Senators Mike Mansfield and Everett Dirksen refuted charges that the proposed voting rights legislation had been shown to members of the Supreme Court during the drafting stage in order to determine its constitutionality.
The Senate Judiciary Committee reported out a bill that was substantially stronger than what the administration had requested by a 12-4 vote. The major change was the addition of a ban on the use of poll taxes in state and local elections.
One major limitation, proposed by Senate Minority Leader Dirksen, was written into the bill, however. It allowed states with literacy tests and low voter turnout in 1964 to exempt themselves from coverage if fewer than 20 percent of the population was “non-white,” or by proving in court that at least 60 percent of their voting-age residents were registered.
On the House side, Judiciary Subcommittee No. 5 approved an amended version of H.R. 6400 and voted 10-1 to send the measure to the full Judiciary Committee. As the Senate Judiciary Committee had done, the House committee wrote in a poll-tax ban, provided for poll watchers, and made private citizens criminally liable for interference with voters’ rights.
The House bill, however, retained the administration’s figure of 50 percent as the “trigger” to begin the federal voter machinery (the percentage of voter turnout that would determine which states or districts would fall under the bill).
Soon after the Senate Judiciary Committee reported the voting rights bill, Dirksen responded to those who wrote him on the matter: “I am quite sure that when the Senate has completed action on this proposal it will be fair, reasonable, workable, constitutional and will go to the heart of the discrimination issue where it really exists.”
Clarence Mitchell, Washington Bureau Director for the NAACP, sent Dirksen a telegram:
This is to thank you for the part you played in getting a long standing color bar removed in the U.S. Senate through the appointment of Lawrence Bradford of New York as a page. It seems incredible that this opportunity for bright young people would be denied to a part of our population for so long a time, but you have cut the Gordian Knot at last.
President Johnson issued a statement on the eve of Senate consideration of a voting rights bill:
There can be no forgetting, however, that neither a Voting Rights Act nor any other single act will solve the civil rights problems of the Nation or insure equal justice and equal opportunity for our Negro citizens. Those goals can be achieved only as the result of individual understanding, of community responsibility, and of national good faith. We have, in past months, seen some splendid examples of such action.
“Statement by the President on the Eve of Senate Consideration of the Voting Rights Bill”
Senate debate on the bill began. Southern opponents argued that the measure was unconstitutional in circumventing a state’s right to impose its own voting criteria. Unlike 1964, however, the opponents did not resort to a filibuster. Instead, they sought to weaken the bill by offering scores of amendments. Most were defeated by substantial margins.
Dirksen delivered extended remarks on the Senate floor in defense of S. 1564 in which he reviewed the history of voting rights, the provisions of the 15th amendment to the Constitution, and the work to produce a Senate bill.
Francis Keppel, the U.S. Commissioner of Education, announced that all public schools were to desegregate by the fall of 1967. The announcement was based on the 1964 Civil Rights Act barring federal aid to schools practicing racial discrimination.
Dirksen and Mike Mansfield offered Amendment No. 124 in the nature of a substitute to S. 1564. As Dirksen explained, its purpose was “to give States complete control of their election process when they have ceased to discriminate in the conduct of their elections.”
As Section 2 stated: “No voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.”