U.S. Congress Bans Literacy Tests for Voting Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Voting Rights Act of 1975 formally ended use of literacy tests for the purpose of denying voting rights to language minorities in the United States.

Summary of Event

Civil rights became a central concern of American politics in the 1960’s. Numerous civil rights acts were passed during that decade, and none was more important for the extension of voting rights in particular than the Voting Rights Act 1965. Voting Rights Act (1965) The 1975 extension of this act included a ban on literacy tests for minorities. Many consider these acts to be the most important extensions of rights ever granted by Congress. In American history, the only actions that surpass the 1965 and 1975 voting rights acts in importance for extending voting rights are the Fifteenth (1870) Fifteenth Amendment (U.S. Constitution) and Nineteenth (1920) Nineteenth Amendment (U.S. Constitution) Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which, respectively, prohibited denial of voting rights on the basis of race, color, or previous servitude and granted the vote to women. Voting Rights Act (1975) Voting rights;literacy tests [kw]U.S. Congress Bans Literacy Tests for Voting (Aug. 6, 1975) [kw]Congress Bans Literacy Tests for Voting, U.S. (Aug. 6, 1975) [kw]Bans Literacy Tests for Voting, U.S. Congress (Aug. 6, 1975) [kw]Literacy Tests for Voting, U.S. Congress Bans (Aug. 6, 1975) [kw]Voting, U.S. Congress Bans Literacy Tests for (Aug. 6, 1975) Voting Rights Act (1975) Voting rights;literacy tests [g]North America;Aug. 6, 1975: U.S. Congress Bans Literacy Tests for Voting[02020] [g]United States;Aug. 6, 1975: U.S. Congress Bans Literacy Tests for Voting[02020] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Aug. 6, 1975: U.S. Congress Bans Literacy Tests for Voting[02020] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Aug. 6, 1975: U.S. Congress Bans Literacy Tests for Voting[02020] Mansfield, Mike Byrd, Robert Rodino, Peter Edwards, Don Ford, Gerald R. [p]Ford, Gerald R.;Voting Rights Act

By the mid-1960’s, the number of demonstrations by civil rights Civil Rights movement groups had increased considerably. Violence surrounding even the “peaceful” demonstrations had intensified their impact. President Lyndon B. Johnson Johnson, Lyndon B. had hoped that the states would address voting rights problems within their own borders. The federal government attempted to assist states by removing some of the obstacles to voting rights. One clear example was President Johnson’s leadership in securing the passage of the Twenty-fourth Amendment in 1964, Twenty-fourth Amendment (U.S. Constitution)[Twenty fourth Amendment] outlawing the use of poll taxes Poll taxes as a necessary prerequisite of voting in federal elections. This was a major step in encouraging minorities to exercise their voting rights.

Although the Twenty-fourth Amendment was a major electoral breakthrough, it had the same shortcoming as the civil rights acts Congress approved in 1957, 1960, and 1964: It left the federal government in a passive role in the crucial area of voter registration. The voting rights acts of 1965, 1970, and 1975 overcame this critical shortcoming.

The history of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is also the history of the Voting Rights Act of 1975, since the later action was an extension of the earlier act. The 1965 act largely was forced on President Johnson and others who hoped that the federal government could avoid direct intervention in what historically had been a local prerogative. Public opinion grew intolerant and impatient after a series of bloody demonstrations. By most accounts, the decisive event that led to congressional action in 1965 was the Freedom March Freedom March (1965) from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., King, Martin Luther, Jr. organized this march to protest the registration process in Dallas County. Like other marches during this period, it drew marchers from the entire nation. What distinguished this particular march was the violence that erupted when Governor George C. Wallace Wallace, George C. called out state troopers to stop the march. The clash between marchers and troopers resulted in the deaths of two marchers and severe injuries to scores of others.

This conflict produced an outburst of demonstrations and protest across the nation. The cries for an end to this violence forced President Johnson to introduce a comprehensive voting rights bill to the U.S. Congress. The final version of this bill, which Johnson signed into law on August 6, ended literacy tests in the states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia and in thirty-nine counties in North Carolina.

The other key provision of this law was the authorization of federal examiners to conduct registration and federal observers to oversee elections. The states and counties within the affected jurisdictions also had to submit any changes in their election laws and procedures to federal examiners for clearance. The literacy provision affected southern states primarily, but the broader jurisdiction of the act affected states in every region of the nation.

The voting rights act was due for renewal in 1970. In June of that year, Congress extended the act and made some significant changes. The major changes in the 1970 amendments were a ban on literacy tests in all states, prohibition of long-term residency requirements Voting rights;residency requirements for voting in presidential elections, and establishment of eighteen as the legal age for voting in national elections. Like the 1965 act, this legislation had a five-year life.

The 1970 act created two distinct legal categories, general and special. The general provisions dealt with literacy tests, voting age, residency requirements, and penalties for interfering with voting rights. The general provisions were permanent laws that were applied nationally. The special provisions, like the 1965 act, were selectively applied to areas where such provisions were deemed necessary. States or counties were subjected to the special provisions if they had any test or device established as a prerequisite to either registration or voting and had less than half of the registered voters participate in the presidential elections of 1964 or 1968. The courts could also apply the special provisions to other electoral districts if the attorney general successfully brought suit against them for violating the Fifteenth Amendment.

Areas subjected to the special provisions were placed under additional federal controls. There was a provision for the suspension of literacy and other test devices beyond the ban. Federal examiners were assigned to these areas to conduct registration drives, and federal observers were sent into these areas to monitor elections. In addition, similar to the 1965 act, these areas had to submit any changes in voting laws or procedures to the federal government for clearance. The special provisions could be lifted from a state or county if it successfully filed suit in a three-judge federal district court in Washington, D.C. Such suits had to convince the court that the voter tests or devices in use were not discriminatory.

Like the 1965 act, the 1970 amendments required reconsideration and renewal after five years. In preparation for this renewal, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights prepared an extensive report for the president and Congress in January of 1975. The report, The Voting Rights Act: Ten Years After, set the tone for the congressional debate that was to follow. In general, the report found that minority participation in the electoral process had increased significantly since 1965. Discriminatory practices, however, were still hampering minority registration and voting. The report suggested a number of changes, the most controversial of which were its recommendation of a ten-year extension of the act and its call for greater attention to language minorities, or those who did not speak English.

In February, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights began hearings on extending the Voting Rights Act. Although many different bills were introduced in both the House and the Senate, the one that worked its way successfully through both chambers was H.R. 6219. After swift movement through the committee system, this bill passed the House of Representatives on June 4 by a vote of 341 to 70.

Efforts to stall this bill when it was sent to the Senate proved unsuccessful. Senator James Eastland, Eastland, James chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a strong opponent of the bill, put off action until mid-July. The tactics used by Senator Eastland proved unsuccessful when the Senate leadership under Mike Mansfield managed to bring the House bill directly to the Senate floor. When it appeared that the bill’s opponents would stall it on the Senate floor. Majority Leader Mansfield and Majority Whip Robert Byrd skillfully passed two cloture motions (limiting debate) to get the bill passed. After considerable parliamentary maneuvering, the Senate leadership managed to get seventeen proposed amendments rejected or tabled. The one area where the bill’s opponents succeeded was an amendment that limited the extension to seven years instead of ten. Once this issue was settled, the Senate passed the bill by a vote of 77 to 12.

The House quickly made some expedient rules changes that allowed it to accept the Senate version of the bill without going to a conference committee. The House then voted 346-56 to accept the Senate version and sent the bill to President Gerald R. Ford. President Ford signed the voting rights extension into law on August 6, 1975.

Significance

The passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1975 extended the rights secured by the initial 1965 act through August 6, 1982. This portion of the act, Title I, added little to the previous legislation. The most significant changes were the result of Titles II and III of the 1975 act. Title II of the new act expanded the basic protection of the old legislation to certain language minorities: persons of Spanish heritage, American Indians, Asian Americans, and Native Alaskans. Federal observers could be sent into areas if more than 5 percent of the voting-age population was identified by the Census Bureau as a single-language minority, election material for the 1972 presidential election was printed in English only, or less than half of the voting-age citizens had voted in the 1974 presidential election.

As with the earlier acts, areas could be removed from Title II jurisdiction by appealing their case successfully to the federal district court in Washington, D.C. They had to prove that their election laws had posed no barrier to voting over the past ten years.

The provisions in Title III of the act required certain jurisdictions, those with at least 5 percent non-English-speaking populations, to conduct bilingual elections. The interesting twist to this provision was that areas could drop the bilingual elections if they could prove that the illiteracy rate among their language minority had dropped below the national illiteracy rate. States and their subdivisions could free themselves from these federal regulations by improving the educational opportunities of their language minorities.

Many people believe the 1975 Voting Rights Act to be the most significant expansion of suffrage rights outside the South since the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. It was clearly the most significant ever for language minorities. The legislation gave access to the electoral process to a significant number of language minorities and expanded voting rights enforcement to numerous jurisdictions outside the South. The Justice Department identified 513 political jurisdictions in thirty states that provided bilingual elections Bilingual elections in 1976. All of these bilingual elections were a direct result of the Voting Rights Act of 1975. The number of electoral districts required to seek clearance for changes in their election laws increased by 279 after this enactment. Voting Rights Act (1975) Voting rights;literacy tests

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Controversy over Extension of the Federal Voting Rights Act.” Congressional Digest 54 (June/July, 1975): 163-192. One of the best summaries of the arguments both for and against the voting rights extension. It contains edited versions of speeches presented in Congress as well as position papers presented by interest groups on both sides of the issue.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hudson, David M. Along Racial Lines: Consequences of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. New York: Peter Lang, 1998. Explores the impact and implications of the voting rights law and illustrates its effects in three communities representing major American minority groups.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lawson, Steven. Black Ballots: Voting Rights in the South, 1944-1969. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976. A valuable resource on the development of the black suffrage movement. Especially useful for people interested in the obstacles that confronted reform-minded individuals during the two decades that preceded 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">McDonald, Laughlin. A Voting Rights Odyssey: Black Enfranchisement in Georgia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. McDonald, a lawyer, chronicles the efforts by the white leadership in Georgia to maintain their power by denying blacks the right to vote or hold power. The book begins with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Matthews, Donald R., 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">Stanley, Harold W. Voter Mobilization and the Politics of Race: The South and Universal Suffrage, 1952-1984. New York: Praeger, 1987. A good general resource on the impact of suffrage reform in the South. Its main shortcoming is that it does not cover the impact of this legislation outside that region. Shows the complexity of this topic within the South.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The Voting Rights Act: Ten Years After. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1975. One of the best resources on this topic. Readily available at any library with government documents. A fine brief history of the impact of the voting rights acts of 1965 and 1970, combined with recommendations for extension in 1975. This report was the focal point of the debate in Congress in 1975.

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