The Voting Rights Act of 1965

Without Freedom Summer and Selma, it’s doubtful that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would have ever 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. The Voting Rights Act hindered these practices.

Although several methods were used to discriminate, the two more popular were 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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