On this day, March 15, in 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson sent the Civil Rights Act to Congress. Lengthy applications. requirements to have another registered voter “vouch” for you and literacy tests were widespread practices used to discourage African Americans from registering to vote in the South. In some cases, threats and death were the reward for those trying to exercise their right as citizens.
While these egregious practices have long been outlawed, this may be a good time reflect on what other conditions discourage eligible citizens from participating in our democracy. One of them, in California, is the proliferation of complex initiatives that are presented to voters in legalese, a sort of de facto literacy test. That is why we started the Easy Voter Guide Project, which has become popular with voters of all educational backgrounds. I’m pleased to report that the League of Women Voters of California Education Fund is going to be able to prepare yet another edition for the coming June 5 California Primary Election.
Here are a few excerpts from President Johnson’s speech:
“Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex and most difficult. But about this there can and should be no argument: every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to insure that right. Yet the harsh fact is that in many places in this country men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes.
Every device of which human ingenuity is capable, has been used to deny this right. The Negro citizen may go to register only to be told that the day is wrong, or the hour is late, or the official in charge is absent. And if he persists and, if he manages to present himself to the registrar, he may be disqualified because he did not spell out his middle name, or because he abbreviated a word on the application. And if he manages to fill out an application, he is given a test. The registrar is the sole judge of whether he passes this test. He may be asked to recite the entire Constitution, or explain the most complex provisions of state law….
The bill I am presenting to you will be known as a civil rights bill. But in a larger sense, most of the program I am recommending is a civil rights program. Its object is to open the city of hope to all people of all races, because all Americans just must have the right to vote, and we are going to give them that right.”