The Voting Rights Act of 1965

Reference: American Civil Liberties Union

Following the historic passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) into law. The VRA bars barriers to political participation by racial and language minorities and requires jurisdictions with a history of discrimination in voting to get federal approval of changes in their election laws before they can take effect. The Act forbade literacy tests and other barriers to registration that had historically restricted minority access to voting. It also empowered the Department of Justice and the courts to monitor problem jurisdictions – mainly those in the South.

The tremendous impact of the VRA could be seen almost immediately in the rapidly changing demographics both of voters and of the people they elected. In Mississippi, African-American registration went from less than 10% in 1964 to almost 60% in 1968; in Alabama, registration rose from 24% to 57%. In the South as a whole, African-American registration rose to a record 62% within a few years of the Act’s passage.

By 1971, 14 African-Americans were serving in Congress from Northern states, the largest number since 1875. The group included Shirley Chisholm of New York, the first black woman to be elected to Congress. This led Congressman Charles C. Diggs, Jr. of Michigan to establish the Congressional Black Caucus in order to secure a larger voice for African-Americans in public affairs.

The Act has also opened the political process for many of the approximately 6,000 Latino public officials who have been elected and appointed nationwide. Native Americans, Asian Americans and others who have historically encountered harsh barriers to full political participation also have benefited greatly. The Department of Justice has characterized the Act as the ‘most successful piece of civil rights legislation ever adopted.’

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Copyright [2010] American Civil Liberties Union

Reprinted with permission of the American Civil Liberties Union