The following spring, the civil rights movement made it clear that its legislative business was not done. On Sunday, March 7, 1965, protesters in Alabama seeking to draw attention to the state’s insistent use of Br’er Rabbit–like trickery to keep blacks off the rolls of registered voters began a march from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery. State police used deadly force to halt the march as it crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, only hundreds of yards into its planned fifty-mile journey.
A week later, President Johnson came to Capitol Hill to address a joint session of Congress. Payne secured a seat. She did not want to miss this moment. As a voting rights organizer for the Democratic Party, she was anxious to see what the president was willing to do to back up his stated intentions of following up the 1964 Civil Rights Act with a federal voting rights law. The violence that met the group drew national attention to their cause and was forcing his hand.
When Johnson rose to the dais on the floor of the House, more than seventy million Americans tuned in on their televisions to see what he had to say. In the gallery above, Payne listened in amazement. In sonorous tones and in his distinct drawl, Johnson spoke in almost religious terms of the right to vote, making almost no reference to the Constitution or laws. Rather, he focused on an elusive idea of the “American Promise” and represented it in a narrative in which the time had come to grant the final act of freedom to its black citizens. “As a man whose roots go deeply into Southern soil, I know how agonizing racial feelings are,” Johnson said. “I know how difficult it is to reshape the attitudes and the structure of our society.”
All who listened knew the speech was unlike any the president had given before. They witnessed a rare moment in politics where quiet eloquence silenced noisy opposition. The events in Selma, Johnson said, were part of a movement that reached into every part of the nation. African Americans were securing for themselves the freedom they had long been denied. “Their cause must be our cause too. Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.” Then, pausing
and leaning forward, Johnson repeated the words of the movement’s anthem, “And we shall overcome.”
Payne could not find words to describe her feelings at the end of his speech. Two days later, in her office, she sat at her typewriter. “I would like every schoolchild in American to have a copy of this speech,” she wrote the president. It ranks in importance, she said, with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the Emancipation Proclamation. “I am proud and grateful for your leadership and I pledge to give my best efforts for the implementation of your program.”
Taking her pledge to heart, Payne flew to Selma to join the third attempt to make the march to Montgomery, but this time with the backing of a federal judge, who enjoined the police from stopping the marchers, and federal troops summoned by the president. Nonetheless, it was like stepping into the lion’s den. “You could just feel the hatred,” Payne said. “It was just like an enveloping cloak around you.”
At the spot where the earlier marches had been halted, hundreds of angry white Southerners, infuriated by the presence of federal troops, watched as 3,000 marchers crested the Edmund Pettus Bridge and descended toward them while army helicopters hovered above. Held back by a line of soldiers with bayonet-tipped rifles, the angry whites waved Confederate flags and racist placards. “I’ll never forget the faces, the contorted faces of housewives, standing out and screaming like they were just lunatics from the asylum, you know, just screaming such terrible epithets and hatred,” said Payne. They called out “Nigger, nigger, nigger!” and “Go to hell,” and cursed President Johnson. “The reaction of the people was so vitriolic,” Payne said. “You never realized how deep human hatred can be. And that was the way it was all along the march.”
Another life was taken. Klan members murdered a thirty-nine-year-old Detroit mother of five, Viola Liuzzo, for having given a ride to a young black protester. “This was a madness, just a total madness,” Payne said. “This was a time when all—it was a purging of the white South, all the venom that came out, and perhaps it was good, because it was just boiling over, and it was such an excess. It was a preparation for later acceptance of what they knew was inevitable.”
The police attack on the marchers and the ultimate success of the march impressed Capitol Hill. The Senate minority leader, Republican Everett Dirksen, joined the majority leader, Democrat Mike Mansfield, in supporting a bill like that demanded by the marchers in Selma. By August a bill was on the president’s desk granting the federal government immense judicial powers to end Southern methods of keeping their black citizens from the voting booth.
A Johnson aide was dispatched to deliver to Payne one of the pens the president used in signing the Voting Rights Act. Aside from Martin Luther King, she became one of the very few people who were not lawmakers to have a pen from the signing of both the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the two most seminally important legislative victories of the civil rights movement. She put both pens on display in her apartment.