The Voting Rights Act

Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965. It contained several provisions that had long been demanded by civil rights activists and that had been recommended by the Commission on Civil Rights. Notably, it was also modeled after the failed Lodge Force Bill of the 1890s. Put forth as an emergency measure, the Voting Rights of 1965 did the following: 

  1. Immediately suspended literary tests and other “devices” (good character and vouching requirements) for five years in states and counties where fewer than 50% of all adults had registered to vote 1964. 
  2. Authorized the Attorney General to send federal examiners to supervise electoral registration. 
  3. Section 5 prohibited the “covered” areas from altering voting laws without “preclearance” from the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. 
  4. Found that poll taxes in state elections abridged the right to vote, and instructed the Justice Department to initiate litigation to test their constitutionality.

With President Johnson’s considerable political capital behind the bill, the Voting Rights Act was passed readily. 40 southern Congressmen voted in favor, presumably recognizing the inevitability of eventual African American enfranchisement. Johnson called it the “tumbling” of the “last of the legal barriers” to voting. 

An Immediate Impact

The Voting Rights Act had an immediate and significant impact, particularly in the Deep South. The Justice Department sent election examiners to more than 30 counties in four states, where they set to work immediately registering tens of thousands of African Americans. Local registrars who complied with the new law registered many, many more. 

Mississippi: black voter registration rose from less than 10% in 1964 to 60% in 1968 

Alabama: black voter registration rose 24% in 1964 to 57% in 1968

Roughly 1,000,000 new voters registered in the South in the immediate aftermath of the Voting Rights Act, bringing African-American voter registration to a record 62%. 

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a milestone in American history, one of the single most important pieces of legislation ever to pass through the houses of Congress. Even still, it was legislation that aimed to enforce the 15th Amendment, which had been law for almost a century. But the fact that it took Congress nearly a hundred years to take the necessary steps to enforce a major constitutional amendment is a testament to its importance. Racism is deeply engrained in American history and culture, and resistance to federal involvement in the affairs of states has animated political conflict almost from the inception. While the importance of the 15th Amendment itself should not be understated, it would take a massive popular movement asserting civil and political rights for African Americans and the right political actors to tip the balance in favor to focused protection of the right to vote for African Americans. 

Of course, the Voting Rights Act did not suddenly put an end to racial discrimination in the South. The struggle for civil rights was and still is ongoing, and white politicians looked for new ways to relegate the African American community. Gerrymandering could still help to ensure that African American communities received less representation than white communities, and racially motivated violence was still a powerful deterrent to black voting even if they were allowed to register. The experience of implementing the Voting Rights Act, as well as evidence gathered by the Civil Rights division of the Justice Department of continued voting rights violations, led Congress to renew the Voting Rights Act four times: in 1970, 1975, 1982, and 2006. Sustained federal involvement was necessary to continue to protect the voting rights of African Americans—and many districts in the South remained “covered” under the preclearance provisions of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act for decades. The Voting Rights Act was most recently renewed in 2006, though not without some controversy. Subsequent to that renewal, the constitutionality of the legislation was challenged in the Supreme Court. The next module will cover more on the recent debate about the Voting Rights Act.