Voting Rights Act of 1965

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Voting Rights Act of 1965

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on August 6, 1965, was intended to reverse the historic disenfranchisement of the black electorate, which had been the hallmark of southern politics since the end of Reconstruction. It applied to states and counties in which a test or other device was used to determine voter eligibility, and where voter registration or turnout for the 1964 presidential election had been less than 50 percent of potentially eligible voters. In those "covered jurisdictions," it suspended literacy and other racially discriminatory tests; authorized federal examiners to replace or supplement local registrars; allowed federal observers at polling sites; and required advance federal approval for changes in election laws and voting procedures. It also expanded the voting rights of non-English-speaking citizens.

Although the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution had conferred voting rights on black men and black women, respectively, violence and economic reprisals, as well as more subtle methods, had effectively barred African Americans from the election rolls for generations. Although the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, and 1964 contained some voting rights provisions, their enforcement depended on the cooperation of recalcitrant southerners and on appeals through a slow, cumbersome judicial process.

In the context of rising demands for more substantive redress of race-based discrimination, the Johnson administration proposed to restore suffrage by a more direct route. In Selma, Alabama, black people had tried to register to vote in the early 1960s; obstructed from doing so, they appealed to the Justice Department for support. By late 1964, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) decided to launch an all-out campaign in Selma aimed at winning new federal voting-rights legislation. Their efforts were met with police attacks and mass arrests, which culminated in a brutal assault on peaceful demonstrators marching to Montgomery on March 7, 1965. Even though "Bloody Sunday" was not the direct catalyst for Johnson's initiative, it proved decisive for rallying public and congressional sentiment around his plan.

Congressional passage of the bill was marked by intense controversy, however. The Johnson administration successfully resisted efforts to impose an outright ban on poll taxes (although the Supreme Court struck down the poll tax in 1966), and House Republican leaders and southern Democrats failed in their bid to weaken the legislation.

Voting-age population, percent reporting registered, 19762004
% Registered% Voted
Population (in millions)Presidential election yearsCongressional election yearsPresidential election yearsCongressional election years
source: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports.

Still, in its final form, the measure was overwhelmingly approved, by a vote of 328 to 74 in the House and 79 to 18 in the Senate.

In the immediate aftermath of the act's passage, impressive gains were made by federal authorities; in the first six months, they registered more than 100,000 southern blacks, while local officials, aware of the new threat of federal action, added another 200,000. In 1965, some 2 million African Americans were registered to vote in the South; by mid-1970, that figure had jumped to 3.3 million.

But the Justice Department preferred voluntary compliance with the new directives; moreover, since enforcement depended on the department's own vigorous commitment, during the Nixon and Ford years it was significantly weaker than in the early period. The Nixon administration, in fact, sought to dramatically curtail the act's powers when it came up for Congressional extension in 1970.

Many southern officials resisted the Voting Rights Act, challenging its constitutionality in court and continuing to withhold the ballot through arbitrary means. They also adopted new mechanisms that, although not directly denying the right to register and vote, diluted the black community's electoral power. Using a variety of techniquesredrawing districts to break up black majorities (racial gerrymandering), imposing new restrictions and property qualifications on candidates, and holding at-large races in which an expanded electoral base ensured a white majoritysouthern politicians made it difficult for black candidates to run for and win office. These measures were contested by civil rights advocates in litigation that lasted well into the 1980s. In the case of Mobile v. Bolden in 1980, the Supreme Court upheld the use of at-large elections, arguing that their practical effectpreventing minority black populations from electing their own candidateswas not the same as discriminatory intent.

The Voting Rights Act has been extended three times since its initial passage. Originally, its targets included Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia, parts of North Carolina, and Alaska. In 1970 the ban on literacy tests was expanded nationwide and the formula for identifying covered areas was altered to broaden its scope. It was again extended in 1975, with less southern resistance than in the past. In 1982 the Reagan administration fought vigorously against another extension. But it was not only extended, it was also amended to address the wide range of strategies designed to circumvent its authority, effectively nullifying the Mobile decision. By 1989, a total of 7,200 African-Americans held elected office in the United States (compared to just 500 in 1965); of these, 67 percent were in the South.

See also Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; King, Martin Luther, Jr.; Politics in the United States; Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)


Davidson, Chandler, and Bernard Grofman, eds The Quiet Revolution: The Impact of the Voting Rights Act in the South, 19651990. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Garrow, David J. Protest at Selma: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1978.

Parker, Frank R. Black Votes Count: Political Empowerment in Mississippi after 1965. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Pildes, Richard H. "Diffusion of Political Power and the Voting Rights Act." Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy 24, no. 1 (2000): 119.

Weisbrot, Robert. Freedom Bound: A History of America's Civil Rights Movement. New York: Norton, 1990.

Valelly, Richard. "Voting Rights in Jeopardy." The American Prospect 10, no. 46 (September 1999): 43.

Valelly, Richard. The Two Reconstructions: The Struggle for Black Enfranchisement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

michael paller (1996)

tami j. friedman (1996)
Updated bibliography