How Did Protesting & Lobbying Lead to the Passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965?

As a student activist, Congressman John Lewis was beaten during the Selma voting rights march.
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During the 2008 presidential election, candidate Hillary Clinton commented that the dream of civil rights in America required a president to get it done. Clinton’s implication was that demonstrations can raise awareness of inequality, but politicians still must do their job, and lobby, to effect change. Such was true when it came to minority access to the voting booth. Passed by Congress in 1965, the Voting Rights Act provided people of color with federal protection during elections. Congress perceived the need for the act because of a history of voter intimidation in some areas after the Civil War era. In particular, the South, despite its relatively high population of racial minorities, had little diversity in its electorate. Both protestors and politicians worked to pass this act that transformed the face of American politics.

1 March on Washington

The 1963 March on Washington is an example of the cooperation between protesters and politicians that pushed the nation towards the Voting Rights Act. Before the march, prospective speakers had to receive clearance from the White House, which edited out phrases it thought too militant. Following the success of the March on Washington, which included Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream" speech, Attorney Robert Kennedy decided to back peaceful protests for voting rights.

2 Freedom Summer 1964

Many college students throughout the nation, inspired by the March on Washington and other events, traveled to Mississippi to register minority voters. The objective was to inform racial minorities of their right to vote and highlight the resistance to minority voting in the state. The presence of college students and poor Mississippi African Americans fighting for a constitutional right increased national awareness of the need for governmental action against racial discrimination.

3 Selma to Montgomery

The 50-mile march in Alabama -- from Selma to Montgomery -- was the final protest that pushed the federal government to action to protect the right to vote. Local activists in Selma faced increasing resistance to African Americans registering to vote in 1965. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders, planned a march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital, to take place on Sunday, March 7. As the protestors reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, police beat 600 peaceful marchers on national television using clubs and tear gas. This spectacle, known as “Bloody Sunday,” demonstrated to many the level of violence African Americans faced attempting to exercise a fundamental right of citizens.

4 Lyndon Johnson

Following the nationally televised brutality in Selma, President Lyndon Johnson lobbied Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. He used the moment to speak to the nation two days after “Bloody Sunday.” In his speech, Johnson employed the language of the protestors, explicitly placing the government on their side when he stated “we shall overcome.” This moment signaled the success of the cooperation between protestors and politicians. Johnson used the emotion garnered from the protests to convince Congress, especially Southerners in his Democratic Party, to pass the Voting Rights Act.

David Kenneth has a Ph.D. in history. His work has been published in "The Journal of Southern History," "The Georgia Historical Quarterly," "The Southern Historian," "The Journal of Mississippi History" and "The Oxford University Companion to American Law." Kenneth has been working as a writer since 1999.