For Educators: Voting Rights Act of 1965

Introductory Essay

Following the Civil War, African Americans received citizenship rights through a number of legislative achievements including the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 which gave African Americans the right to vote and prohibited racial discrimination in voting. Even with these protections in place, many southern states resisted racial equality and skirted the law by administering tests designed to prevent African Americans from registering to vote and thus keeping them from participating in the electoral process.

In March 1965, on a bridge outside Selma, Alabama, civil rights activists, led by Dr. King and others, took to the streets in a peaceful protest for voting rights for African Americans. They were met with clubs and violence. Many were beaten and severely injured, including a young activist named John Lewis—later to be Congressman Lewis.

But the activists did not march in vain. Television brought this conflict of angry violence against peaceful, moral protest into living rooms across America.

Five days later, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, introduced to Congress the idea of a Voting Rights Act in what is considered to be one of his best speeches:

"Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. Yet the harsh fact is that in many places, in this country, men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes. Every device of which human ingenuity is capable has been used to deny this right. The Negro citizen may go to register only to be told that the day is wrong, or the hour is late, or the official in charge is late, or the official in charge is absent. And if he persists and he manages to present himself to register, he may be disqualified because he did not spell out his middle name or because he abbreviated a word on his application. And if he manages to fill out an application he is given a test. The register is the sole judge of whether he passes his test. He may be asked to recite the entire constitution, or explain the most complex provisions of state laws. And even a college degree cannot be used to prove that he can read and write. For the fact is that the only way to pass these barriers is to show a white skin. This bill will strike down restrictions to voting in all elections—federal, State, and local—which have been used to deny Negroes the right to vote."

President Johnson announced to a joint session of Congress that he would bring them an effective voting rights bill. Echoing the spiritual anthem of the civil rights movement, he said simply, "We Shall Overcome."

On August 6, 1965, President Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act, hailed by many as the most effective civil rights law ever.

The Act outlawed literacy tests and poll taxes as a way of assessing whether anyone was fit or unfit to vote. As far as Johnson was concerned, all you needed to vote was American citizenship and the registration of your name on an electoral list. No form of hindrance to this would be tolerated by the courts.

The impact of this act was dramatic. By the end of 1966, only four out of the traditional 13 Southern states had less than 50% of African Americans registered to vote. By 1968, even hard-line Mississippi had 59% of African Americans registered. In the longer term, far more African Americans were elected into public office. A few years later, when the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) was established in 1971, there were thirteen members of the U.S. House of Representatives and one black member of the U.S. Senate. The Act was the boost that the civil rights cause needed to move swiftly along. It was a combination of demonstrations and federal support which paved the way for this important legislation. President Johnson proved this and his efforts were labeled by some as a "legislative revolution."

The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) leads the fight to protect the provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The CBC's tireless efforts to protect the rights of underrepresented people resulted in the amendments and reauthorization of various provisions of the Voting Rights Act in 1970, 1975, 1982 and 2006. Since its inception, the CBC has introduced and co-sponsored legislation ensuring that all Americans have fair and equal opportunity to participate in the election process.

Recently, the CBC members rallied in support of the Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006. Initially the bill was stalled in the House, but the Senate voted unanimously to renew the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It was passed and signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2006.

Excerpts from:
Voting Rights Act of 1965 Online Exhibit at
Protect Voting Rights: Renew the VRA at

additional information and links.