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Lyndon B. Johnson on Civil Rights
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there are few issues before the people of this country that are so rooted in rightness - constitutionally, morally, and humanly.

Just ten days after the “Bloody Sunday” confrontation at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, drew national attention to civil rights, President Johnson thanks a Congressman for his approval of Johnson’s major voting rights speech to Congress. Five months later, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law.

LYNDON B. JOHNSON. Typed Letter Signed, to Michael J. Kirwan, March 17, 1965. 1 p., 6½ x 8½ in., with original envelope (7 x 4½ in.).

Inventory #24790       Price: $6,500

Complete Transcript

THE WHITE HOUSE

WASHINGTON

                                                                        March 17, 1965

Dear Mike:

Your telegram was a bright and happy event in my day.

Of course I am glad that you heartily approved of what I had to say. There really can be no argument about the position that I have taken for there are few issues before the people of this country that are so rooted in rightness - constitutionally, morally, and humanly.

Thank you, my dear friend, for your very kind words.

Sincerely,

Lyndon B. Johnson

Honorable Michael J. Kirwan

House of Representatives / Washington, D.C.

Historical Background

On Sunday, March 7, 1965, six hundred marchers assembled in Selma, Alabama, to march to Montgomery, more than forty miles away, to protest discrimination in voting rights.  In Selma, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River, the marchers were met by Alabama State troopers and local police who ordered them to turn around.  When they did not, police shot teargas into the crowd and began beating the protestors, over fifty of whom were hospitalized. This encounter, labeled “Bloody Sunday,” was televised around the world, drawing outrage from many.

A week later, on March 15, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed Congress with a special message, broadcast live to the nation on radio and television. Entitled “The American Promise,” Johnson’s speech passionately argued for Congress to pass a strong voting-rights bill to prohibit racial discrimination. “Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote,” Johnson said, “There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right.” Johnson used his considerable oratorical skills to move Congress: “Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”  He concluded, “Above the pyramid on the great seal of the United States it says—in Latin—‘God has favored our undertaking.’ God will not favor everything that we do. It is rather our duty to divine His will. But I cannot help believing that He truly understands and that He really favors the undertaking that we begin here tonight.”

Two days later, the same day as this letter, as Johnson promised in his speech, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana and Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois introduced a voting rights act in the Senate. They had worked with Johnson’s Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach to draft the language, and 64 other senators cosponsored the bill. The Senate passed the bill on May 26, by a vote of 77-19.

On March 19, 1965, Emanuel Celler of New York introduced the voting rights bill in the House of Representatives. After being amended in committee, it came to the full House on July 6. On July 9, the House passed the bill by a vote of 333-85. After a conference committee resolved differences between the two bills on July 29, the House approved it on August 3, and the Senate followed suit the following day. On August 6, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law.

In this letter, Johnson thanks Congressman Kirwan for his support and reemphasizes his determination to see the bill passed.

Full Text of President Johnson’s Speech

Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) was born in Texas and graduated from Southwest Texas State Teachers College in 1930.  He won election to the U.S. House of Representatives and served there from 1937 to 1949. He also served in the U.S. Navy from 1941 to 1942. He won election to the U.S. Senate in 1948 and served from 1949 to 1961, as Senate Majority Leader from 1955 to 1961, when he became Vice President under President John F. Kennedy. With Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, Johnson became the 36th President of the United States. Reelected in 1964, he remained in office until January 1969, when Richard Nixon succeeded him. Johnson’s administration was known for his “Great Society” legislation that addressed civil rights, Medicare, Medicaid, aid to education, and “War on Poverty.” In foreign policy, Johnson escalated American involvement in the Vietnam War, spurring antiwar protests.

Michael J. Kirwan (1886-1970) was born in Pennsylvania and moved to Ohio in 1907. He served in the U.S. Army during World War I, from 1917 to 1919. After working as a merchant, he represented Ohio’s 19th Congressional District (northeastern Ohio) in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1937 to his death in 1970.


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