Civics 101: The Voting Rights Act of 1965

J. H. Osborne • Updated Jun 24, 2019 at 2:10 PM

Following up on last week’s topic, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, this week we look at the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

• President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the the Voting Rights Act into law on Aug. 6, 1965, one day after it was adopted by Congress.

• It outlawed the discriminatory voting practices adopted in many Southern states after the Civil War, including literacy tests as a requirement for voting. It also directed the U.S. attorney general to challenge the use of poll taxes in state and local elections. The use of poll taxes in federal elections had been abolished by the 24th amendment to the Constitution in 1964.

• This “act to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution” was signed into law 95 years after that amendment was ratified. In those years, African Americans in the South faced tremendous obstacles to voting, including poll taxes, literacy tests, and other bureaucratic restrictions to deny them the right to vote. They also risked harassment, intimidation, economic reprisals, and physical violence when they tried to register or vote. As a result, very few African Americans were registered voters, and they had very little, if any, political power, either locally or nationally.

• In 1964, the murder of voting-rights activists in Mississippi and the attack by state troopers on peaceful marchers in Selma, Alabama, gained national attention and prompted Johnson and Congress to take action. The combination of public revulsion to the violence and Johnson’s political skills stimulated Congress to pass the voting rights bill on Aug. 5, 1965.

• The legislation outlawed literacy tests and provided for the appointment of federal examiners (with the power to register qualified citizens to vote) in those jurisdictions that were “covered” according to a formula provided in the statute.

• In addition, Section 5 of the act required covered jurisdictions to obtain “preclearance” from either the District Court for the District of Columbia or the U.S. attorney general for any new voting practices and procedures.

• Section 2, which closely followed the language of the 15th Amendment, applied a nationwide prohibition of the denial or abridgment of the right to vote on account of race or color.

•  In Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections, 383 U.S. 663 (1966), the Supreme Court held Virginia’s poll tax to be unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment.

• The law had an immediate impact. By the end of 1965, a quarter of a million new black voters had been registered, one-third by federal examiners. By the end of 1966, only four out of the 13 Southern states had fewer than 50 percent of African Americans registered to vote.

• The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was readopted and strengthened in 1970, 1975, and 1982.

Source: The National Archives

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