Celebrating The History of the Voting Rights Act


The signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. By Yoichi Okamoto.

On August 6, 1965 the Voting Rights Act was signed by President Lyndon Johnson. The act aimed to overcome the legal barriers at the state and local levels that were preventing blacks in the United States from exercising their Fifteenth Amendment right to vote. In terms of achieving what it was set out to do, it is now considered one of the most effective laws in U.S. history because of its impact in increasing the amount of African American voters.

The Fifteenth Amendment was ratified ninety five years before the Voting Rights Act, but immediately after its passage it was systematically attacked in southern states, effectively disenfranchising many African Americans. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and other bureaucratic restrictions were created as barriers to restrict the right to vote for minorities. However, in order for those tests to not affect less educated white voters, the same states passed grandfather clauses that allowed for people to vote who could not meet the aforementioned requirements if their grandfathers had voted. In addition to the legal barriers erected, if seen at a voting station, blacks risked harassment, intimidation, economic reprisals and physical violence. All of these factors in combination eliminated the political power of African Americans in the South.

The Civil Rights Movement arose as a way to fight the prevailing racist hegemony of the time. The movement increased pressure on the federal government to protect the voting rights of blacks and other racial minorities. The Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first civil rights legislation passed by Congress since the 1866 and 1875 Acts during Reconstruction, helped Attorney General Robert Kennedy act on behalf of the people whose voting rights were being violated. The act did little in getting African Americans the right to vote, but it reinforced the federal commitment to the cause of civil rights. To investigate violations, Kennedy created the Commission on Civil Rights. Then, in 1960, Congress passed another Civil Rights Act to address the shortcomings of the 1957 one. The 1960 act granted federal courts the right to appoint referees to conduct voter registration in jurisdictions that practiced electoral fraud against racial minorities.

Although the acts were in effect and registration improved, they did not substantially change the registered number of voters between 1957 and 1964 and strict legal standards made it difficult to enforce the acts in certain jurisdictions. The burden of proof to show that practices were discriminatory lay with the  Department of Justice, who had to contend with “lost voter records” and other obstacles in order to move suits forward. Additionally, they often had to appeal multiple times because judges in southern districts objected to black voter registration themselves. Some progress with regard to voting was achieved with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which mandated that literacy tests be administered equally in writing to voters and that applications with minor errors should be accepted, but most forms of voter discrimination continued to be practiced. President Johnson noticed these forms of discrimination and told Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach to draft “the goddamndest, toughest voting rights act that you can.” The act did not go through because his advisers feared political reprisal, but the desire to pass a voting rights act remained fervent.

By this point, organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SPLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were calling for federal action. Several protests occurred in the South, particularly in the city of Selma, where County Sheriff Jim Clark’s police forcibly prevented African-American voter registration. The slogan for the drive in Selma was “One Man, One Vote.”

In January of 1965, these groups staged demonstrations in Selma that led to clashes with police. The clashes led to Martin Luther King’s arrest on February 1st. The next day King was released and published the essay, “Letter from a Selma Jail,” encouraging protesters to continue marching. The protests and King’s arrest and essay all drew national media attention to the cause. On February 18, Jimmie Lee Jackson, a black man who was unarmed and protecting his mother, was murdered during a voting march. In response, the next month the SCLC and SNCC arranged for another march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama’s capital, demanding that government enforce laws that protected African Americans who wanted to vote. What is remembered today as “Bloody Sunday” was a result of state troopers trampling and throwing tear gas at the marchers, stopped on Edmund Pettus Bridge. People around the country were horrified by the nationally televised footage. Taking advantage of the mounting pressure, on March 15 President Johnson gave a speech about voting and concluded with the words, “we shall overcome,” alluding to a forthcoming law that would reinforce the right to vote for blacks. The legislation that Johnson spoke of was realized with The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was introduced two days later, while the protesters returned to their march, now accompanied by federal troops who were there to protect them.

The Voting Rights Act signed on August 6, 1965 granted the right to vote to millions of Americans of color. It specifically outlawed pre-requisite tests and prohibited any “voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure … in a manner which results in a denial or abridgement of the right” from being implemented by jurisdictions while enumerating additional provisions for specific states that had histories of disenfranchisement. Although it was contested in many Southern states and still is, it succeeded in opening the polls to black voters. In Mississippi, it increased the black voting population from 5% in 1964 to 59% in 1969. It is one of the most significant moments in U.S. history and one to be commemorated: the activism of the people pushed the levers of government in order to effect a lasting impact that had been promised, but not delivered, by the Constitution. The Voting Rights Act and its corollary benefits went far to affirm America’s founding ideals of democracy and self-governance.

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