Photograph by Horace Cort, AP
Read Caption

Civil rights leaders recognized that securing voter rights was pivotal to ensuring equality for all. During the civil rights movement, volunteers led mass voter registration drives to increase Black voters in the South. Above, Rev. Fred C. Bennette Jr. registers voters in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1963.

Photograph by Horace Cort, AP

How the U.S. Voting Rights Act was won—and why it’s under fire today

In 1965, this historic civil rights law prohibited discrimination against Black voters. Though it has since been gutted, calls are mounting to renew it.

When Fannie Lou Hamer went to a county clerk’s office in Indianola, Mississippi, to register to vote in 1962, she was told to write an essay about a section of the Mississippi state constitution.

“That was impossible,” she recalled in an oral history recorded by the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Oral History & Cultural Heritage. “I didn't even know what it meant, much less [how] to interpret it.” Hamer was threatened with arrest on her way home—and when she got there, her landlord told her to withdraw her voter registration or get out. “I had to leave the same night,” she said.

Hamer’s experience was typical for Americans of color who attempted to vote in the South during the Jim Crow era, when state laws passed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries enforced segregation and racial discrimination. But three years after Hamer was first blocked at the polls, a landmark federal law prohibited the intimidation that she and other would-be voters experienced during an age of widespread voter suppression. Signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on August 6, 1965, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 enfranchised Americans who had been barred from exercising their constitutional rights for more than a century.

Several years after slavery was abolished in 1865, voting rights for all American men were enshrined in the Constitution. The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, affirmed Black Americans’ citizenship, and the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, forbade denying American citizens the right to vote based on their race.

But the reality was much different for people of color. Southern states erected legal barriers, such as confusing literacy tests and steep poll taxes, to exclude Black voters from exercising their constitutional rights. They regularly purged the voter rolls of Black citizens who had managed to register and held primaries that were only open to white voters. And when women won the right to vote with the 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920, women of color still faced widespread disenfranchisement. (Women fought for decades to win the right to vote.)

View Images

Police frisk a Black man for attempting to join the queue to register to vote in Selma, Alabama, in 1965.

State-sanctioned voter suppression was coupled with intimidation, violence, and social pressure throughout the South. People like Hamer were threatened with the loss of their homes, businesses, and even jobs if they insisted on voting—that is, if they could register at all. And on election day, white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan monitored polling sites to ensure registered Black voters would not vote.

Despite a wave of new voter registrations following the 15th Amendment, the number of Black male voters dwindled as Southern states imposed discriminatory voting laws. In Louisiana, for example, more than 130,000 Black voters registered in 1896, but only 1,342 in total were registered in 1904; more than 128,000 had been stripped from the rolls in the intervening years. Six decades later in 1962, only 5 percent of eligible Black voters in Mississippi had registered to vote. A U.S. Department of Justice report from that year noted 11 majority-Black Southern counties with no Black registered voters.

Civil rights leaders had long recognized that voter rights were pivotal to ensuring equality for all. But it would take years of grassroots organizing, protests, and upheaval to build national momentum for civil rights laws that protected all voters.

View Images

A police officer marches more than 400 singing protesters, mostly teenagers, to jail after a voter registration protest in Selma, Alabama, on February 5, 1965.

In 1964, civil rights efforts culminated in the Freedom Summer, a mass voter registration campaign in Mississippi, the state with the lowest number of Black registered voters. Over 10 weeks, more than 1,500 primarily white volunteers flooded the state to register voters. More than 60,000 Black Mississippians participated in meetings and a mock “Freedom Election” designed to show the power of the Black vote.

They were met by rage and violence. Three workers were murdered by Ku Klux Klan members at the beginning of the project, and throughout the rest of the summer at least 80 people were beaten, 35 shot, six killed, and a thousand arrested. Ultimately, only a few hundred Black people were accepted to the voter rolls. (This civil rights leader feared for his life after trying to cast a vote. It convinced him to join the movement.)

The summer raised national awareness of voter suppression and the ongoing denial of civil rights for Black people, and increased popular support for change. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 took effect in July 1964, prohibiting segregation and discrimination in public places and employment, but it did not provide much protection for voters. Although the act banned unequal application of voter standards, it didn’t eliminate literacy tests or outlaw violence and intimidation at the polls.

In 1965, activists turned their attention to a voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama. They participated in a series of high-profile demonstrations, including marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named for a former Alabama KKK leader and Confederate officer. During one march, Alabama state troopers and lawmen brutally attacked John Lewis, then the 25-year-old chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and other peaceful protesters. Televised footage of what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday” outraged and horrified the nation and finally compelled the federal government to act. Ten days later, on March 17, 1965, lawmakers introduced the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to Congress. Lewis went on to become a U.S. Congressman for the state of Georgia, a role in which he served for nearly 34 years as he continued to fight for the rights of all people.

On August 6, 1965, President Johnson signed into law the most sweeping voter rights protections the nation had ever seen. The Voting Rights Act abolished literacy tests and established federal oversight and authority over voter registration in areas with histories of voter discrimination—and required those jurisdictions to seek clearance from the federal government before changing voting guidelines.

The law spurred a tidal wave of voter registration. A quarter of a million Black people registered to vote in 1965 alone, and by the decade’s end, the percentage of eligible Black voters who were registered in the South increased from about 35 percent to nearly 65 percent. It was also a victory for all people of color, especially when the law was expanded in 1975 to forbid voting discrimination against people who spoke a language other than English, a step that effectively halted a purge of Latinos from voter rolls in Texas.

The Voting Rights Act was amended five times in the decades that followed, extending its coverage and increasing the government’s authority to determine where federal oversight was needed.

In recent years, though, legal attacks have eroded the federal government’s ability to enforce the law. State legislatures—mainly those controlled by Republicans in states with increased minority turnout, according to a University of Massachusetts Boston analysis—have challenged the Voting Rights Act by passing a wave of new restrictions, including voter ID laws and reduced early voting.

Those states won a key victory in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, when the Supreme Court struck down a key section of the act that allowed federal oversight of districts based on their histories of voter discrimination. Shelby County, Alabama claimed the formula used to make that determination was outdated and therefore unconstitutional. The Supreme Court issued a 5-to-4 ruling in Shelby County’s favor, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing that the formula was “based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relation to the present day.”

Within hours, Texas announced plans to bring a previously barred voter ID law into effect. North Carolina, Mississippi, and Alabama soon followed. In 2018, the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that at least 23 states from Arkansas to Washington State had enacted “newly restrictive” laws and said that the federal government now “has limited tools to address…potentially discriminatory voting procedures and hardly any tools to prevent voting discrimination before it takes place.” The panel recommended Congress restore voter discrimination protections that existed prior to the 2013 Supreme Court decision.

Defenders of the Voting Rights Act have since pressured Congress to amend the law to include a new formula—one that relies on current data—to determine which districts need to obtain federal clearance before changing their voting laws. In 2019, civil rights leader John Lewis presided over the passage of a bill in the House of Representatives that did just that, though the bill was not taken up by the Republican-led Senate. While calls to action intensified after Lewis’ death in July 2020, the bill would require the support of both houses of Congress.

It’s unclear if legislators will restore the law to its full strength any time soon. But there’s no question that the landmark legislation has made a huge difference for voters nationwide in the last half-century. Of the more than 122 million people who voted in the 2018 midterm elections, a record 25 percent were Black, Asian or Latino—who made up more than 36 percent of the population that year. This percentage of voters had increased from 21.7 percent in 2014. According to the Pew Research Center, that record turnout made the 2018 midterms the most racially and ethnically diverse elections ever held in the United States—thanks in great part to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.