We are wrapping up our commemoration of Black History Month. Today’s post comes from Madie Ward in the National Archives History Office.

Martin Luther King, Jr., talks with President Lyndon B. Johnson, December 3, 1963. (Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, National Archives)

The National Archives has countless items that highlight African Americans’ struggles for freedom and civil liberties. Included are documents on the Civil Rights Movement and, more specifically, on President Lyndon B. Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s relationship during that tumultuous time.

President Johnson was known for his vision of a Great Society to end poverty, reduce crime, improve the environment, and advance civil rights.

As part of this vision, Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, dismantling official segregation, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, prohibiting racist voting laws, and the 1968 Civil Rights Act, ending discrimination in housing sales. He also appointed Thurgood Marshall, the first African American on the Supreme Court.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the most renowned Civil Rights leader of the movement, was widely regarded as America’s preeminent advocate of nonviolence. Drawing inspiration from his faith and the peaceful teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, he pushed for nonviolent resistance movements against racial discrimination including protests, grassroots organizing, and civil disobedience.

Johnson and King had a personal relationship and talked on a regular basis about civil rights issues. Johnson invited King to the White House on numerous occasions, and telephoned him in person to discuss how to collaborate their efforts for racial equality. 

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Civil Rights leaders including Martin Luther King. Jr., January 18, 1964. (Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, National Archives)

One of the many outcomes of their relationship was the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The law stated that state and local governments could no longer pass voting laws based on race, and prohibited discrimination through the use of poll taxes and the application of literacy tests to determine whether voters could take part in elections. This act was described as the most effective civil rights law ever enacted because it gave many African Americans the right to vote for the first time.

Telegram to Martin Luther King, Jr., requesting testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on the Voting Rights Act of 1965, March 18, 1965. (National Archives Identifier 5637790)

On March 18, 1965, Congressman Emanuel Celler sent this telegram requesting King to testify for the proposed Voting Rights Act before Congress. King did not to testify because he was leading the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, against the violent denial of African American voting in the South. In a televised address, Johnson expressed support for the marchers and called for support for the new voting rights bill being introduced to Congress.

President Lyndon B. Johnson gives pen he used to sign the Civil Rights Act to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., August 6, 1965. (Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, National Archives)

On August 6, 1965, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. Major civil rights activists and advocates including King and Rosa Parks attended the signing ceremony. After signing, Johnson presented his pen to King.

King’s civil rights work was cut short on April 4, 1968, when he was shot and mortally wounded while he was standing on the second-floor balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m. at St. Joseph Hospital.

In response to the death of one of the greatest nonviolent leaders in history, Johnson issued Presidential Proclamation 3839 designating Sunday, April 7, 1968, as the day of national mourning for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  He acknowledged the nation’s grief but called for maintaining the fight toward civil rights.

Days later, Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, the last major act in his and King’s fight towards racial equality in the United States.

During Black History Month we celebrate the strength and courage of those like Johnson and King who fought for the civil freedoms in the United States.

View the original telegram requesting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s testimony before the House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee on the Proposed Voting Rights Act in the East Rotunda Gallery through April 11, 2018.

And to learn more about National Archives records related to Black History Month visit our website and browse our Online Catalog.

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