On this dayAug 06, 1965

After Generations of Inaction, U.S. Government Enacts Voting Rights Act

Image | Cecil Stoughton, White House Press Office

On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) into law. The legislation was the culmination of organized civil rights activism and came after unchecked, systematic voter suppression had targeted African American communities in the South for generations. The VRA outlawed discriminatory barriers to voting like poll taxes and literacy tests, and also imposed strict oversight upon states and districts with histories of voter discrimination. The new law quickly proved extremely effective; black registration rates soon rose throughout the South and black officials were elected at the highest rates since Reconstruction. In this way, the VRA directly confronted and addressed a century of racist voting policies.

After the end of the Civil War and the legal abolition of slavery, the Reconstruction Era spawned constitutional amendments that granted citizenship rights to formerly enslaved black people. The 14th Amendment, adopted in 1868, guaranteed citizenship and equal protection under the law, while the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, prohibited denying citizens the right to vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” By 1877, however, Reconstruction ended, federal authorities largely abandoned their duty to enforce these new rights for black people, and Southern white leaders set out to use laws and violent intimidation to relegate black people back to a position of oppression and servitude.

Despite their new Constitutional rights, African Americans seeking to vote faced legal obstacles, threats of economic hardship, and even risked lynching. Poll taxes, grandfather clauses, felony disenfranchisement policies, and literacy tests were all passed with the intent of suppressing the black vote, and enforced in discriminatory ways to achieve that result. For more than a century after emancipation, the majority of black Americans lived in the South and were largely disenfranchised.

Throughout this time, black communities and leaders braved great risk to mount registration campaigns and public protests. Many black people were killed for such activism, but the efforts continued, culminating in the Selma Movement. In March 1965, the nation's attention turned to “Bloody Sunday”, a widely-televised law enforcement attack on peaceful protesters marching to the Alabama State Capitol to show support for black voting rights. The violent treatment suffered by activists in Alabama sparked public outcry that helped spur passage of the VRA.

Throughout the 1960s, opponents challenged the Voting Rights Act's constitutionality, but it was repeatedly upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2013, however, the Court's decision in Shelby County v. Holder significantly weakened one of the law's most effective provisions.

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