The questions below are designed to get you thinking about the causes, course, and consequences of the Voting Rights Act. Be sure to respond to each question in 2-3 complete sentences, using proper grammar
1. Name three specific historical events that can be considered contributory causes of the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Briefly explain why you believe each of these events contributed to the passage of the Act.
2. Based on what you read about the passage of the Voting Rights Act on Page 1 of this learning block, name one event that was part of the course of this bill’s passage by Congress.
3. Name three specific consequences caused by the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965
From the beginning, supporters and opponents of African-American civil rights both understood the critical importance of voting rights. Supporters strove, after the Civil War, to ensure that freed slaves would have the political power that comes with voting; toward that end, they passed the Fifteenth Amendment, to guarantee voting rights, and the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871, to combat the Ku Klux Klan*‘s efforts to suppress black voting through intimidation and violence.
But federal enforcement of the Fifteenth Amendment effectively ceased with the end of Reconstruction* in 1877. Opponents knew that allowing African Americans to vote would threaten the structure of white supremacy on which the Jim Crow South was founded. In addition to physical intimidation, then, Southern whites erected an imposing set of legal obstacles to deter blacks from voting: poll taxes, whites-only primaries, literacy tests, property qualifications, and grandfather clauses.
In 1957, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. talked about those legal obstacles in his “Give Us the Ballot” speech; in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson spoke about them in an address to Congress:
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King: “Give Us the Ballot”
[A]ll types of conniving methods are still being used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters. The denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic tradition. And so our most urgent request to the president of the United States and every member of Congress is to give us the right to vote. [Audience:] (Yes)
Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights.
Give us the ballot (Yes), and we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law; we will by the power of our vote write the law on the statute books of the South (All right) and bring an end to the dastardly acts of the hooded perpetrators of violence.
Give us the ballot (Give us the ballot), and we will transform the salient misdeeds of bloodthirsty mobs (Yeah) into the calculated good deeds of orderly citizens.
Give us the ballot (Give us the ballot), and we will fill our legislative halls with men of goodwill (All right now) and send to the sacred halls of Congress men who will not sign a “Southern Manifesto” because of their devotion to the manifesto of justice. (Tell ’em about it)
Give us the ballot (Yeah), and we will place judges on the benches of the South who will do justly and love mercy (Yeah), and we will place at the head of the southern states governors who will, who have felt not only the tang of the human, but the glow of the Divine.
Give us the ballot (Yes), and we will quietly and nonviolently, without rancor or bitterness, implement the Supreme Court’s decision of May seventeenth, 1954. (That’s right)
(For the full text of the speech and an audio recording, go here.)
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The modern Civil Rights movement that arose in the wake of the * decision placed a high premium on winning federal legislation to enforce voting rights. The movement focused its efforts on the states of the South, because the de jure denial of voting rights was a uniquely Southern issue; virtually no such legal structures had been erected in the North or West to deny blacks the franchise. Three efforts to pass voting-rights legislation were derailed by Southern opposition in Congress: voting-rights provisions of the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, and 1963 were watered down to the point of ineffectiveness.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was passed in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination, included some voting-rights provisions but not the broad prohibition of literacy tests for which civil rights leaders had hoped. The Act’s primary focus, rather, was on ending segregation in public accommodations and in public education.
Following his landslide victory in the 1964 Presidential election, which also produced huge Democratic majorities in Congress, President Lyndon Johnson determined to push for a tough new voting-rights law. But his political advisers, concerned about the political impact of another civil rights battle so soon after passage of the Civil Rights Act, urged him to wait. (May, 2013)
In early 1965, Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders, including James Bevel of the SCLC*, began organizing voting-rights protests in Selma, Alabama, where the local sheriff had violently suppressed African-American voter registration efforts. In February, King and hundreds of other protesters were arrested for violating the city’s anti-parade ordinance. King responded by writing “A Letter from a Selma Alabama Jail,” which ran as an advertisement in The New York Times; the letter famously noted that, ” This is Selma, Alabama. There are more negroes in jail with me than there are on the voting rolls.” (King, 1965)
Shortly after King’s arrest, another voting-rights protest in Marion, Alabama, turned deadly when Alabama state troopers attacked the demonstrators; an African-American Army veteran named Jimmie Lee Jackson was fatally shot by police. At his funeral, James Bevel suggested that protesters march from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery to dramatize their cause. (May, 2013)
Two weeks later, on March 7, 1965, about 600 protesters, led by John Lewis and Hosea Williams of the SCLC, began marching out of Selma. As they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the demonstrators met a small army of state troopers and county deputies; the law officers began beating the unarmed protesters with nightsticks, fired tear gas into the crowd, and charged the protesters on horseback. A total of 17 protesters were hospitalized, and another 50 were treated for injuries in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” (Reed, 1966)
(To read excerpts from first-person accounts of the Bloody Sunday protest, go here.)
The violence on the Edmund Pettus Bridge was captured by newspaper photographers and television news crews; the image of peaceful protesters being savagely beaten by the police outraged public opinion outside the South, and abroad. Eight days after Bloody Sunday, amid continuing violence against voting-rights demonstrators in Alabama, President Johnson addressed Congress and called for swift passage of his voting-rights proposal. Echoing the old spiritual that had become the anthem of the civil rights movement, Johnson declared that “We shall overcome” in the struggle for voting rights.
Despite fervent Southern opposition and a 24-day filibuster* in the Senate, the Voting Rights Act received final Congressional approval on August 4, 1965. Two days later, with Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks in attendance at the White House, Johnson signed the bill into law. (May, 2013)
The Impact of the Voting Rights Act
The immediate effects of the Voting Rights Act were quickly felt. Voter registration surged among African Americans in the states of the Old South, the region directly targeted by the law’s “special provisions.” By 1970, a majority of eligible African Americans had registered to vote in nine of the 11 former Confederate states. In Mississippi, black voter registration increased from just 6.7 percent in 1964, to 59.8 percent in 1967. (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2016; U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2001)
This surge in voter registration has led some legal experts to characterize the Voting Rights Act as ” the single most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever passed by Congress.” (U.S. Department of Justice, 2009) For a summary of the Act’s key provisions, click on this link.
Two key factors contributed to the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act. The first was its limited scope: the “special provisions” of the Act applied to only those states and localities with a demonstrated history of discrimination against African-American voting rights. This limited scope allowed the Justice Department to use its enforcement resources most effectively, in areas where the potential for discrimination was greatest. The second was the Act’s preclearance provision*, which prevented any changes in voting laws from taking effect unless they were approved by the Justice Department or a federal court. [The Supreme Court suspended the preclearance provision in 2013.]
Increased voter registration did not, however, translate immediately into increased political powerfor African Americans in the South. White-dominated state legislators responded to the Voting Rights Act by enacting new measures to limit the effectiveness of African-American voting: turning some formerly elective offices into appointive ones and changing many other elective offices to “at-large” seats, which diluted the impact of new black voters. Those same legislators also engaged in racial gerrymandering*, redrawing legislative and Congressional districts to maximize white voting power and limit the effectiveness of African-American votes. (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2001)
Over time, Justice Department lawsuits reversed many of these political ploys. Key Supreme Court rulings, including *, sought to reduce the impact of racial gerrymandering by applying the concept of “one person, one vote” to the issue of legislative redistricting. And later amendments to the Act required states, under certain circumstances, to create majority-minority districts* to increase the odds that African Americans and other minority-group candidates would be elected to Congress.
At the same time, the overall increase in African-American voter registration was not matched by a similarly sharp rise in African-American voter turnout. Nationally, the proportion of African Americans who actually cast a ballot in a Presidential election peaked at 58.5 percent in 1964—the year before the Voting Rights Act was passed—and did not return to this level until Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2008. (Flippen, 2014) Obviously, African-American turnout increased in Southern states, where registration had increased so sharply, but it declined in non-Southern states.
Relatively low turnout among African-American voters is attributable to many different factors, including differences in income and education, as well as a perception that the political process is less relevant to their lives. (Fulwood, 2014) And relevance is, in some ways, related to race: like many other racial and ethnic groups, African Americans are significantly more likely to vote when a member of their own group is on the ballot. (Laney, 2011)
Without question, the Voting Rights Act has led to sharply increased representation of African Americans in Congress, state legislatures, and local offices. In 1964, for instance, only five African Americans served in Congress; by 2015, that number had increased to 48. (U.S House of Representatives, 2016) And between 1965 and 1985, the number of African-American state legislators in the former states of the Confederacy had increased from three to 176. (Grofman and Handley, 1991)
What remains open to question is whether increased African-American political representation has led to an improvement in the lives of most African Americans. On this point, there is conflicting evidence. Mississippi, for instance, in the mid-1990s had more African-American elected officials than any other state—yet per capita income for blacks in Mississippi was less than half that for whites, and levels of educational attainment were also significantly lower among blacks than among whites. At that same time, however, state spending on public housing and education had increased sharply in the years previous, and incidents of racial violence had decreased greatly. (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2001) This mixed record is in fact typical of many states.