The 1960s were a turbulent time for the United States. That’s when the country saw the rise of the civil rights movement, which fought to end discrimination against African Americans.
One of the most critical pieces of legislation to come out of this era was the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at this act and explain the events that led up to it.
What Is the Voting Rights Act of 1965?
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a landmark law whose purpose is to protect the voting rights of all Americans, regardless of their race. It’s a United States federal law that prohibits voting discrimination.
This act came after passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which addressed equal rights to vote. Still, the 1964 legislation didn’t do much for African Americans as they were still kept from exercising their voting rights, especially in the Southern States.
The Voting Rights Act was finally signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on August 6, 1965. It is considered one of the most influential pieces of civil rights legislation in American history that has helped ensure all citizens have the right to vote.
Voting Rights Before the Passage of the Voting Rights Act
While women won the right to vote in 1920, it wouldn’t be until four and a half decades later that African Americans would be allowed the same.
The 15th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1870, was meant to guarantee the right of male African American U.S. citizens to vote. However, different techniques were used to prevent the practical fulfillment of that right.
One such technique was administering literacy tests to African American voters, which were a prerequisite for voting. Many test questions were ambiguous, and one wrong answer would mean that the candidate failed, making it virtually impossible to pass. These tests represented an unfair method of denying people of color voting rights.
In addition, there were poll taxes, which were a fee to be paid to be able to vote. Caucasian Americans could be exempt from paying this tax if they had a relative who voted before the Civil War. The clause was referred to as “the grandfather clause” and didn’t apply to African Americans.
The Road to the Voting Rights Bill
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a monumental event in U.S. history, as it ensured that the Jim Crow laws, which made racial segregation legal, no longer applied.
However, this did not mean that the fight for equality was over. Even though the 1964 bill forbade prohibiting people from voting based on race, the situation didn’t improve much, especially in the South.
In the aftermath, several events were significant and finally allowed the passage of the Voting Rights Bill.
The Selma Marches
In Selma, Alabama, only 2.1% of African Americans were registered to vote. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and other activists, including Martin Luther King, Jr., came to Selma to participate in protests in January 1965.
On March 7th, 1965, a crowd of around 600 peaceful protestors began a march from Selma to Montgomery in the state of Alabama. The march’s purpose was to protest racial discrimination regarding the right to vote. The protestors were met with brutal force from the Alabama state troopers, who used tear gas and clubs to try and disperse the crowd.
This event, known as “Bloody Sunday,” was captured on television, leading to demonstrations in around 80 American cities meant to support the Selma marchers.
The event didn’t go unnoticed by the U.S. president, Lyndon B. Johnson, who took steps to ensure the next planned Selma to Montgomery march wouldn’t turn violent. He ordered troops to protect the protestors.
The next march started on March 21st and ended five days later. Around 25,000 protestors, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., walked 54 miles. The protest is one of the most significant events that expedited the passing of the Voters’ Rights Bill.
President Johnson’s Plea to the Congress
While President Johnson had been making promises to solve the issue of racial discrimination in voting, it wasn’t until the 15th of March that he finally took action. That’s when he called upon Congress to take legislative action on voting rights.
Finally, on May 25, 1965, the Senate voted to pass the Voting Rights Act, marking the victory for the voting rights activists. The House of Representatives followed suit on July 9th, and the bill was signed into law by President Johnson on August 6th, 1965.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Its Impact
The act did more than outlawing discriminatory practices like literacy tests. It also implemented federal oversight of elections in areas with a history of discrimination and investigated the instances of poll taxes.
The Voting Rights Act has had a profound impact on American society. It’s credited with increasing voter registration and turnout rates among African Americans.
On a Final Note
The Voting Rights Act was an impressive victory for the Civil Rights Movement, as it secured the right to vote for all Americans, regardless of race. Although racial discrimination happens even today, this act was a massive step in the battle for racial equality.