King left the meeting dispirited. His voter registration drive in Selma would be aimed as much at the federal government as at the segregated South. "I think we've got to find a way to get this president some power," King told Andrew Young as they departed the White House.

* * *

The Alabama senator William Rufus King founded Selma in 1820, naming it after the Ossian poem The Songs of Selma, about a town on the high bluffs above a river. "Selma," wrote the historian and LBJ adviser Eric Goldman, "was straight out of a thousand novels about the unreconstructed South, lovely to look at and ugly just beneath the surface." In the 1800s, white planters flocked to the Black Belt, which spanned from Texas to eastern Virginia, to grow cotton in its rich soil, bringing with them many slaves. Selma became a major slave-trading port. The city passed twenty-seven ordinances regulating the behavior of slaves, stipulating, for example, that "any Negro found upon the streets of the city smoking a cigar or pipe or carrying a walking cane must be on conviction punished with 39 lashes."

During the Civil War, Selma manufactured weapons for the Confederacy and was commanded by Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. The city was torched during the Battle of Selma in April 1865 and occupied during Reconstruction, when federal troops registered seven hundred thousand emancipated slaves across the South from 1867 to 1868. Following the Civil War, Selma elected numerous black officials, including two congressmen and thirteen state legislators.

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Reconstruction prompted a vicious white backlash, which gained traction following the disputed election of 1876, when the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes pulled federal troops out of the South in return for the electoral votes of Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana. Segregationist whites, known as Redeemers, regained power and quickly targeted black voters, first through violence and fraud and then via devices like literacy and good character tests, poll taxes, and stringent residency requirements. Mississippi became the first state to change its constitution to disenfranchise black voters in 1890. Every other southern state quickly followed. Black voters disappeared seemingly overnight.

"When you pay $1.50 for a poll tax, in Dallas County, I believe you disenfranchise 10 Negroes," Henry Fontaine Reese, a delegate from Selma, argued at Alabama's Constitutional Convention of 1901. "Give us this $1.50 for educational purposes and for the disenfranchisement of a vicious and useless class." Reese represented what Ralph McGill of the Atlanta Constitution called "Black Belt thinking," which infected not only Selma but so much of the South. After adoption of the 1901 constitution, the number of black registered votes in Alabama fell from 182,000 to 4,000.

Following the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 ordering the desegregation of public schools, Selma became the Alabama headquarters of the White Citizens' Council, regarded by civil rights activists as the white-collar Klan, which maintained segregation through political and economic power. The city embodied the southern Democratic policy of massive resistance to civil rights. Its native sons included the Birmingham sheriff, Bull Connor, and the Dallas County sheriff, Jim Clark, who vied for the title of Alabama's most tyrannical segregationist. Clark fashioned himself after Gen. George Patton, carried a cattle prod as a weapon against civil rights activists, and wore a black-and-white pin that read "Never" ("Clark's rejoinder to 'We Shall Overcome,'" wrote Ramparts magazine). The Dallas County board of registrars used every device imaginable to keep black voters off the rolls, most notably a literacy test that required them to name all sixty-seven county judges in the state.

Two days after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Sheriff Clark arrested four SNCC workers for trying to desegregate the Thirsty Boy drive-in restaurant. Days later Clark arrested John Lewis (his thirty-seventh arrest) and seventy blacks who attempted to register to vote at the Dallas County Courthouse, on one of the two days each month the board of registrars was open. The Circuit Court judge James Hare, who compared blacks with "backward" jungle tribes in his courtroom, issued an injunction banning any meeting of three or more African-Americans in Selma, which effectively ended all civil rights protests.

King had come to Selma to challenge that injunction. "Today marks the beginning of a determined, organized, mobilized campaign to get the right to vote everywhere in Alabama," King told a packed house at Brown Chapel on January 2, 1965, the 102nd anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. "If we are refused, we will appeal to Governor George Wallace. If he refuses to listen, we will appeal to the legislature. If they don't listen, we will appeal to the conscience of the Congress in another dramatic march on Washington." He repeated the refrain from his first major speech on voting rights in 1957 at the Lincoln Memorial: "Give us the ballot."

Beginning on January 18, SNCC and King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) teamed up to lead joint voter registration marches to the Dallas County Courthouse, which Clark had guarded like a prison since becoming sheriff in 1955. He'd even moved his family into the county jail next door when the demonstrations began so that he'd be closer to work, where he could spy on the SNCC office across the street from his jailhouse window.

On day one, the six-foot-two, 220-pound Clark, wearing his trademark Eisenhower jacket and military helmet, herded four hundred prospective black voters into an alley behind the courthouse, where they waited all day without ever making it inside to register. When they returned the next day, he arrested sixty-two blacks for unlawful assembly and five more for "criminal provocation." He yanked Amelia Boynton, the stately godmother of Selma's voting rights movement, by the collar of her jacket and threw her into his squad car. The photo appeared on the front page of The New York Times.

Clark's crackdown increased pressure on the president to expedite his timetable for voting rights legislation. On February 1, King and five hundred schoolchildren were thrown in jail. "All of us should be concerned with the efforts of our fellow Americans to register to vote in Alabama," Johnson said at a news conference while King sat in his cell.

The turning point in the fight for the right to vote came on February 18, thirty miles from Selma, in the small town of Marion, Coretta Scott King's hometown. Beneath a full orange moon, two hundred blacks held a rare night march from Zion United Methodist Church to the Perry County jail to protest the arrest of the SCLC worker James Orange, who was behind bars for "contributing to the delinquency of minors" after encouraging students to sing freedom songs outside the courthouse.

In a precursor to Bloody Sunday, Alabama state troopers attacked the marchers with nightsticks, sending them fleeing for safety. Jimmie Lee Jackson, his mother, Viola, and his grandfather Cager Lee hid in Mack's Café. Ten state troopers entered and beat Jackson's mother to the ground. When Jackson lunged to protect her, a state trooper shot him point-blank in the stomach. "For the state troopers the action in Marion was like a shot of amphetamine to a speed freak," wrote the civil rights activist Chuck Fager.

In a final indignity, Col. Al Lingo of the Alabama Department of Public Safety served Jackson in the hospital with a warrant for assault and battery with the intent to murder an Alabama state trooper. Jackson died a week later, the "first martyr of the current campaign for the vote," wrote Taylor Branch.

Four thousand people attended two funeral services for Jackson, in Selma and Marion. RACISM KILLED OUR BROTHER, said a large banner on the front of Brown Chapel. Jackson was given a "freedom funeral" in a small tract of woods alongside County Road 183; he was buried in blue denim overalls, a blue denim jumper, white shirt, and necktie-the uniform of the SCLC.

At a mass meeting in Selma, the King aide James Bevel first suggested the idea of marching from Selma to Montgomery to protest Jackson's death at the state capitol. "We are going to bring a voting bill into being in the streets of Selma, Alabama," King vowed.

King met with Johnson in Washington again on March 5, the same day the DOJ's Civil Rights Division finished a rough draft of a voting rights bill. The legislation was based on the last option in Katzenbach's December 1964 memo, a powerful blueprint giving the federal government extensive power over voter registration in the South. Then came Bloody Sunday. "It required the atrocities of Selma," said Senator Paul Douglas of Illinois, "to invoke the Fifteenth Amendment's instructions."
Read the full excerpt of Give Us the Ballot here.
Copyright © 2015 by Ari Berman
Ari Berman is a political correspondent for The Nation and an investigative journalism Fellow at the Nation Institute. His writing has also appeared in The New York Times and Rolling Stone, and he is a frequent commentator on MSNBC and NPR. His first book, Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, was published in 2010. He lives in New York City.
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