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Thursday, August 6, 2015

50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act

LBJ signs Voting Rights Act of 1965 as MLK looks on.
MLK was assassinated in 1968.
On this day in 1965, LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act, guarantees the rights of all American citizens to vote.

The law makes it illegal to impose restrictions on federal, state and local elections designed to deny the vote to some citizens, notably blacks.

Johnson was elected Vice President under JFK. He President in November 1963 upon the JFK's assassination. In the presidential race of 1964, Johnson was elected in a lopsided victory and used the mandate to push for legislation he believed in, including stronger voting-rights laws.

LBJ would have taken cautious steps toward greater voter participation, but in March 1965, television viewers watched as state troopers in Selma, Alabama, attacked a group of peaceful protestors who were marching to the capitol. A week later, President Johnson gave a televised speech before Congress, in which he said:
I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy. The command of the Constitution is plain. There is no moral issue. It is wrong to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote ... [A]ll of us ... must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.
Robert Caro, in an eloquent introduction to his bestselling book, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent, volume 2 of his biography of LBJ, explains to future generations of students of history the significance of the last sentence of this quote.

Martin Luther King Jr. was watching the address at the home of a family in Selma, Ala., on television that night with some aides. None of these aides "during all the years of struggle ... had ever seen Dr. King cry." When LBJ got to "we shall overcome", "they were looking when Martin Luther King began to cry" (Caro, 1991, p. xx.)

When the president signed the legislation a few months later, MLK and other civil rights leaders were present. The law was designed to enforce the 15th Amendment of the Constitution ratified in 1870, entitling all male citizens to vote. The 1870 law was extended by the 19th Amendment 50 years later - in August 1920, when the last required state (Tennessee) ratified it - to include all women as well as men.

In his speech to Congress on March 15, 1965, Johnson outlined the ways in which election officials denied African-American citizens the vote:
  • On the day of election, officials told blacks they gotten the date, time or polling place wrong, that the officials were late or absent, or that the prospective voters hadn't filled out an application.
  • Election officials required literacy skills.  Voting officials, primarily in southern states, had been known to force black voters to “recite the entire constitution or explain the most complex provisions of state laws”.
  • Even blacks with college degrees were turned away from the polls. 
Caro in Master of the Senate, volume 3 of his LBJ biography, gives many vivid examples of how blacks were disenfranchised. An African-American woman who had studied hard to pass the literacy test failed her test because someone else the same day could not answer a question.

Even after the Voting Rights Act passed, state and local enforcement of the law was weak and even  ignored, but African-American voters now had a basis for challenging voting restrictions in Federal courts. Problems with voter suppression did not end, but they diminished. The new law was followed by a huge increase in voter turnout - in Mississippi, voter turnout among blacks rose to 59 percent in 1969, from 6 percent just five years earlier.

In 1970, President Richard Nixon extended the provisions of the Voting Rights Act and lowered the eligible voting age for all voters to 18.

Jerry Goldfeder of Stroock Stroock & Lavan offers a free update on voting rights in the USA in August 2015.

Some are deeply concerned that new moves for voter suppression threaten the achievements to date.