Advance Notice: Briefs

On this day in 1965: Michigan House delegation unanimously backs Voting Rights Act 

By: - August 3, 2020 9:08 am

American civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King (1929 – 1968) and his wife Coretta Scott King lead a black voting rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery. | William Lovelace/Express/Getty Images

The U.S. House on Aug. 3, 1965, approved the Voting Rights Act. The bipartisan final tally was an empathic 328-74.

The spark that made way for the legislation ignited on March 7, 1965, several hundred civil rights protesters attempted to march from Selma, Ala., to the state capital of Montgomery. One of the marchers was the late John Lewis, Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) chair and future member of the U.S. House of Representatives. On what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” they were stopped by police using tear gas, night sticks and whips. Lewis received a vicious blow to his skull.

During an impassioned speech to a joint session of Congress on March 15, 1965, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson then outlined the ways in which election officials had denied Blacks the right to vote.

“At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom,” Johnson said. “So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Ala.”

Ten days later, Viola Liuzzo, a white Detroit civil rights activist, was murdered in Alabama while she helped to push back against the notorious efforts in several southern states.  

Michigan leaders reflect on late civil rights legend John Lewis, who fought for voting rights until the end

However, history was made in August. As for the U.S. House vote, 218 Democrats and 110 Republicans voted to support the voting rights measure. The nays were 54 Democrats and 20 Republicans. Michigan’s House delegation unanimously supported the measure. Twelve Democrats and seven Republicans voted to support the bill. Among the Michigan contingent were Democrats Billie Farnum of Drayton Plains and John Conyers Jr., Charles Diggs Jr., John Dingell Jr. and Martha Griffiths of Detroit.

On the Republican side, there was Robert Griffin of Traverse City, who would be elected to a U.S. Senate seat the following year, and Gerald Ford of Grand Rapids, who would become president after the resignation of Richard M. Nixon in 1974.  

The U.S. Senate passed the measure the following day. Both Michigan U.S. senators, metro Detroit Democrats Phil Hart and Patrick McNamara, voted yes. With the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. standing over his right shoulder, a seated Johnson signed the seminal bill on Aug. 6.

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.