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Tuesday, August 16, 2022

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The day the U.S. became a democracy – New York Daily News


On this day 57 years ago, the United States became a democracy — the full democracy right-wing extremists are currently working feverishly to overturn.

President Lyndon Johnson chose to hold the ceremony in which he signed “An Act to Enforce the 15th Amendment of the Constitution of the United States,” generally known simply as the Voting Rights Act, into law on Aug. 6, 1965, in the Capitol Rotunda beneath John Trumbull’s painting of Cornwallis surrendering at Yorktown. His purpose in doing it there was to send a message that the forces of racism had finally been defeated.

He referred to the incongruity at the base of American history that has now come to be known by the shorthand of 1619 and 1776. Noting that “the first Negroes had arrived at Jamestown” in chains three and a half centuries before, the president asserted that the nation was in 1965 finally striking “away the last major shackle of those fierce and ancient bonds.”

“Today is a triumph for freedom,” Johnson proclaimed, “as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield.”

Johnson was given to hyperbole, but his assertion was justified. The law was part of a struggle over the most basic question about America throughout its history: Can and will the United States be a free, diverse, inclusive democracy? Two years before the 1870 ratification of the 15th Amendment guaranteeing that the right of male citizens to vote would not be denied or abridged “on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude,” the 1868 Democratic presidential ticket ran on a motto stating the other view: “This is a White Man’s Country: Let White Men Rule.”

The “Democratic” Party then no more believed in democracy than the “Republican” Party now does in preserving the Republic.

The legislation Johnson signed on this day in 1965 was the crowning achievement of an extraordinarily progressive period that had begun following John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. During that time, the combination of pressure from the civil rights movement with LBJ’s extraordinary skill at getting things done in Congress produced a rebirth of the nation into a country that more nearly reflected the ideals set forth in 1776.

Five months earlier, on March 7, John Lewis and other freedom marchers had been severely beaten in Selma, Ala. Johnson immediately promised to introduce a bill to secure voting rights. On March 15, he appeared before a joint session of Congress and a national television audience and delivered a stunning speech.

“I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy,” he began. Like Lexington and Concord and Appomattox, he asserted, Selma constituted “a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom.”

“There is no Negro problem,” the president declared. “There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.”

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“There is no issue of States rights or national rights,” LBJ proclaimed. “There is only the struggle for human rights.”

“Their cause must be our cause too,” he affirmed. “Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.” Then this Southern Democrat paused before startling almost everyone by raising his arms and declaring: “And we shall overcome.”

The combination of the senseless war in Vietnam with urban uprisings against police brutality that began on a large scale in the Watts neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles just five days after Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act opened the way for Republicans to gain support. But the progress of the mid-1960s remained. As late as 2006, an extension of the Voting Rights Act was supported by all Senate Republicans.

A decade later, though, the Republican Party turned decisively against democracy. In late 2021, all 50 Republicans voted not even to allow discussion of a bill titled the Freedom to Vote Act, which would in part restore key voting rights protection that the Supreme Court overturned in 2013.

Though the timing presumably was unintentional, it is telling about where we are in 2022 that on the anniversary of the triumph of democracy in America, the leading organization on the Republican right, the Conservative Political Action Committee, is wrapping up a convention in Dallas to which it welcomed Viktor Orbán, the anti-democracy white supremacist prime minister of Hungary, and that the closing speaker tonight will be the most anti-democracy president in American history, Donald J. Trump.

The midterm elections this fall will be a referendum on the progressive revolution of 1964-65 in general, and in particular on the Voting Rights Act. The question remains what it has been across the sweep of American history: Is the United States to be a diverse, inclusive democracy or a white man’s country?

McElvaine teaches at Millsaps College. His latest book is “The Times They Were a-Changin’ — 1964: The Year the Sixties Arrived and the Battle Lines of Today Were Drawn.”



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