50 Years after the Voting Rights Act
It has been more than 50 years since the establishment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It was signed into law by President Lyndon Baines Johnson on August 6, 1965. It was a historic moment in the civil rights movement and in the overall human rights movement. Men, women, and children fought for voting rights back then. Many people have died for the cause of liberty and justice like Jimmie Lee Jackson, Medgar Evers, Viola Liuzzo, James Reeb, 3 little girls from the Birmingham Baptist Church, and so many other heroic human beings. The Voting Rights Act banned voting restrictions, which disenfranchised minorities and the poor, especially African Americans in the South.
The US Constitution (1787) and Bill of Rights (1789) had left it to the states to determine voting requirements. Until the Civil War the franchise was restricted to white men in most southern and even northern states. The Civil War and Reconstruction resulted in the 13th, (1865) 14th (1868), and 15th (1870) amendments to the Constitution, which, respectively, outlawed slavery, guaranteed citizenship, and protected voting rights. Yet, the Northern bourgeoisie made a deal with the southern elite in the 1877 Compromise to get occupying Union troops out of the South in exchange for neoliberal economic policies in America (along wit the South promoting their states' rights agenda). The South soon promoted Jim Crow apartheid from the late 19th century until the 1960’s. Literacy tests and other subjective requirements like poll taxes including grandfather clauses (which was about stipulating that in order to vote, an applicant’s grandfather had to have been a citizen and not a slave) were used by the Southern racist aristocracy to prevent black people the right to vote decades ago
The Voting Rights Act would have not been a reality without the struggle for justice in Selma, Alabama (and in other places in America). The DCVL, SNCC, the SCLC, and so many other organizations and people worked together to make sure that voting rights were federally protected. Human rights are superior to states’ rights. That’s true. People marched not only in Selma back then for voting rights. People marched all over the nation in favor of voting rights from New York City, LA, San Francisco, and everywhere else. Innocent people in Selma, Alabama suffered racist police brutality in the spring of 1965 on Bloody Sunday and in other incidents as well. This caused enraged workers and youth of America to expose the hypocrisy of Johnson claiming to fight for “freedom” in Vietnam (when the Vietnam War was an imperialist war) while crooked cops were brutalizing human beings in Selma back during the mid 1960's. Before the bill was passed, it went through both houses of Congress. The Congressional debate on the bill was a long process. Lyndon Johnson was dedicated in fighting for the passage of the Voting Rights Act. The bill was introduced in the Senate by Mike Mansfield (D-MT) and Everett Dirksen (R-IL). It passed the upper chamber on May 26, 1965 by a margin of 77 to 19. An amended version was passed by the House on July 9, 1965 by a margin of 333 to 85. Almost all of the 104 senators and Congress people who voted against the bill were Southern Democrats. These southern Democrats opposed racial equality. Later, the 1964 Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater opposed the Voting Rights Act too. Some of the Southern conservative Democrats went into the Republican Party.
The Legislation's History
The history of the legislative process on how the Voting Rights Act existed is an interesting one. First, the bill (called S.1564) was sent to the Senate by Senators Mike Mansfield (D-MT) and Everett Dirksen (R-IL) on March 17, 1965. The bill’s language was heavily drafted by both members of Congress and Attorney General Katzenbach. LBJ didn’t want Southern Democrats to filibuster the legislation like they did to other civil rights efforts, so he enlisted Dirksen to help gain Republican support for the bill. Dirksen was hesitant in doing this, but he wanted to do it after the police violence against innocent marchers in Selma on Bloody Sunday. The bill was nicknamed “Dirksenbach” bill because Dirksen had a key role in helping Katzenbach to draft the bill. After Mansfield and Dirksen introduced the bill, 64 additional Senators agreed to cosponsor it. The bill wanted a stronger federal government role in preclearance (or allowing the U.S. Attorney General or other government functions to assist voting procedures in states). The bill was first considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose chair, Senator James Eastland (D-MS), opposed the legislation with several other Southern Senators on the committee. Eastland wanted to stop the bill, so he proposed the motion to require the Judiciary Committee to report the bill out of committee by April 9, which the Senate overwhelmingly passed. During the committee’s consideration of the bill, Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) led an effort to amend the bill to prohibit poll taxes. The 24th Amendment banned poll taxes in federal elections in 1964. The problem was that no such ban existed in state elections (many people feared that the courts would strike down such a ban as unconstitutional). Delegations from Texas and Arkansas opposed such a proposal. Kennedy’s amendment to ban poll taxes was passed by a 9-4 vote.
The Voting Rights Bill was reported but of committee on April 9 by a 12-4 vote without a recommendation. On April 22, the full Senate debated on the bill. Dirksen spoke first on the bill's behalf, saying that "legislation is needed if the unequivocal mandate of the 15th Amendment ... is to be enforced and made effective, and if the Declaration of Independence is to be made truly meaningful.” Of course, Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC) opposed the bill making the ludicrous charge that it would lead to despotism and tyranny. Senator Sam Ervin (D-NC) called the bill unconstitutional since its deprived states of their right under Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution to establish voter qualifications and because the bill's special provisions targeted only certain jurisdictions. On May 6, Ervin offered an amendment to abolish the coverage formula's automatic trigger and instead allow federal judges to appoint federal examiners to administer voter registration. This amendment overwhelmingly failed, with 42 Democrats and 22 Republicans voting against it. After lengthy debate, Ted Kennedy's amendment to prohibit poll taxes also failed 49-45. However, the Senate agreed to include a provision authorizing the Attorney General to sue any jurisdiction, covered or non-covered, to challenge its use of poll taxes. An amendment offered by Senator Robert Kennedy (D-NY) to enfranchise English-illiterate citizens who had attained at least a sixth-grade education in a non-English-speaking school also passed by 48-19. Southern legislators offered a series of amendments to weaken the bill, all of which failed. On May 25, 1965, the Senate voted for cloture 70-30. Cloture is a motion or process to bring the debate to a quick end. On May 26, 1965, the Senate passed the bill by a 77-19 vote (Democrats 47-16 and Republicans 30-2). The Act was introduced in the House of Representatives as H.R. 6400. The debate on the bill happened more slowly than on the Senate. The House Judiciary Committee approved the bill on May 12. It didn’t file its report until June 1.
The committee's ranking Republican, William McCulloch (R-OH), generally supported expanding voting rights, but he opposed both the poll tax ban and the coverage formula, and he led opposition to the bill in committee. The Speaker of the House John McCormack supported the bill and the poll tax prohibition. The bill was then considered by the Rules Committee. Its chair was Howard w. Smith (D-VA). He opposed the bill and delayed its consideration under June 24. Under pressure from the bill's proponents, he allowed the bill to be released from committee a week later, and the full House started debating the bill on July 6. McCulloch wanted to defeat the Voting Rights Act. So, he introduced an alternative bill called H.R. 7896. It would have allowed the Attorney General to appoint federal registrars after receiving 25 serious complaints of discrimination about a jurisdiction and imposed a nationwide ban on literacy tests for persons who demonstrated having attained a sixth-grade education. McCulloch's bill was co-sponsored by House Minority Leader Gerald Ford (R-MI) and supported by Southern Democrats as an alternative to the Voting Rights Act. The Johnson administration viewed H.R. 7896 as a serious threat to passing the Voting Rights Act. However, support for H.R. 7896 dissipated after William M. Tuck (D-VA) publicly said he preferred H.R. 7896 because the Voting Rights Act would legitimately ensure that African Americans could vote. His statement alienated most supporters of H.R. 7896, and the bill failed on the House floor by a 171-248 vote on July 9. Later that night, the House passed the Voting Rights Act by a 333-85 vote (Democrats 221-61, Republicans 112-24). The bill went into the conference committee after the House passed the bill. This was about other chambers resolving differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill. The Senate version had a provision that allowed the Attorney General to sue states that used poll taxes to discriminate, while the House version outright banned poll taxes. Initially, the committee members were stalemated. To help broker a compromise, Attorney General Katzenbach drafted legislative language explicitly asserting that poll taxes were unconstitutional and instructed the Department of Justice to sue the states that maintained poll taxes. To assuage concerns of liberal committee members that this provision was not strong enough, Katzenbach enlisted the help of Martin Luther King, Jr., who gave his support to the compromise. King's endorsement ended the stalemate, and on July 29, the conference committee reported its version out of committee. The House approved this conference report version of the bill on August 3 by a 328-74 vote (Democrats 217-54, Republicans 111-20), and the Senate passed it on August 4 by a 79-18 vote (Democrats 49-17, Republicans 30-1).
On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law with Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, John Lewis, and other civil rights leaders in attendance. The Voting Rights Act caused an immediate help to African Americans in terms of voting rights. After the law was enacted in 1965, there was an immediate decrease of racial discrimination in voting. The ending of literacy tests and the assignments of federal examiners and observers allowed for high numbers of racial minorities to register to vote. Nearly 250,000 African Americans registered to vote in 1965 and one-third of whom were registered by federal examiners. In covered jurisdictions, less than one-third (29.3%) of the African American population was registered in 1965; by 1967, this number increased to more than half (52.1%), and a majority of African American residents became registered to vote in 9 of the 13 Southern states. Similar increases were seen in the number of African Americans elected to office: between 1965 and 1985, African Americans elected as state legislators in the 11 former Confederate states increased from 3 to 176. The number of African American elected officials increased from 1,469 in 1970 to 4,912 in 1980.
By 2011, the number is about 10,500. Congress enacted the bilingual election requirements in 1975 and amended them in 1992. In 1973, the percent of Hispanics registered to vote was 34.9%; by 2006, that amount nearly doubled. The number of Asian Americans registered to vote in 1996 increased 58% by 2006. The initial success of the law was designed to combat tactics which wanted to deny minorities access to the polls. The Act has been used to challenge racial vote dilution. Starting in the 1970s, the Attorney General commonly raised Section 5 objections to voting changes that decreased the effectiveness of racial minorities' votes, including discriminatory annexations, redistricting plans, and election methods such as at-large election systems, runoff election requirements, and prohibitions on bullet voting. By enfranchising racial minorities, the Act facilitated a political realignment of the Democratic and Republican parties. Between 1890 and 1965, minority disenfranchisement allowed conservative Southern Democrats to dominate Southern politics. After Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Act into law, newly enfranchised racial minorities began to vote for liberal Democratic candidates throughout the South, and Southern white conservatives began to switch their party registration from Democrat to Republican en masse. So, the Democratic Party became more liberal and the Republican Party became more conservative after the mid 1960's. This increased competition among both parties. Later, the Republicans would use the racist Southern Strategy in order to get votes while scapegoating people of color. We still have a long way to go as extremists want to further erode our voting rights with voter ID laws, etc.
No words can describe the great contributions that Sister Amelia Boynton has done for society. She contributed a great deal for the cause of human justice and social tranquility. Her work will forever be remembered. During this time, many of our elders are passing away. We are in the Joshua Generation. Our elders and our ancestors would want us to carry on the torch that many heroes have done for years and centuries. She fought for voting rights and human rights in the South and throughout the world. Her righteous work in Selma helped to cause the Voting Rights Act to be signed into law by 1965. She, in her DCVL organization, sacrificed for the cause of freedom just like SNCC and the SCLC worked in Selma too. Police brutality (as shown in Bloody Sunday. The Southern aristocracy failed in trying to prevent the Civil and Voting Rights Acts to be passed) and violence could never stop her. Racism didn't stop her and she was blessed. During this generation, we should continue to fight for our rights since Voter ID laws (including a recent Supreme Court decision gutting sections of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act) violate the principles of the Voting Rights Act. In our generation, we face police terrorism and economic inequality.
So, we salute her service for humanity. We honor her memory. We also acknowledge the unsung heroes of Selma and in other places that fought for human justice too. The civil rights movement was a strong movement filled with courage, strength, and most importantly love. We love her as she loved us. One thing that she would want us to do is to continue working in our communities, to continue to support our families, and to work ceaselessly to advance the dignity of humanity. We want health care, housing, and a clean environment available for humanity. Her legacy is a glorious one and crowns upon crowns are upon her head now as the Most High is certainly happy about her work. Her principle of believing in justice and freedom for all is a principle that we will forever cherish in our hearts and in our souls.
RIP Sister Amelia Boynton Robinson.
The Fight for Voting Rights Continues
Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act prohibited any jurisdiction from putting in place “voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure [that] results in a denial or abridgement” of the right to vote. Section 5 required certain areas—including all of the Deep South—to get “preclearance” from the US Attorney General or the US District Court in Washington, DC before altering voting requirements. We know that the Supreme Court gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (via the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision). Today, many states in the South, in the Midwest, etc. have passed voter ID laws (when its supporters deceive and claim it is about claiming to prevent fraud when fraud is minuscule today in terms of voting in America now) which restrict who can vote and where one can vote. These voter restriction laws are very bad. One of the worse of such voter restriction laws is found in North Carolina. That is why the new Moral Monday movement is fighting against the voter ID law in North Carolina. These voter suppression laws stop Sunday voting, cut early voting days, stop same day registration, cut the number of polling centers and stopping the use of student ID (which studies have found to negatively effect the poor, people of color, and the elderly). Activists in North Carolina and throughout the nation are fighting back to make sure that voting rights is made available for all. They are courageously opposing the voter suppression laws in NC and throughout America today. We should remember about the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and we are not finished yet. We have a long way to go and we want any voter suppression laws to be gone nationwide. I will always respect voting rights.