Road to the Voting Rights Act – A Century of Civil Rights

Group of “Silent Sentinels” calling for women’s suffrage in front of the White House, 1917 (Public Domain)

The passage of the Fifteenth Amendment granted the right to vote to all American men. As the former Confederate states returned to the Union, they rewrote their laws with the intention of disenfranchising the millions of newly-freed African-Americans in the South. Such laws included poll taxes, literacy tests, and “grandfather clauses.” In spite of the unconstitutionality of these rights violations, the U.S. Supreme Court of the late-19th century upheld them, on the grounds that they were all an exercise of the “states rights” of the Southern states. Although African-American men in the Northern states could vote, the majority of the national population lived in the Southern states. As such, these new laws effectively rendered African-Americans powerless in the electoral process.

As the United States entered the 20th century, the first major advancement for voting rights came in 1913. The Seventeenth Amendment declared that the election of Senators would now be determined by the citizenry, granting the American people more political influence over state politics. Seven years later in the aftermath of World War I, the Nineteenth Amendment expanded the right to vote to women. Although African-Americans remained largely disenfranchised in the first-half of the 20th century, other ethnic groups began to make major strides in advancing their civil rights. In 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act granted the right to vote to all Indigenous peoples in the United States. Later in 1943, the Magnuson Act extended full citizenship and voting rights to all Americans of Chinese descent.

It was towards the midway point of the 20th century where the next major push for voting rights took hold. Earl Warren – then-Chief Justice of the Supreme Court – oversaw a series of landmark decisions centered around the political tenet of “one man, one vote.” Two major Supreme Court decisions in 1964 helped to fortify fair electoral power for the American people. Reynolds v. Sims determined that all state legislatures had to have representation based on populations that were roughly-equal in population size. Wesberry v. Sanders further declared that all districts in the U.S. House of Representatives must be roughly equal in population to each other, so as to maintain consistency in voting power across the country. The most significant development for expanding voting rights in 1964 was the passage of the Twenty-fourth Amendment, which banned all poll taxes from both federal and state elections. These major strides in voting rights took place amid the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, where calls for reform by common citizens, interest groups, and politicians alike would redefine the meaning of equality before the law.

Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

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