Towards Progress

Suffrage law in the United States changed more dramatically between the late 1950s and the early 1970s than it had during any other period of time in the nations’ history. Congress finally stepped up to act, passing a series of path breaking civil rights and voting rights laws. The Supreme Court not only upheld this legislation, but also actively struck down vestiges of discriminatory voting law. Together, Congress and the Court removed almost a century of barriers to voting, to the point that there remained almost no formal restrictions on the voting rights of adult citizens in the United States. A transformation occurred in the legal underpinning of the franchise in the United States: responsibility for defining who had the right to vote and the responsibility for protecting that right shifted from the hands of the states to the federal government. 

In the South, the Civil Rights movement had gained such strength that its message and the plight of blacks could no longer be ignored. Activists and protesters stared down the threat of violence in the name of asserting their rights—to education, to voting, and to the same accommodations enjoyed by whites. The war in Vietnam continued to mobilize African Americans in the military, and a growing group of African American veterans laid claim to the rights they felt serving their country had earned them. 

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court, in a set of landmark rulings, dramatically extended both the conception of American citizenship and the rights and privileges that came along with it, and asserted the authority of the federal government to promote the rights of the disadvantaged. And the Cold War helped to shift public opinion against discrimination, making the American people more broadly supportive of democratic principles than they had been in generations.