The poll tax challenge. Senators debated two approaches to the poll tax. Some favored the committee bill’s approach which imposed a complete ban on all poll taxes, including those in state and local elections.
A second group feared that such a provision would be ruled unconstitutional and, instead, proposed to direct the Attorney General to initiate court proceedings against the taxes.
Mike Mansfield and Everett Dirksen joined forces to delete the committee provision from S. 1564.
An effort by the first group, comprised mostly by Senate liberals, to reinsert into the bill a flat ban on the use of poll taxes as a requirement for voting failed by a narrow 45-49 roll-call vote.
The House Judiciary Committee approved H.R. 6400 with additional amendments by voice vote, and it went to the Rules Committee where it stalled for three weeks.
Dirksen composed the following form letter to respond to critics of the voting rights bill:
I can well understand your interest in the voting rights bill and I think it is essential to point out what it does and what it does not do. It does not abolish literacy tests and it does not abolish poll taxes. It does prohibit a state or sub-division from using either literacy tests or poll taxes as a means whereby the rights of citizens to vote is abridged or denied because of race or color. This is precisely the right assured by the Fifteenth Amendment.
We deal with a national problem and with the matter of insuring domestic tranquility and equality and fair treatment for a large segment of our people. At one time the problem was ignored but it can be ignored no longer and there must be a decent, reasonable and equitable solution.
This is not a case of merely going along with the tide but instead is a question of facing up to the realities of the present day world as evidenced by a considerable volume of testimony and facts indicating discrimination in certain states with respect to voting rights.
The chief law officer of this nation should not be compelled to try to solve this problem a case at a time and after pursuing first one discriminatory incident and then another for two or three years through the courts, to have to start all over again. If we were to rely on this remedy, our great, great grandchildren would never live long enough to see a solution of the problem.
By a 69-20 roll-call vote, the Senate adopted a Dirksen-Mansfield proposal that the Attorney General “forthwith” seek federal court orders against the levying of discriminatory poll taxes.
As debate in the Senate continued, and following three unsuccessful effort by Mansfield to limit debate through unanimous consent, a petition for cloture was filed in the Senate. It was signed by 29 Democrats and 9 Republicans—16 signatures were needed.
The Senate adopted a debate-limiting cloture motion by a 70-30 roll-call vote, setting the stage for passage of S. 1564 the following day. Approval of the cloture motion marked only the second time in history—but the second time in two years—that the Senate had voted to close off debate of a civil rights issue.
In a 23-minute address to the Senate, Dirksen laid out the legislative record of the voting rights bill and previous legislative efforts. He concluded: “I could not think of anything pleasanter than to have some humble citizen meet me in the street and say to me, ‘You made some telling marks in the cause of civil liberty in your time and generation.’ That would be enough for me.”
The Senate passed S. 1564 on a 77-19 vote. Voting for passage was a coalition of 30 Republicans and 47 Democrats. Two Republicans and 17 southern Democrats opposed passage.
President Johnson issued a brief statement following Senate action:
The passage today by the Senate of the voting rights bill I recommended to the Congress on March 15 is triumphant evidence of this Nation's resolve that every citizen must and shall be able to march to a polling place and vote without fear or prejudice or obstruction. By a vote of 77 to 19, the Senate has spoken clearly and firmly.
On behalf of a heartened Nation, I express my appreciation to the Senate leadership, and those who supported them.
“Statement by the President Following Passage by the Senate of the Voting Rights Bill”