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During the summer of 1965, Americans joined hands and marched for civil rights. Among those rights was the right to vote. In 1965, eligible African American voters often faced discrimination at the ballot box. To combat the systematic voter discrimination against African Americans found primarily in southern states, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965. It was a controversial and landmark piece of legislation. Last week, the Supreme Court threw out one section of the VRA and charged Congress with reformulating how VRA will be applied.
Leapfrog online between 1965 and 2013 and discover how the Voting Rights Act of 1965 changed America, and why people still care about legislation enacted 50 years ago.
That was Then—
The 15th Amendment to the Constitution proclaims that the right to vote ‘shall not be denied or abridged.’ Congress passed the 15th Amendment in 1869. Why then was a Voting Rights Act necessary nearly 100 years later? Measures such as voting taxes and literacy tests were designed to stifle African American voters. Poll taxes—a tax levied on each voter—prevented countless African-Americans, poor whites, Spanish speakers, and women from exercising their right to vote. Literacy tests also served as a common roadblock to voting. Would you have passed the test? Take Alabama’s 1965 literacy test.
While the right to vote was promised by the Constitution, in actuality, state and local governments conspired to prevent people from exercising their right. Despite civil movements meant to focus the nation’s attention on voting injustices or register voters, little changed. Finally, in 1964 and 1965, civil rights workers began to witness legislative changes that delivered the vote—not only the promise of it—to African Americans. (Use the menu bar to advance to 1965.) The march from Selma to Montgomery highlighted discrimination against voters and became a watershed moment.
Later that year, on August 6, 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. President Johnson marked the occasion with a speech before Congress. (Begin listening at 3:34. The full speech runs 27 minutes.) Visit the National Archives and Records Administration to view images of the signed legislation, and to read a full transcript of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Listen to Alex Keyssar explain on NPR’s Justice Talking why the VRA was necessary. (Listen to the first 11 minutes.) PBS’ Remember the Voting Rights Act shares personal accounts of the fight for voting rights and the importance of the VRA. Listen to several diverse accounts. The Voting Rights Act had an immediate and sustained effect on voter registration in targeted states.
This is Now—
The VRA is a dynamic and controversial piece of legislation. Parts of it are permanent. Others must be renewed. The VRA has been amended several times since 1965. The recent lawsuits are not the first; there have been many lawsuits, some to challenge and some to enforce VRA. Read summaries of the lawsuits involving Section 2, Section 5, Section 11b, the Language Minority Provisions, and Section 208.
In February, 2013, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that challenged the Voting Rights Act. PBS NewsHour correspondents explain more about the case Shelby County versus Holder. Shelby County versus Holder challenged two sections of the VRA: Section 4 and Section 5. The Department of Justice website explains Sections 4 and 5 in detail. Last week, on June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court announced its ruling in the case.
The Voting Rights Act has been controversial from the beginning. Originally, it rankled state leaders because it was imposed upon select states, and it mandated federal oversight of a traditionally state-determined issue. The Voting Rights Act continues to be controversial. Fifty years after the Civil Rights Movement, the Voting Rights Act is seen by some as an historical relic from a by-gone era, a legal shackle that is no longer necessary, and a testament to the progress the United States has made in ending racial disparity. Read George Will’s editorial, Voting Rights Act: Why We Don’t Need It. Others disagree, claiming the protection provided by the VRA is still necessary to prevent continuing, though perhaps more covert, methods of voter discrimination. View the infographic, Why We Still Need the VRA.
Voting is a powerful tool so protecting voters’ rights remains crucial. The right to cast an independent vote is guaranteed to American citizens; however, history has shown that some people are willing to subvert democracy and manipulate votes in order to win elections, gain power, and determine policy. Norma Cantu concludes her memory on PBS’ Remember the Voting Rights Act by saying, ‘There are still those who don’t have the…resources, the access to participate fully in our government.” To whom do you think she is referring? What threats now face voters and how will the Voting Rights Act protect future elections? Some claim that proposed requirements for voters to show identification are the new form of discrimination. Hear two perspectives on the future of the Voting Rights Act.
Ultimately, it is important to know your rights as a voter. It is important to know what your state requires in order to vote; view a map of voter ID requirements. If you are a Texas resident, read about voter eligibility.