In a spirited presentation on Tuesday evening at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin spoke to a rapt audience about Lyndon Johnson and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Her presentation, part of the Oregon Historical Society’s Mark O. Hatfield Lecture Series, also addressed the current assault on the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The right to vote, she told her audience, is a cornerstone of democracy in the United States.
Among the events that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act were the peaceful protests in Selma, Alabama in 1965. According to Goodwin, the violent actions of the Alabama state troopers who bludgeoned 600 civil rights activists with nightsticks spurred Johnson to action. A week later, in an historic address to Congress, LBJ requested the passage of the Voting Rights Act, ending in the famous line “We shall overcome.” The act was ratified by Congress and signed into law four months later.
Times are different now with Congress, said Goodwin, the author of such widely acclaimed books as Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the Pulitzer Prize-winning No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II, and Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream.
Back then, she said, Congressmen drank together, played cards together, and their families knew each other. She believes the passage of the Great Society legislation “reflected an unparalleled teamwork between the president and Congress and the need for action that does not exist today.” Extreme partisanship, the lack of civility, the influence of social media and the denial of facts are having a negative impact on our democracy today, Goodwin said. She emphasized that every significant change in our political system has come from the ground up through citizen movements.
Goodwin’s talk was engaging and timely on the issues facing the United States today. She believes that the Voting Rights Act is under attack from the Supreme Court and state legislatures, that our political system has been ruptured, and that large changes and attention are needed to undo this damage. She said that we need to end gerrymandering and increase opportunities to vote rather than to limit them. According to Goodwin, it is up to the citizens of the United States to remedy these threats to our democracy.
Goodwin’s presentation was informative and replete with insider stories and reflections on the Johnson presidency. At the same time, it lacked detail regarding the inner workings of getting the Voting Rights Act passed by Congress. In addition, it would have been helpful had Goodwin mentioned that the passage of this monumental bill had such far-reaching impacts as a ten-fold increase in Black elected officials and an exponential increase in Black voters.
Goodwin concluded her presentation by stating that most historians today believe that Johnson was one of the greatest presidents, based on his domestic achievements.