With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Towards a New History of the Civil Rights Movement

LBJ signs the Voting Rights Act while Martin Luther King, Jr. looks on.

Hilary Rodham Clinton awoke on the morning of January 3, 2008, exhausted and depressed. The New York Senator had started her quest for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination believing in its inevitability, only to be surprisingly blindsided by Barack Obama, a forty-six year old first term Senator. Only a few hours earlier, Obama had crushed Clinton in the Iowa caucus and now her advisors feared defeat in the upcoming New Hampshire primary. She was stunned while her husband, former President Bill Clinton, was furious. “[Obama’s] a phony,” Clinton insisted, “…he has no experience…What has he really done?”

          This became Hilary Clinton’s theme as the campaign began in the Granite State. Obama was an inspiring orator whose speeches were reminiscent of the late Martin Luther King, Jr., but his actual achievements were few. Two days later, in an interview with journalist Major Garrett, she raised an important historical analogy: “…Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” she said. “…[W]e had a president who said, ‘We are going to do it,’ and actually got it accomplished.” Her remarks created a minor sensation since they implied that King’s struggle to win black equality was less important than LBJ’s legislative skills honed over a lifetime spent in Congress. Clinton later revised her view, praising King for “working with President Johnson to get the civil rights laws passed…”   

        A presidential campaign is not a good forum in which to learn history. Complex issues and historical events become simplified and distorted. But, ironically, Clinton’s attack on Obama mirrored a long-time debate among historians---who deserved the major credit for the Civil Rights Movement’s greatest achievements? The army of black activists who had struggled for decades in the trenches or the leaders at the top—Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson? Historians like Steven F. Lawson have long been calling for a synthesis connecting “the local with the national, the social with the political.” Having recently published Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy, I find myself in Lawson’s camp.

     The 1965 Voting Rights Act has many founding mothers and fathers at both the local and national levels. J. Morgan Kousser found a voting rights movement developing in Selma, Alabama, as early as the 1920s and for the next several decades, it was led by Sam Boynton, a local businessman, and his wife Amelia. White resistance to their activities crippled Sam’s businesses and cost him his health. Shortly before his death in 1963, he passed freedom’s torch to twenty-two year old Bernard Lafayette, a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who had come to Selma to assist the Boyntons in building a voting rights movement. Working with Amelia Boynton and others, Lafayette recruited an army of mostly high school and college aged supporters and laid the groundwork for the next stage of the voting rights campaign—the mobilization of the city’s black men and women to register to vote.

   That task fell to Lafayette’s successor James Forman who urged Selma’s voting age population to march on the Courthouse registrar’s office on October 7, 1963, which Forman called “Freedom Day.” Hundreds peacefully assembled and although they were harassed by Selma’s police, and none was registered, Selma’s civil rights community was encouraged by the turnout. Rather than being cowed by the white establishment, the city’s black adults had finally taken a stand, despite the risks involved.

           But the movement faltered in July, 1964,when a local judge issued an injunction prohibiting civil rights meetings and demonstrations. In despair, Mrs. Boynton invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to come to Selma to revive their efforts. King launched his campaign in January 1965 and thousands marched on the courthouse and were jailed and beaten by Sheriff Jim Clark’s police. Where King went, the media followed, and Clark’s depredations made the front pages of the nation’s most prominent newspapers and were televised on the nightly news. But none of the incidents was enough to arouse the conscience of the nation or force President Johnson to put a voting rights bill at the top of his long legislative agenda. Discouraged, King considered shutting down the Selma effort and moving his troops elsewhere.

      Then the forces of segregation over-reacted. In Marion, Alabama, police and State troopers brutally attacked peaceful demonstrators and in the melee that followed, Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young activist, was killed. His colleagues wanted to carry Jackson’s coffin to Governor George Wallace’s office in Montgomery. That response led a group to the Edmund Pettus Bridge where Alabama state troopers and Clark’s forces beat and tear-gassed them. That day, March 7, 1965, became known as “Bloody Sunday.” That night ABC News interrupted a movie to show raw footage of the day’s events. The nation was stunned and thousands poured into Selma to join King’s cause.

    Others went to Washington where Lyndon Johnson found himself under siege. A voting rights bill was already being prepared but Johnson wanted one that would be both effective and constitutional. Bloody Sunday accelerated its completion and Johnson spoke to the Congress on March 15, 1965, shocking his audience by telling them, “We shall overcome.”

     Southerners in the House and Senate fought the bill but lacked the energy they had shown eight months earlier when they tried to defeat the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And none could match Lyndon Johnson’s legislative skills which corralled sympathetic Republicans, especially Senator minority leader Everett McKinley Dirksen who joined Justice Department lawyers to write the final draft of the bill. It passed both houses by comfortable margins and Johnson signed it into law on August 6, 1965. With a stroke of the pen, Johnson eliminated literacy tests and other devices which had prevented African Americans from voting for sixty years, making them and other minorities full citizens and a voting bloc that even Southerners had to reckon with.     

   The making of the Voting Rights Act was a drama with many players-- heroic Alabamians, men and women alike; charismatic leaders like Martin Luther King; SNCC and SCLC activists—often hostile toward one another—working together in a common cause;  television executives who appreciated the significance of Bloody Sunday;  a skillful president and his congressional allies in both parties. No other event in American history better illustrates the importance of collective action in producing change. It’s time now for historians to also unite in recognizing that the civil rights movement was too large, too multifaceted, too complex, to be reduced to a single group of actors or one bold leader.