Voting Rights Act of 1965

Voting Rights Act of 1965, legislation that charged the federal government with helping disenfranchised African Americans in the South regain the right to vote.

In the century following Reconstruction, African Americans in the South faced overwhelming obstacles to voting. Despite the 15th and 19th amendments to the Constitution of the United States, which had enfranchised black men and women, southern voter registration boards used poll taxes, literacy tests, and other bureaucratic impediments to deny African Americans their legal rights (see 15th Amendment). Southern blacks also risked harassment, intimidation, economic reprisals, and physical violence when they tried to register or vote. As a result, African Americans had little, if any, political power, either locally or nationally. In Mississippi, for instance, only 5 percent of eligible blacks were registered to vote in 1960.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, meant to reverse this disenfranchisement, grew out of both public protest and private political negotiation. Starting in 1961, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference(SCLC), led by Martin Luther King Jr., staged nonviolent demonstrations in Albany, Georgia, and Birmingham, Alabama. King and the SCLC hoped to attract national media attention and pressure the U.S. government to protect African Americans' constitutional rights. The strategy worked. Newspaper photos and television broadcasts of Birmingham's notoriously racist police commissioner, Eugene "Bull" Connor, and his men violently attacking the SCLC's peaceful protesters with water hoses, police dogs, and nightsticks awakened the consciences of white Americans.

The site of the next campaign was Selma, Alabama. In the first three months of 1965, the SCLC led local residents and visiting volunteers in a series of marches demanding an equal right to vote. As in Birmingham, they met with violence and imprisonment. King himself wrote a letter from the Selma jail, published in the New York Times, in which he said, "there are more Negroes in jail with me than there are on the voting rolls" in Selma. In the worst attack yet, on Sunday, March 7, a group of Alabama state troopers, local sheriff's officers, and unofficial possemen used tear gas and clubs against 600 peaceful marchers. By now, as King had predicted, the nation was watching.

President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had succeeded to the presidency after the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy, made civil rights one of his administration's top priorities. Johnson used his formidable political skills to pass the 24th Amendment, which outlawed poll taxes, in 1964. A week after "Bloody Sunday" in Selma, Johnson gave a televised speech before Congress in which he not only denounced the assault but said it was "wrong—deadly wrong" that African Americans were being denied their constitutional rights. Johnson went on to dramatically quote the movement's motto, "we shall overcome."

Two days later, the president sent the Voting Rights bill to Congress. The resolution, signed into law on August 6, 1965, empowered the federal government to oversee voter registration and elections in counties that had used tests to determine voter eligibility or where registration or turnout had been less than 50 percent in the 1964 presidential election. It also banned discriminatory literacy tests and expanded voting rights for Americans who do not speak English.

The law's effects were wide and powerful. By 1968, nearly 60 percent of eligible African Americans were registered to vote in Mississippi, and other southern states showed similar improvement. Between 1965 and 1990, the number of black state legislators and members of Congress rose from 2 to 160. Despite finally reclaiming their constitutional voting rights, however, many African Americans in the South and elsewhere saw little progress on other fronts. They still faced illegal job discrimination, substandard schools, and unequal health care. Following its major victories—the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965—the liberal, integrationist Civil Rights Movement began to be eclipsed by the more radical Black Power Movement.

The Voting Rights Act was extended in 1970, 1975, and 1982, the last time despite vigorous resistance from the Reagan administration. Fearing a largely Democratic black vote, the Republican Party adopted various means to minimize it, including at-large elections and districts re-drawn to dilute black representation. They also attacked as racial gerrymandering the new "majority-minority" congressional districts drawn by the U.S. Justice Department. In Miller v. Johnson (1995) the Supreme Court agreed, limiting the use of racial factors in deciding district lines. Some prominent African Americans, such as Harvard University law professor Lani Guinier, argued that minority votes would be more effective in a system of proportional representation.

Despite these setbacks and debates, the Voting Rights Act had an enormous impact. It reenfranchised black southerners, helping put 7,200 African Americans in elected offices at the local, state, and national levels by 1989—67 percent of these in the South.


Contributed By:
Kate Tuttle