Every Thursday, we will use an event that occurred on this date to discuss an important moment in international history. This week: The U.S. Voting Rights Act (1965)
On 6th August, 1965, the United States Voting Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The act prohibits racial discrimination in voting rights. Even though the three Reconstruction Amendments that followed the end of the Civil War were hailed as a major breakthrough in promoting the ideals of liberty and equality, civil rights groups were forced to continue their struggle against the disenfranchisement of minorities for years.
Prior to the three Reconstruction Amendments -- the Thirteenth Amendment (1865), The Fourteenth Amendment (1866) and The Fifteenth Amendment (1869) -- the United States Constitution allowed all states to exercise full discretion to determine the voter qualifications of their residents. While the three amendments were intended to limit this discretion, they were ‘rendered useless by subversive tactics like secret ballots, poll taxes, literacy tests and other discriminatory practices that essentially made it impossible for most blacks to cast a ballot.’
In Giles v. Harris, for instance, the Supreme Court upheld a discriminatory Alabama state law as although it did disenfranchise African-Americans in practice through a grandfather clause --a statute that allowed white voters to circumvent literacy tests, poll taxes etc. -- there was no such stated intent.
In July, 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act, which was proposed by Kennedy just prior to his assassination, and outlawed segregation and other forms of discrimination, including in voting rights.
Although the Civil Rights Act fell severely short of putting an end to discrimination, Johnson, afraid of alienating the Southern states so soon after assuming office, refrained from pushing for further reform. His decision, however, was overturned by the historic Selma to Montgomery marches, when peaceful protesters demanding voting rights were violently beaten by Alabama state troopers.
In response to the horrific incident, Johnson called for the Voting Rights Act, which was passed in the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives by 77-19 and 333-85 votes respectively. On 6th August, 1965, Johnson signed the bill into law at a ceremony, with Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and other civil rights leaders present.