Securing the Right to Vote for African Americans

Although the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott made Martin Luther King, Jr., a national figure, the deaths of four Birmingham girls in a 1963 church bombing, as well as countless others, had been tough to swallow. Yet King and others under his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) umbrella returned to the contentious state in January 1965 to begin Project Alabama, a campaign to secure federal protection for voting rights.

Getting arrested again

To bring attention to Alabama's voting inequities, King needed authorities to arrest him and others. On February 1, he succeeded by leading a group of demonstrators in defiance of the July 1963 judgment banning all meetings and marches in Selma. When authorities, led by Sheriff Jim Clark, arrested him, local black students marched in defiance and police arrested them, which is what King anticipated. The national media captured the sequence of events.

During a peaceful march on February 18, the situation became very dramatic when 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot and killed trying to protect his mother from the blows of a billy club. His death galvanized momentum for a federal voter registration law. Once again, the American public placed civil rights at the top of the nation's agenda.

Then on Sunday, March 7, a group of 600 people, led by Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Chairman John Lewis and SCLC's Hosea Williams, defied the armed Alabama state troopers blocking their way and attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. As the group marched, ignoring Major John Cloud's demand to turn around, officers charged them, in the process trampling, whipping, beating, and tear-gassing them. Referred to as Bloody Sunday, the event was captured by the media and broadcast nationwide on the evening news. The ABC network even preempted its showing of the film Judgment at Nuremberg with coverage from Selma.

Marching from Selma to Montgomery

After Bloody Sunday, a court order banned King from leading a second march on March 9, so King took the group of protesters to the edge of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, knelt in prayer, and turned the group back.

With court approval and the protection of armed forces, King led a third march from Selma to Montgomery on Sunday, March 21. King, with wife Coretta as well as Rosa Parks and several other key civil rights leaders by his side, reached the state capitol on March 25. Approximately 25,000 people attended the victory rally.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965

Without Selma, it's doubtful that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would ever have passed. Although black men had received the right to vote with the Fifteenth Amendment, and the Nineteenth amendment had extended voting rights to all women, Southern states actively hindered black voting by using several methods, the two most popular being the poll tax and literacy tests:

  • Poll tax: Black voters, many of whom were poor, were charged fees to deter them from voting.
  • Literacy test: In order to vote, black Southerners, many of them with little formal education, were given a myriad of tasks such as reciting parts of the Constitution to the administrator's satisfaction, transcribing passages from the Constitution, and answering obscure technical questions such as, "How many people can testify against a person denying his guilt of treason?"

With Southern states actively stopping African Americans from voting, a practice that had gone on for decades, the federal government finally stepped in. On August 6, 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) into law.

Key features of the law include

  • Federal supervision of voter registration in areas where less than 50 percent of the nonwhite population hadn't registered to vote: Instead of waiting for grievances to be filed, the federal government became proactive in identifying areas where whites were intimidating blacks from voting.
  • Federal approval of change in local voting laws: In areas with a history of disenfranchisement as well as less than 50 percent of the black population registered to vote, the federal government had to approve any changes in voting requirements.
  • Prohibition of literacy tests: The federal government banned the use of literacy tests for all American voters.
  • Authorizing the U.S. attorney general to investigate the use of poll taxes. Although the VRA itself didn't ban poll taxes, that change did come eventually. While the Twenty-fourth Amendment, passed in 1964, banned the use of poll taxes in federal elections, the Supreme Court banned the use of poll taxes in state elections in 1966 with Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections.

The VRA made it emphatically clear that the nation as a whole would no longer tolerate blatant voter discrimination. The law made an immediate impact. Within three weeks, more than 27,000 African Americans in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana registered to vote. Renewed four times since its passage, the VRA received a 25-year extension in 2006.

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