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photo: Steve Schapiro

While King planned another march to Montgomery, protestors across the country called for federal action in Alabama. Demonstrators picketed outside the White House, and on March 8, 1965, civil rights activists staged a sit-in at the Justice Department. Johnson was furious that his administration, which he felt had done so much for African Americans already, would be targeted for protest. He was also angry at King for planning another march just three days after Bloody Sunday. President Johnson ordered his aide, Bill Moyers, to remind the civil rights leader who was running the country.

Listen to excerpt

President Johnson: Hello, Bill.

Bill Moyers: Hello.

LBJ: What did he say?

BM: I just talked to Katzenbach. He said the Negroes are still meeting in the church at Selma with Martin Luther King. We have no word back on what their intentions are. Do you want to be informed when King calls back?...

LBJ: Yeah, yeah, but I would take a much tougher line than we're going to with him. I think that it's absolutely disgraceful that they would get in the Justice De partment building and have to be hauled out of there. And I don't care if we never serve another hour. They're going to respect the law while they do. He better get to behaving himself or all of them are going to be put in jail.... I think that we really ought to be firm on it myself. I just think it's outrageous what's on TV. I've been watching it here, and looks like that man's in charge of the country and taking it over. I just don't think we can afford to have that kind of character running. And I'd remind him what he had said and take a very firm line with him.

BM: Alright.

LBJ: OK.

The next day, March 10, King led a second march, but only as far as the Edmund Pettus Bridge. With reporters from around the world watching, King and his followers knelt, prayed and sang. Then they turned around and walked back to town in peace. It was just a matter of time before they would try to make it all the way to Montgomery.

Though Lyndon Johnson had not anticipated the near-massacre of the Selma protestors, he - and Martin Luther King - had been right: after witnessing Bloody Sunday, tens of thousands protested nationwide demanding a new voting rights bill.

On March 15, 1965, President Johnson spoke to a specially-convened Joint Session of Congress, and to millions of television viewers. In one of the most important speeches of his presidency, Johnson vowed to bring down the last vestiges of legal segregation. And more than any president before him, Johnson embraced the aims of the civil rights movement, and the words of the Negro spiritual that had become its anthem.

Listen to excerpt

LBJ: 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. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama…

Wednesday I will send to Congress a law designed to eliminate illegal barriers to the right to vote…

There is no constitutional issue here. The command of the Constitution is plain.

There is no moral issue. It is wrong - deadly wrong - to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country.

There is no issue of States rights or national rights. There is only the struggle for human rights…

But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.

Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.

And we shall overcome.

Read the full transcript

To Johnson's supporters, and his segregationist adversaries, the address to Congress was breathtaking. "The Johnson speech on March 15 was pretty clearly the highlight of his civil rights career but also his own presidential career," says civil rights historian Taylor Branch. "I think he saw the voting rights act as the pinnacle of using government as an instrument of freedom. It was the zenith of the civil rights movement. It was the time they came closest together."


Next: part 3