Congress Passes the Voting Rights Act Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, passed by Congress, was the most significant extension of voting rights to African Americans since the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Summary of Event

The Voting Rights Act was the culmination of a ninety-five-year effort to extend voting rights to all Americans regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” These words are from the Fifteenth Amendment Fifteenth Amendment Constitution, U.S.;Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave Congress the power to pass “appropriate legislation” to ensure voting rights. Although this amendment was ratified on March 30, 1870, it was not until 1965 that the U.S. Congress exercised that power in a significant fashion. Congress had indeed proposed the Twenty-fourth Amendment, outlawing poll taxes for federal elections, but that measure required ratification by the states. In less than two years, thirty-eight states had ratified this amendment, making it part of the Constitution on January 23, 1964. This action was important but did not reflect the kind of positive congressional response called for by civil rights leaders. Voting Rights Act (1965) African Americans;voting rights Voting rights;African Americans [kw]Congress Passes the Voting Rights Act (Aug. 6, 1965) [kw]Voting Rights Act, Congress Passes the (Aug. 6, 1965) [kw]Rights Act, Congress Passes the Voting (Aug. 6, 1965) [kw]Act, Congress Passes the Voting Rights (Aug. 6, 1965) Voting Rights Act (1965) African Americans;voting rights Voting rights;African Americans [g]North America;Aug. 6, 1965: Congress Passes the Voting Rights Act[08490] [g]United States;Aug. 6, 1965: Congress Passes the Voting Rights Act[08490] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Aug. 6, 1965: Congress Passes the Voting Rights Act[08490] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Aug. 6, 1965: Congress Passes the Voting Rights Act[08490] [c]Social issues and reform;Aug. 6, 1965: Congress Passes the Voting Rights Act[08490] Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;civil rights King, Martin Luther, Jr. [p]King, Martin Luther, Jr.;civil rights legislation Katzenbach, Nicholas de Belleville

Poll taxes had been merely one of many devices used in the South to discourage blacks from exercising their constitutional right to vote. Literacy tests, examinations, and errors or omissions on applications were also used to deny suffrage to blacks. The Twenty-fourth Amendment had symbolic importance, but it did not provide the kind of sweeping reforms that were needed. This was accomplished by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

It is difficult to pinpoint what brought the voting rights issue into focus in 1965, but it was only one part of the larger civil rights issue. The voting rights sections of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were among the least controversial aspects of that legislation. In the eyes of most civil rights advocates, greater electoral strength was the appropriate means of allowing black Americans to secure their rights. This was the position of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964. Its actions, together with the 1965 Freedom March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, seem to have been pivotal events in the voting rights movement in the United States.

The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) began as a grassroots effort to forge a political union among blacks, labor, and poor whites. The party’s efforts to participate in regular Democratic party meetings throughout the state met with little success. After meeting with numerous obstacles, the MFDP decided to challenge the all-white delegation that the Mississippi Democrats were sending to the 1964 Democratic convention. Using the rules set by the Democratic National Committee, the MFDP chose forty-four delegates and twenty-two alternates to attend the national convention in Atlantic City.

President Lyndon B. Johnson was concerned about the plight of the MFDP, but he wanted to keep as many mainstream southern votes as possible. He attempted to work out a compromise between Mississippi’s regular delegation and the MFDP at the convention, but the nationally televised battle before the Credentials Committee gave many Democratic Party Democratic Party, U.S. officials a clearer picture of the extent and nature of voter discrimination in the South. In this respect, the actions of the MFDP greatly advanced the cause of voting rights reform.

As soon as his reelection was secured, President Johnson started exploring legislative options for removing obstacles to voter registration and participation. Attorney General Nicholas de Belleville Katzenbach presented the president with a variety of approaches. One was a constitutional amendment limiting the requirements states could impose for voter registration, including age, residency, felony convictions, and mental stability. The primary objective of this approach was to remove literacy requirements. Another proposal was to create a federal commission to handle registration for all federal elections. Katzenbach also proposed using federal agents to supervise and monitor registration in states and regions where voter discrimination could be verified. As President Johnson pondered these legislative options, others pressed for fast and decisive action.

In early 1965, voting rights activists focused the nation’s attention on Alabama. Dallas County was one of the most obvious examples of voter discrimination in America. The population in Dallas County was 57.6 percent black, yet only 335 of its 9,542 registered voters were black. The registration process in Dallas County was one of the most cumbersome in the nation, and there were only two days each month when one could attempt to register. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) led demonstrations on the steps of the courthouse in Selma, the county seat, in order to attract attention. After Jimmie Lee Jackson was killed in a similar demonstration in nearby Marion, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) planned a march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital. Alabama state troopers turned the marchers back on their first attempt, using violence and tear gas to restrain the marchers. A limited march eventually took place.

The sheer brutality of events in Selma produced a national outcry for swift action to protect the voting rights of all Americans. On March 17, President Johnson, after consulting with Martin Luther King, Jr., submitted a comprehensive voting rights bill to the U.S. Congress. Johnson’s bill called for federal monitoring of registration and voting in states with a clear history of discrimination. In the Senate, there were sixty-six cosponsors to the bill but there was also considerable opposition from some key southerners. One of the most controversial issues during the floor debate in the Senate was whether to ban poll taxes in state and local elections. The Senate passed a version of the bill with the poll tax ban removed on May 26, by a vote of 77-19.

In the House of Representatives, the Republicans offered a substitute bill that allowed poll taxes but also permitted judicial proceedings when such taxes were found to be discriminatory. Southern Democrats started defending it as the lesser of the evils. On July 9, the House passed the bill by a vote of 333-85. In less than a month, the conference report had passed both houses. On August 6, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Significance

Two key provisions in the act were the creation of federal examiners to determine an individual’s qualifications to vote and the abolition of literacy tests. An aggressive Justice Department, under Attorney General Katzenbach, moved swiftly to implement the new law. On August 7, the department suspended literacy tests and other discriminatory measures in seven states. The entire states of Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia were affected. Suspension or investigations occurred within certain counties in Arizona, Idaho, Maine, and North Carolina. By August 9, the first groups of federal examiners were assigned to help blacks register in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. In fewer than three weeks, 27,385 blacks were added to the voter registration rolls in those three states alone.

From 1964 to 1969, voter registration among blacks in the South rose by almost 30 percent, while registration for whites increased by 10 percent. The most significant change for blacks occurred in Mississippi, where only 6.7 percent of adult blacks had been registered in 1964. By 1969, that figure had risen to 66.5 percent. The act was not without controversy. South Carolina challenged the constitutionality of the “triggering” provision, which authorized federal examiners for a state or political subdivision if the attorney general determined that there had been discriminatory devices in place on November 1, 1964, and if the director of the census determined that less than 50 percent of the voting-age residents in that area either were not registered or did not vote in the 1964 presidential election. South Carolina argued that such a provision denied the states equal protection, violated the due process clause, constituted a bill of attainder, and violated the separation of powers provision. The U.S. Supreme Court, in South Carolina v. Katzenbach (1966) South Carolina v. Katzenbach (1966) Supreme Court, U.S.;voting rights , found the Voting Rights Act to be a logical and consistent expression of the Fifteenth Amendment.

There has been some disappointment over the long-term effect of this act. By the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the progress toward enfranchisement had lost its steam. Removing legal barriers was a necessary but not always sufficient means to ensure citizen participation. Katzenbach observed that the presence of examiners was not enough. Local efforts had to organize registration campaigns actively. Individuals who had been excluded from the political process needed experience and political education before they could exercise their new political clout. Voting Rights Act (1965) African Americans;voting rights Voting rights;African Americans

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goldman, Eric F. The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969. An insider’s discussion of the personal relationships and thoughts that helped shape the development of the Voting Rights Act within the Johnson administration. A sympathetic yet fair statement of the trade-offs that were taken into consideration by the president as he developed his plan and chose among the different options available.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Behind the Selma March.” Saturday Review 48 (April, 1965): 316-318. A short but concise statement on the expectations of the Freedom March. This piece reveals more than just the thinking that went into this act; it exposes some of the passion behind the entire Civil Rights movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lawson, Steven F. Black Ballots: Voting Rights in the South, 1944-1969. 1976. New ed. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 1999. A valuable resource on the development of the black suffrage movement. Especially useful to people interested in the obstacles that confronted reform-minded individuals during the two decades preceding the major legislative breakthroughs of the mid-1960’s. Contains a complete list of references and a thorough index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCarty, Thorne, and Russell B. Stevenson. Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Review 3 (Spring, 1968): 357-411. This essay provides an insightful early appraisal of the results of the Voting Rights Act. In addition to its analysis, there are some very helpful data that put the issue in perspective. Also addresses the issue of leadership within the black community.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Matthews, Donald, and James W. Prothro. Negroes and the New Southern Politics. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966. A good general resource with an especially helpful bibliography. Chapter 10 has an especially illustrative discussion of some of the frustrations that grew out of the Civil Rights movement after significant legislative successes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Valelly, Richard M., ed. The Voting Rights Act: Securing the Ballot. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2006. A pointed analysis of the legislative and political history of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Also discusses the history of African Americans and suffrage. Recommended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zelden, Charles L. Voting Rights on Trial: A Handbook with Cases, Laws, and Documents. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2002. A comprehensive collection of significant documents detailing cases and laws regarding the right to vote in the United States. Includes discussion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A good resource.

Supreme Court Rules African American Disenfranchisement Unconstitutional

Supreme Court Ends Public School Segregation

Congress Creates the Commission on Civil Rights

Civil Rights Act of 1960

Council of Federated Organizations Registers African Americans to Vote

Poll Taxes Are Outlawed

Three Civil Rights Workers Are Murdered

Congress Passes the Civil Rights Act of 1964

U.S. Voting Age Is Lowered to Eighteen

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