The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is the most significant federal legislation designed to prevent discrimination against African-Americans in the USA.
On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon B Johnson passed the law to protect the voting rights of the minority communities in America.
It was signed into law at the peak of the Civil Rights movement and was created to bring into effect the voting rights guaranteed in the 14th and the 15th amendments to the constitution of the United States.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was later amended by Congress about 5 times to widen the scope of the protections provided to the Black community especially in the South.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed any policies enacted by state legislatures that would impede the minorities from exercising their right to vote.
It specifically targeted the literacy tests that were used by several states to discriminate against racial and linguistic minorities.
It further ensured that no states would be able to administer any changes in policies without the prior approval of the US Attorney General or the US District Court for the District of Columbia.
It provided the option of translating the ballots into languages suitable to the population. It also provided other election materials that would facilitate more voter turnout from the linguistic minorities.
The US Department of Justice declared the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as the most efficient piece of federal legislation in the history of the United States.
Even though the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution guaranteed the right to vote 95 years ago in 1870, the African American population was not able to access it until the Voting Rights Act was enforced.
It was a result of several protests carried out by Voting Rights Activists. When a few activists were murdered in Mississippi, the public was enraged and the Congress was spun into action to ensure stronger voting rights laws.
After the American Civil War ended in 1865, the United States government made three amendments to the United States constitution. This period in American history is known as the Reconstruction Era.
The first reconstruction amendment was passed in the year 1865. It is known as the Thirteenth Amendment and it strictly forbade slavery except as a punishment for crime.
The next amendment came into effect in 1868 and was the Fourteenth Amendment to the constitution of the United States.
According to it, any person born or naturalized in the United States will be granted citizenship and as such will deserve due process and equal protection of rights.
The last reconstruction amendment is called the Fifteenth Amendment and it was passed in the year 1870.
It ensured the voting rights of all citizens of the United States irrespective of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
It prohibited the federal government and the state governments from disenfranchising the Black community in America.
To ensure the effectiveness of the Reconstruction Amendments, Congress also introduced the Enforcement Acts.
These acts allowed the Union to punish those who sought to obstruct the voting rights of any citizen of the United States. They also regulated the electoral process including the voter registration process.
However, in 1875 the Supreme Court challenged some aspects of the amendments and declared it unconstitutional.
After the Compromise of 1877, these laws were not enforced in the south and the Congress revoked many of its provisions.
Slavery was important to the southerners because it was the only way to maintain their economy and their political power in the region.
Therefore, they were averse to the idea of equality for the Black community. The White population in the south tried its best to suppress the African American vote from 1868 to 1888 by conducting electoral fraud or using violence against them.
When the federal troops left from the southern states after the election of President Rutherford Hayes, the southern governments disregarded the laws altogether. This marked the end of the Reconstruction era.
Jim Crow Laws
Between 1888 to 1908, the southern states introduced the Jim Crow Laws in an effort to legalize the disenfranchisement of African Americans and suppress the Black community.
The Jim Crow Laws were a set of state and local laws that restricted the voting rights of Black people based on their ability to pay poll taxes, to own property, or to read and interpret documents.
The African Americans needed to pass moral character tests and also prove that their grandfather was not a slave and hence eligible to vote.
The Jim Crow Laws were designed to segregate the Blacks from the Whites and put several restrictions on the movement of racial minorities.
The African Americans were not allowed to visit public parks or travel in public transportation. They were segregated in most public places and were often subjected to violence.
The Supreme Court decisions of this time reflect the level of discrimination the African Americans suffered and the complete failure of all the efforts made by the Reconstructionists.
The name Jim Crow came from a song and dance caricature called Jump Jim Crow in 1828. A white actor called Thomas Rice painted his face black and mocked Black people.
Racial slurs were extremely common in the United States of America during this time and various psychological attacks were a part of the daily experience of an African American.
Civil Rights Movement
The Civil Rights movement has its roots in the Reconstruction Era and lasted for decades.
Several African Americans across America came together with other progressives to struggle against racism, segregation, and disenfranchisement.
During the 1950s the civil rights movement was mainly carried out through nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience.
A Supreme Court ruling in 1954 led to the dismantling of the Separate but Equal policy which had undermined the 14th Amendment and facilitated the Jim Crow Laws.
Few other court rulings and large nonviolent protests created a situation of crisis and encouraged dialogues between the government and the civil rights activists between 1955 to 1968.
Incidents such as the lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi in the year 1955 drew widespread support for the African American community in America.
Many people were upset with how the teenager was abused and killed because he was accused of offending a white woman.
This incident shook the conscience of America and propelled many to join the resistance movement after Emmett’s mother decided to have an open-casket funeral to display the atrocities her son suffered.
Protests were conducted in Alabama through boycotts such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. Sit-ins were also conducted nationwide as a means to gain attention and response from the government.
North Carolina and Tennessee saw the most use of the ‘sit-ins’ tactic when a group of people occupied places in Greensboro and Nashville and refused to move until their demands were met.
Several marches were conducted on a large scale such as the 1963 Children’s Crusade in Birmingham and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery Marches in Alabama to further highlight the inequities faced by the African Americans.
Due to the massive protests, the Supreme Court was moved to make favorable rulings for African Americans.
Several discriminatory laws such as the ones banning interracial marriages and the Jim Crow Laws were brought to an end.
Key Figures and Important Struggles
On September 9, 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957. After the Reconstruction era, this was the first time the US Congress passed civil rights legislation.
In order to give teeth to the new legislation, the attorney general was given complete authority to file lawsuits on behalf of the victims of civil rights violations.
A new department called the Civil Rights Division was created in the Department of Justice in order to form a system of checks and balances and also to speed up the enforcement of the civil rights laws.
The US Congress realized that there was a need to investigate why and how people were deprived of their civil rights. For this purpose, they created the Commission on Civil Rights.
The Civil Rights Act of 1960 further increased the scope of protection guaranteed to the minorities.
The federal court was given the authority to oversee the voter registration process in the jurisdictions where discrimination was rampant.
However, the success of these acts was minimal. The laws empowered the judicial system of America to provide solutions to the victims but the process was lengthy and oftentimes obstructed by those who opposed it.
Even the district court judges were not in favor of allowing racial minorities to vote. The Department had to spend a lot of time appealing the lawsuits for this reason.
The laws made very little difference to the prejudices and the attitude of the whites in America. Despite filing about 71 voting rights lawsuits, the voter registration in the South barely increased.
Recognizing the shortcomings of the acts, further efforts were made by Congress to enforce the civil rights laws in 1964.
For example, to reduce discrimination based on literacy, equal administration of literacy tests was made compulsory for the registrars.
The registrars were directed to accept the tests that had small errors and to treat people with sixth-grade education as literate.
Even these laws fell short of securing equal voting rights for the African American community, the Latino community, the Native American community, and the other racial and linguistic communities present in America.
President Lyndon Johnson was adamant that stricter laws must be passed in order to overcome the challenges posed by the opponents.
However, after the victory of the Democrats in both houses of Congress in the 1964 elections, he was advised to keep his concerns under wraps.
If he pushed for more laws in this direction, he could not only lose his political career but also jeopardize the programs under the Great Society reforms.
This did not stop the Civil Rights leaders from building pressure on the federal government. Martin Luther King, James Bevel, and many other leaders staged peaceful protests in Selma, a city in Alabama.
Slogans of ‘One Man One Vote’ were met with violence from the police and the white counter protestors.
Throughout January and February of 1965, the media focused on the various protests held in Selma and the consequent arrests of the civil rights leaders.
Martin Luther King was arrested on February 1 on the charges of violating anti-parade laws. This triggered even more protests and nationwide coverage of the event. Hundreds of protestors were arrested for peaceful protests.
The developments implored President Johnson to act immediately despite his prior reservations and he sent a proposal to Congress beseeching them to pass stricter laws.
The situation went out of control when Jimmy Lee Jackson, a young Black protestor was shot and killed by officer James Bonard Fowler on February 18, 1965.
Jackson was protecting his mother from the state troopers who had violently interrupted the night time marches in Marion, Alabama.
This event propelled racial minorities to march from Selma all the way to Montgomery.
The purpose of this march was to bring the Governor’s attention to the atrocities faced by the minority communities of America.
James Bevel along with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organized the Selma to Montgomery Marches only to be met by more resistance from the county police.
At the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the police shot tear gas at the protestors and trampled them with their horses. This event was publicized as the ‘Bloody Sunday’.
The footage of the violence was shown on television and it motivated many more people to join the cause of the civil rights protestors.
In March another protest called Turnaround Tuesday was violently interrupted by Ku Klux Klan members. Reverend James Reeb from Boston lost his life due to the attack.
Enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965
Finally, on March 15, President Lyndon promised the nation that stricter and wider protections for civil rights legislation will be enacted in a televised joint session of the Congress.
On March 17, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was introduced and federal protection was provided to the 25,000 people marching from Selma to Montgomery.
After several debates took place in the House of Representatives from May till July, the Voting Rights bill was brought into effect by a vote of 333-85.
On August 6, 1965, President Johnson signed the bill in the presence of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and several other civil rights leaders.
The act completely outlawed the literacy tests and appointed referees to overlook the voter registration process in areas where non-white participation was less than 50%.
It also allowed the US attorney to look into how the poll taxes were being used in the state and local elections.
In 1966, the US Supreme court banned poll taxes in state elections altogether. These developments gave the right to African Americans to oppose voting restrictions and participate in the nation’s democracy.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 increased the voter turnout significantly among the Black population. In Mississippi, the voter turnout was over 59% in 1969 from a mere 6% in 1964.