Dawn of the Voting Rights Act – Voting Rights Act of 1965

President Lyndon B. Johnson greeting Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and other civil rights leaders after signing the Voting Rights Act into law, 1965 (Public Domain)

Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 eliminated all forms of discrimination on the grounds of race, ethnicity, sex, or national origin, it did not fully address the ongoing troubles of voting discrimination. With the Democratic Party’s near-landslide victory in the 1964 Election, several civil rights groups lobbied Congress to pursue federal intervention in defending the voting rights of ethnic minorities. As peaceful protests by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were met with increasing violence by state authorities in Alabama, President Lyndon B. Johnson led a televised joint session of Congress on March 15, 1965. His speech called for nationwide support for the voting rights demonstrators, condemned the violence of the state authorities at the protests, and made frequent use of the phrase, “we shall overcome.” The phrase had been used as a rallying cry throughout the Civil Rights Movement, and its use by the then-President was considered to be a legitimization of the movement, allowing for more support to come. Soon after, the notable voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama had tens of thousands of peaceful protestors being protected by federal authorities. Meanwhile, the deliberations for a full Voting Rights Act in Congress began.

After months of Congressional deliberation, the Voting Rights Act passed the House of Representatives and the Senate. On August 6, 1965 – at a ceremony with Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, future U.S. Representative John Lewis, and several other civil rights leaders in attendance – Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. The act granted the right to vote to all Americans regardless of ethnic identity, sex, national origin, or other such factors. To protect the power of the act, a series of provisions were included in the Act, each with a distinct purpose in regulating federal and state elections. Two of the most important provisions are Section 2 and Section 5. Section 2 prohibits federal, state, and local governments from implementing voting rules that “results in the denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen to vote on account of race or color.” Section 5 created a special system of “preclearance,” where certain jurisdictions across the country were not allowed to make any changes in their voting laws without prior approval from the U.S. District Court for D.C., or the Attorney General of the United States. These special provisions were specifically designed to prevent any of the states, particularly those in the South, from undermining the voting rights of anyone. The VRA allowed all citizens in the United States, including ethnic minorities, the right to vote as they saw fit for the first time without any fear of discrimination. By its impact on expanding the natural rights of American citizens, the VRA has been considered by the U.S. Department of Justice to be the “farthest reaching civil rights legislation in history.”

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

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