Lyndon Johnson Voting Rights Act--phone clips


The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is perhaps the most successful piece of civil rights legislation in American history. Designed to allow the the federal government to ensure that all Americans, regardless of their racial or ethnic background, its passage marked the culmination of President Johnson's civil rights agenda.
The President decided to propose voting rights legislation shortly after his overwhelming election victory in November 1964, and he mentioned the issue in his January 1965 State of the Union Address. He had offered no concrete initiative, however, when violence broke out in Selma (seat of an Alabama county in which 57.6% of the population was black but only 2.1% of the registered voters). State police attacked civil rights demonstrators led by Martin Luther King, Jr. on "Bloody Sunday," an event that generated national outrage. Johnson responded with one of the most powerful speeches of his presidency, informing a joint session of Congress, "What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it's not just negroes, but really it's all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome."
The administration's bill contained two controversial elements: Section 4 expanded the Attorney General's authority to file voting rights-related cases; Section 5 required the Justice Department to pre-clear any changes in electoral structure--ranging from the drawing of congressional districts to the opening or closing of polling places--in the states of the Old Confederacy.
In contrast to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, where the key opposition came from Southern senators, Johnson focused on 1965 in attempting to mediate disagreements between congressional liberals, who wanted a stronger bill, and his more cautious attorney general, Nicholas Katzenbach. Debate centered around a proposal sponsored by Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) to amend the bill with a provision preventing the use of poll taxes for all elections, not just all federal elections. (The 24th amendment to the Constitution, ultimately approved in 1964, had abolished the poll tax in federal contests.) Katzenbach insisted that the Kennedy amendment was unconstitutional and would make the bill impossible to enforce.
On May 11, 1965, the Senate defeated the Kennedy amendment, 49-45; the bill ultimately cleared the Senate 79-18 and the House by a margin of 328 to 74.


Johnson preferred to use the telephone to conduct political business. An aide described him as “on the phone morning, noon, and night—almost any hour. He phones from the dinner table, from the bed, from the swimming pool, from the automobile.” Indeed, the story circulated that Johnson, after failing to reach an aide who was indisposed, had a telephone placed in the aide’s bathroom. Unbeknownst to all but his closest advisers, the President regularly recorded his phone conversations, and the clips on this page, with inserted audio commentary, come from these conversations, which were released by the LBJ Presidential Library.

1.) President Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., January 15, 1965, 12.06pm

Length (including commentary): 4:07

2.) President Johnson, Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, and Bill Moyers, March 10, 1965, 9.32pm

Length (including commentary): 4:55

3.) President Johnson and Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, April 7, 1965, 9.17am

Length (including commentary): 2:35

4.) President Johnson and Senator Birch Bayh (D-Indiana), May 7, 1965, 4.45pm

Length (including commentary): 2:13

5.) President Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson, and Governor Carl Sanders (D-Georgia), May 13, 1965, 8.35pm

Length (including commentary): 4:31

6.) President Johnson and Walter Reuther, May 14, 1965, 4.19pm

Length (including commentary): 1:24

7.) President Johnson and Senator Everett Dirksen (R-Illinois), August 4, 1965, 6.58pm

Length (including commentary): 2:44