By Debra Adams Simmons, HISTORY Executive Editor
President Lyndon B. Johnson summoned John Lewis to a private meeting in the Oval Office on the morning of August 6, 1965. Later that day, Johnson would sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law in a ceremony attended by Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and other noted civil rights leaders.
First, though, Johnson wanted an introductory chat with Lewis, who months earlier led a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, an event now known as Bloody Sunday. Lewis and nearly 600 peaceful marchers were attacked by state troopers, a scene that horrified the nation and pricked the conscience of many, including President Johnson.
This week marks the 55th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act. Many, including President Barack Obama (above, delivering the eulogy at Congressman Lewis’s funeral last week) say the best way to honor Lewis is for government to uphold the voting rights he dedicated his life to fighting for and for citizens to exercise those rights.
In his memoir, Walking with the Wind, Lewis recalled his 20-minute chat with President Johnson, and how his tone and demeanor differed drastically from the one he adopted hours later when signing the bill.
“Johnson dominated the conversation, his legs propped on a chair, his hands folded back behind his head,” Lewis wrote.
“Near the end of the meeting the President leaned forward and said, ‘Now John, you’ve got to go back and get all those folks registered. You’ve got to go back and get those boys by the balls.’ ”
Later that afternoon, Johnson waxed far more eloquent.
“So, through this act, and its enforcement, an important instrument of freedom passes into the hands of millions of our citizens. But that instrument must be used. Presidents and Congresses, laws and lawsuits can open the doors to the polling places and open the doors to the wondrous rewards which await the wise use of the ballot.
“But only the individual Negro, and all others who have been denied the right to vote, can really walk through those doors, and can use that right, and can transform the vote into an instrument of justice and fulfillment,” Johnson said before signing the measure.
In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted a provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act that allowed the government to oversee state voting laws. The assault on the voting rights hasn’t stopped there. Several states have embarked on ambitious purges of voter rolls, adopted strict identification laws, and deliberately gerrymandered districts in attempts to dilute minority voting strength.
President Obama, speaking at John Lewis’s funeral last week, noted the tributes pouring in for the congressman, including renaming the 2019 Voting Rights Act that passed the U.S. House of Representatives last year but remains stalled in the Senate. Naming platitudes are nice, Obama said, but measures that strengthen voter access are what’s truly needed. Lewis would have agreed. That was his life’s mission.
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Today in a minute
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Instagram photo of the day
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The big takeaway
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The last glimpse
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