Throughout the early half of the 20th century, vicious attacks on voting rights activists throughout the South pushed Congress to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which aimed to finally fulfill the promise of the 15th Amendment ratified in 1870.

Black Americans faced “tremendous obstacles to voting, including poll taxes, literacy tests, and other bureaucratic restrictions to deny them the right to vote. They also risked harassment, intimidation, economic reprisals, and physical violence when they tried to register or vote. As a result, very few African Americans were registered voters, and they had very little, if any, political power, either locally or nationally,” according to the National Archives.

A year prior, writes the Washington Post, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, “set the precedent for breaking filibusters. Back then, a two-thirds vote of the Senate, or 67 votes, was needed to invoke “cloture” and end the filibuster that had lasted 75 days (60 working days), still the longest ever.”

Similar attempts to stymie the 1965 Act failed, and on August 6th, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, claiming, “The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice.” 

  • President Lyndon B. Johnson shakes hands with Dr. Martin Luther King after signing the Voting Rights Act. (Yoichi Okamoto/LBJ Library)
  • Pickets outside the White House protest police brutality against civil rights demonstrators in Selma, Ala., on March 12th, 1965. (Warren K. Leffler/Library of Congress)
  • Supporters of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party hold signs at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, August 25th, 1964. The MFDP was attempting to unseat segregationist delegates to the convention. (Warren K. Leffler/Library of Congress)
  • "This right to vote is the basic right without which all others are meaningless. It gives people, people as individuals, control over their own destinies." President Lyndon B. Johnson addresses Congress before signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (Cecil Stoughton/LBJ Library)
  • President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with civil rights activists before signing the Voting Rights Act. Left to right: two unidentified men, John Lewis and James Farmer. (Yoichi Okamoto/LBJ Library)
  • President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (Robert Knudsen/LBJ Library)
  • President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act as Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights leaders look on. (Yoichi Okamoto/LBJ Library)
  • Senator Jacob Javits, Senator Mike Mansfield, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Senator Everett Dirksen, President Lyndon B. Johnson, Speaker of the House John McCormack, and Congressman Emanuel Celler pose with the signed Voting Rights Act. (Yoichi Okamoto/LBJ Library)
  • Senator Robert F. Kennedy accepts one of the signing pens. (Robert Knudsen/LBJ Library)
  • The Rev. Ralph David Abernathy Sr. shakes hands with President Lyndon B. Johnson after the signing of the Voting Rights Act. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Clarence Mitchell and Patricia Roberts Harris look on. (Yoichi Okamoto/LBJ Library)