Living history – Voting Rights Act

Congress this week approved a renewal of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the Senate voting yesterday, 98-0. The Act was a watershed in civil rights legislation, a law whose effects are clearly visible in the diversity of people who populate government in municipal, state and federal government now.

Lews & Kennedy discuss VRAct

This photo by Doug Mills of the New York Times is worth several thousand words. Its caption: Representative John Lewis, left, and Senator Edward M. Kennedy in the room where President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.

The New York Times story (free subscription required) said:

As the Senate voted, Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia, who was beaten in the 1965 voting rights march on Montgomery, Ala., came to the floor, and other lawmakers provided their memories of the era as they spoke in support of the legislation.

“I recall watching President Lyndon Baines Johnson sign the 1965 act just off the chamber of the Senate,” said Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts and one of three current senators serving when the law was originally passed. “We knew that day we had changed the country forever, and indeed we had.”

This event is a good lynch-pin for history lessons on the civil rights movement. Teachers may want to clip the story and photos from today’s papers to save for lesson plans through the year.

(West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd is one of the other three senators who were there in 1965. Who is the third?)

4 Responses to Living history – Voting Rights Act

  1. edarrell says:

    Thanks, cbooker! That makes sense.

    Sen. Inouye is a very interesting guy, too. Those of us old enough remember his service on the Watergate Committee chaired by Sen. Sam Ervin, in 1974. In 2000, Inouye was finally awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his World War II valor. Go see here:


  2. cbooker says:

    A quick bit of research at the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress reveals that it was Senator Daniel Ken Inouye, Democrat of Hawaii, elected in 1962 and still serving.


  3. edarrell says:

    Russell, I have tried to take photos in that room, and was responsible for probably a few hundred taken by the Senate photo studio there. It’s not easy. I like the photo because, in color, it very accurately captures the color of the room, with sunlight coming from behind, and it shows the faces of the two men who are backlit. I’m almost certain Mr. Mills used a flash, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it were digital rather than on film — but apart from adjusting the contrast around that window, I doubt there’s much manipulation.

    The picture is good enough that you can see reflected in the mirror some of the more decorative paintings on the ceiling — and yet you don’t see any dirt on the mirror highlighted by the flash, which was one of my most maddening problems (you don’t see the handprint on the mirror, but the flash highlights it, and it shows up on the picture).

    And still, the historicity of the photo is made by the two people in it. Kennedy is generally at his best on any civil rights issue — when I worked a short time in the Democratic cloakroom (as an intern, in 1974), the galleries would fill with staffers when Kennedy got going on a civil rights issue. In the years I was there I heard him on civil rights on a couple of dozen occasions — it always seemed as if someone hit the switch and he started to glow. It is something to see.

    And the other guy is John Lewis. If you watch the television specials on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., (see American Experience “Citizen King, for example at you’ll see Lewis in his younger years, before and after his having been beaten, but some long time before he got elected to Congress from Georgia. He is one of a handful of those guys still alive, a giant of the civil rights movement, still fighting for the cause.


  4. russell says:

    Ok, I’m here to learn so I’ll admit it, I don’t know.

    As for the photograph, it’s stunning.

    Now, having said that, one of the advantages of being a photographer with access to such places and people is, it’s hard to screw something like that up. Which isn’t to take anything away from the photographer, just to say that a similar image, of two men in an elegant room, has none of the power of this image. It’s all about access.

    And you know, actually looking at the picture, the exposure must have been fairly tricky. It’s all available light the bright light streaming in the windows really confuses most light meters (and many photographers). I wonder if it’s been manipulatied digitally? It’s hard to tell from the size of the image.


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