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The Voting Rights Act of 1965
In honor of Black History Month, all month long we will be sharing the legacies and stories of the heroes, sheroes, and events in the fight for Black suffrage on social media under the hashtag #VRABlackHistory. Follow us on Twitter (@VRAmatters) to share your own facts.   

Today we honor the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the landmark legislation that "...outlawed the discriminatory voting practices adopted in many southern states after the Civil War, including literacy tests as a prerequisite to voting. This 'act to enforce the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution' was signed into law 95 years after the amendment was ratified."

The key of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is that it was truly transformative for African-American voting rights. In Alabama and other states voter suppression methods, such as grandfather clauses, literacy tests, poll taxes, and other obstacles, had virtually eliminated the Black vote and held Black registrants and voter turn out at a staggeringly low number.

"It was only eight days after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act on Aug. 6 of 1965 that federal voting examiners speedily dispatched to Selma, Ala., proceeded in a single day to register 381 new black voters, more than had managed to register in Dallas County over the last 65 years. Local Sheriff Jim Clark’s hair-trigger resort to physical violence against would-be black registrants had left little doubt of his determination that such a day would never come for his town. Yet, ironically, he had actually helped to assure that it did, when, back in March of that year, he led the charge in the savage 'Bloody Sunday' beating and maiming of voting-rights marchers, an event that had sparked national outrage and spurred demands for stronger federal intervention. By November, the county had 8,000 new black voters—and, not coincidentally, after the next May’s primary elections it would have a new sheriff as well, leaving Jim Clark to try his hand at selling mobile homes." (emphasis added)

"The most important permanent provisions [of the Voting Rights Act] are Section 2, which bans racial discrimination in voting nationwide, and Sections 4 and 201, which ban literacy tests nationwide. The most important temporary provisions - provisions that get periodically reauthorized by Congress - are:

  • Section 5, which requires certain state and local governments (called 'covered jurisdictions') to 'preclear' proposed changes in voting or election procedures with either the U.S. Department of Justice or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia [which the 2013 Supreme Court decision Shelby v. Holder sadly changed], and [sic]
  • Section 203, which requires that certain state and local jurisdictions provide assistance in languages other than English to voters who are not literate or fluent in English. [sic]
  • Sections 6-9, which give the U.S. Attorney General the power to send federal examiners and observers to monitor elections." (emphasis added)
The Voting Rights Act set up these powerful provisions to give African Americans the rights and the legal tools to combat and overcome the disempowering voter restrictions.  "Initially, these provisions applied to every Deep South state except Florida, plus Virginia and some 40 counties in North Carolina. And they worked, nowhere more obviously than in Mississippi, where the percentage of eligible black voters registered ballooned from 7% in 1964 to 67% just five years later."

In a short period of time (within decades), African-American voter registration had significantly improved and there was a renaissance of African-Americans being elected to office. "By the mid-1980s there were more black people in public office across the South than in the rest of the nation combined [sic] Although the share of public officeholders still fell well short of the black share of the population, by 2001 the gap outside the South was nearly 4 times greater than within it." 

As you will see in subsequent articles, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been crippled by an assault of new voter suppression laws since 2011 and by the Supreme Court's decision of Shelby County v. Holder in June 2013.

Fun Facts:
  • "Even in still-impoverished areas, black political empowerment has brought a noticeable increase in the share of state transfer payments. James Button’s study of six Florida cities shows black municipal employment quadrupling between 1960 and 2000, with blacks occupying 25% of the supervisory positions by the end of that span."

  • "Maynard Jackson became Atlanta’s first black mayor in 1974 and by the time his successor Andrew Young left office in 1990, the city had granted almost 1,600 contracts to more than 600 minority-owned firms."

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