Special to the Newsletter
After I graduated from college, I was delighted when my Texas Congressman hired me to work in his Washington office. I was in DC just in time to witness several events leading to the passage of the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Besides my work with the Congressman’s staff, I was also assigned to the House Doorkeeper’s office; that meant I was charged with permitting only members of Congress and authorized staff, access to the House Chamber. Looking back on my Capitol Hill career, I consider that service as one of the most fascinating jobs I ever held.
My door keeping job didn’t start until June of 1964, so I missed seeing passage of the Civil Rights Act in the House of Representatives on February 10. However, in the meantime, the legislation had moved to the Senate, and it was being debated there. Several Senators, mostly from the deep south, were attempting to “filibuster,”—deny a final vote–against the legislation. At that time, Senate Rules required a 2/3 majority (67 votes) to end it.
On June 10, a colleague offered me a pass to the Senate Visitors’ Gallery to watch the Civil Rights debate. I was thrilled! As I entered the Senate gallery for the first time, I was awed by the ornate Chamber. As I sat down, the vote to end the filibuster was nearing conclusion; several minutes later, the Chair announced that the motion had passed with 71 affirmative votes! When clapping and cheering erupted, I knew I had witnessed an historic event. A few days later, on June 19, 1964, the Civil Rights bill passed the Senate, and President Johnson signed it into law on July 2.
Less than a year later, on the evening of Tuesday, March 16, 1965, I was present for one of the greatest speeches given by a President to a joint session of Congress. I was one proud Texan, watching President Johnson speak about his new voting rights proposal. That evening, my doorkeeper post was at the large House Chamber door just to the left of the Speaker’s chair. I stood just inside, preventing anyone to enter once the President started speaking. My position would be within fifty feet of the President.
As we waited for the President to arrive, Secret Service agents were everywhere. Two agents were assigned to work with me. They watched closely as I identified those seeking entrance to the Chamber, and I felt enormous pressure to perform.
During what became a 20-year career on Capitol Hill, I was in the House Chamber countless times, but I never remember it being as brightly lit as it was on that March evening.
When the President entered the Chamber, applause and cheers broke out. President Johnson appeared tall and resolute, as he made his way to the front of the Chamber, where House Speaker John McCormack, and Vice-President Hubert Humphrey were waiting.
As President Johnson delivered what became his famous “We Shall Overcome” address, America was undergoing great civil unrest and violence, especially in Selma, Alabama. Only nine days had passed since the bloody confrontation at Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Early in his speech, the President eloquently stated:
…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.”
Reading that speech today still gives me a thrill.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, swiftly, by Congress and signed into law by President Johnson on August 6, 1965.
How was President Johnson able to persuade Congress to pass both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965?
The legacy of President Kennedy was overarching, and President Johnson had pledged to finish the work President Kennedy had begun. This was a goal shared by scores of senators, congressmen, and Cabinet members who were devoted to President Kennedy.
In addition, President Johnson’s 1964 landslide victory over Senator Barry Goldwater gave the Democrats a huge numerical majorities; in the 89th Congress (1965-66), Democrats enjoyed a 64 to 35 advantage in the Senate, and a lead of 295 to 140 in the House, opening a path to pass the Voting Rights legislation.
Another factor was President Johnson’s personal commitment to Civil Rights. During his speech that evening, the President recalled his first job, teaching the children of impoverished Mexican American laborers in the small town of Cotulla, Texas. Remembering those children, he said:
And somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child…It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country. But now I do have that chance—and I’ll let you in on a secret—I mean to use it…I want to be the President who helped the poor to find their own way and who protected the right of every citizen to vote in every election.”
Also, critical to the enacting those laws were President Johnson’s service in the House of Representatives, and the Senate. He had served as Senate Majority Leader, becoming what many have called a “master of the legislative process.” During that time, he had forged personal relationships, that later proved to be strategically significant.
Finally, the President understood the importance of respectfully working with Republicans. He was a close friend of the Senate Republican leader, Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen. In his voting rights remarks, he was careful to recognize Representative Bill McCulloch of Ohio who served as the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee. The President referred to him as “Mr. McCulloch.” The President knew that Representative McCulloch was the descendant of pre-Civil War abolitionists, and that he had strongly supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964
All these factors enabled President Johnson to boldly take a lead part in the passage of the two landmark bills.
As the President’s speech neared its end, he pointedly asked the House Judiciary Committee Chairman, Rep. Emanuel “Manny” Celler of New York, to move quickly to schedule hearings for the Voting Rights legislation. The President made it clear that he wanted Congress to act quickly.
During the early years of Johnson’s presidency, it seemed the President could do no wrong. The nation’s future seemed so bright. Yet, great problems for the President and the nation erupted; Vietnam happened, and so did civil unrest—but thanks to President Johnson, the civil rights and voting rights laws endure to protect every American.
While well over fifty years have passed, I still enjoy reliving those exciting days. I remember the bright lights illuminating the House Chamber, and the thrill I felt on March 16, 1965, when President Johnson proclaimed: We Shall Overcome.
Mr. West consults about political and environmental issues.