In the century following Reconstruction, African Americans in the South faced
overwhelming obstacles to voting. Despite the Fifteenth and Nineteenth
Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which had enfranchised black men and women,
southern voter registration boards used poll taxes, literacy tests, and other
bureaucratic impediments to deny African Americans their legal rights. Southern
blacks also risked harassment, intimidation, economic reprisals, and physical
violence when they tried to register or vote. As a result, African Americans had
little if any political power, either locally or nationally. In Mississippi, for
instance, only five percent of eligible blacks were registered to vote in 1960.
President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act
while Dr. King and others look on
The Voting Rights Act of 1965, grew
out of both public protest and private political negotiation. Starting in 1961,
CORE joined SCLC in staging nonviolent demonstrations in Georgia, and
Birmingham. They hoped to attract national media attention and pressure the U.S.
government to protect Black's constitutional rights. Newspaper photos and TV broadcasts of Birmingham's
racist police commissioner, Eugene "Bull" Connor, and his men
violently attacking the protesters with water hoses, police dogs, and
nightsticks awakened the consciences of
Selma, Alabama was the site of the next campaign. In the first three months
1965, Local residents and visiting volunteers held a series of marches demanding
an equal right to vote. As in Birmingham, they met with violence and
imprisonment. In the worst attack yet, on Sunday, March 7, a group of
Alabama state troopers, local sheriff's officers, and unofficial possemen used
tear gas and clubs against 600 peaceful marchers. By now, the nation was
President Lyndon B. Johnson made civil rights one of his administration's top
priorities, using his formidable political skills to pass the Twenty-Fourth
Amendment, which outlawed poll taxes, in 1964. Now, a week after "Bloody
Sunday" in Selma, Johnson gave a televised speech before Congress in which
he denounced the assault. Two days later, the President sent
the Voting Rights bill to Congress.
The resolution, signed into law on August 6,
1965, empowered the federal government to oversee voter registration and
elections in counties that had used tests to determine voter eligibility or
where registration or turnout had been less than 50 percent in the 1964
presidential election. It also banned discriminatory literacy tests and expanded
voting rights for non-English speaking Americans.
President Johnson and Dr. King congratulate
each other on the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965
The law's effects were wide and powerful.
By 1968, nearly 60 percent of eligible African Americans were registered to vote
in Mississippi, and other southern states showed similar improvement. Between
1965 and 1990, the number of black state legislators and members of Congress
rose from two to 160.
The Voting Rights Act was extended in
1970, 1975, and 1982. Some key provisions are scheduled to expire in 2007. Despite some setbacks and debates, the Voting
Rights Act had an enormous impact. It re-enfranchised black southerners, helping
elect African Americans at the local, state, and national levels.
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