The Voting Rights Act at 50: Racial justice, federal protection, and the fight for local control

Abigail Perkiss

Abigail Perkiss of Kean University looks back at the legacy of the fight for the Voting Rights Act, on the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s call for legislation.

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On June 25, 2013, the US Supreme Court issued a ruling in Shelby v. Holder, the landmark case that called into question the constitutionality of Section Five of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

In the majority opinion, which held that there is no longer a need for federal preclearance to changes in municipal and state voting laws, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”

Roberts invoked the memory of the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 60s, speaking of Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were murdered during the 1964 Freedom Summer, and of Selma, Alabama, site of the famed march in 1965. “Today,” he wrote, “both of these towns are governed by African American mayors. Problems remain in these states and others, but there is no denying that, due to the Voting Rights Act, our nation has made great strides.” We as a nation have come a long way, Roberts seemed to say, and we no longer need federal enforcement over voting procedure.

In dissent, Justice Ginsburg challenged the majority’s use of civil rights progress in justifying the decision. “The great man who led the march from Selma to Montgomery and there called for the passage of the Voting Rights Act foresaw progress, even in Alabama,” she wrote. “‘The arc of the moral universe is long,’ he said, but ‘it bends toward justice,’ if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.” The halting movement toward racial justice has seen success, she implied, because of the longstanding and continued attention to the problems and vigilance in fighting to overcome them.

At the core of the disagreement here was the legacy of the fight for racial justice and the role that the federal government should play in supporting or enforcing that fight.

Fifty years ago today, on March 15, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson called for the passage of a Voting Rights Act, which would eliminate the illegal barriers to the ballot that had been in place across the South since the era of Reconstruction.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act, signed into law five months later, was viewed by many as the culmination of the legal fight for civil rights in the United States. It came nearly one hundred years after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, which granted African Americans the constitutional right to vote.

It also signaled to state governments a decisive change in the relationship between federal oversight and local control.

The Fifteenth Amendment, in tandem with the Thirteenth (outlawing slavery) and the Fourteenth (granting citizenship and the protections thereof regardless of race) Amendments, had profound potential in the years following the Civil War. For the first time in the nation’s history, black Americans had the legal legs to stand on in claiming their rights to citizenship.

Quickly, though, southern states – at times with the help of the US Supreme Court – set out to dismantle those rights and privileges. Under the system of Jim Crow, from the late nineteenth and through the first half of the twentieth century, state and municipal governments across the South enacted legislation that imposed discriminatory restrictions on the enfranchisement of African Americans.

One of the main goals of the modern Civil Rights Movement was to undo these Jim Crow laws.

What began as a focused legal campaign against discriminatory policies in the 1890s had, by the 1950s, grown into a massive grassroots movement, fueled by the practice of civil disobedience and nonviolent protest. Through boycotts, sit-ins, and marches, leaders worked to disrupt the ordinary course of business in order to force people to pay attention and incite a response from local authority, which, covered by national media outlets, would allow viewers around the national to bear witness to the violent reactions from southern white leaders against calm, respectful activists

Though many of these demonstrations were aimed toward desegregation of public spaces and schools, voting remained a key focus of the movement. African Americans knew that within the democratic system, voting was a critical way to exercise their power and claim their citizenship. Protections on voting would allow them to have a voice in federal elections, but more important, it would give them a chance to speak in state and municipal elections, where they could elect leaders that would be more sympathetic to their cause, to their very personhood.

And so, as groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Council organized mass demonstrations, organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) worked in local communities to coordinate voter registration drives and set up citizenship schools, where they taught literacy to prepare African Americans for the discriminatory tests they would need to pass in order to register.

White leaders knew that keeping blacks away from the polls was critical to their success and longevity in office, and these voting campaigns were meet with increasing violence and resistance. In 1961 alone, there were hundreds of documented beatings and arrests, and at least one death, of voting rights activist Herbert Lee.

On July 2, 1964, President Johnson signed into law the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The law was expansive – it was the culmination of many of the legal battles for which Civil Rights activists had been fighting for decades.

But southern officials still resisted.

Four days later, in Selma, Alabama, where SNCC had been coordinating voting drives since early 1963, John Lewis led fifty black citizens to the county courthouse to apply to vote. Sheriff Jim Clark arrested the group before they were able to register. By the end of the week, a local judge had issued an injunction prohibiting the gathering of three or more people under the sponsorship of civil rights leaders. The ruling made it illegal for people to talk about civil rights in the city, silencing all activism and activity for the next six months.

It also had the unintended effect of bringing the attention of national Civil Rights leaders to Selma.

For six months, organizers came together to mount a campaign against the pervasive racist practices and policies in the area. And the following February, Selma became the site of three attempted marches from the city to the state capital, in Montgomery, including the infamous “Bloody Sunday,” when state troopers waged a brutal attack on five hundred demonstrators attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

That night, President Johnson condemned the actions of the state of Alabama and promised to send a voting rights bill to Congress that week. Eight days later, he called for a joint session of the House and Senate, and on national television, he outlined plans for a comprehensive voting rights law.

“Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex and most difficult,” said Johnson on March 15, 1965. “But about this there can and should be no argument. Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.”

Johnson implored Congress to take measures to create federally enforceable protections against state and municipal policies restricting the access of African Americans to register to vote and have access to the ballot.

“I want to be the president… who protected the right of every citizen to vote in every election,” Johnson continued. And so “…I came here to ask you [Congress] to share this task with me and to share it with the people that we work for. I want this to be the Congress – Republicans and Democrats alike – which did all these things for all these people.”

Five months later, on August 6, President Johnson officially signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act into law, effectively ending the legal era of Jim Crow in the American South. It also forecasted a notable shift in the strategies and tactics of individual states, in their efforts to reclaim power from the federal government.

This tension between local autonomy and federal oversight reaches back to the very foundation of American government. It was one of the fundamental fights in the Civil War and the attempted Reconstruction that followed, and it was a critical pillar of Johnson’s 1965 call for a national voting rights law. And, as the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision indicates, it continues to pervade politics and policy in the United States today.

Abigail Perkiss is an assistant professor of history at Kean University in Union, New Jersey and a fellow at the Kean Center for History, Politics, and Policy. Her first book, Making Good Neighbors: Civil Rights, Liberalism, and Integration in Post-War Philadelphia, examines this experience of interracial living in American cities.

Follow her on twitter at @abiperk and visit her website at www.abigailperkiss.com.

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