The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) is a landmark piece of civil rights legislation that had a profound effect on our democracy. A major success of the Civil Rights era, it outlawed race discrimination in voting, unlocking a core tenet of political power, representation, and full citizenship for people of color, particularly Black Americans in the South. Throughout the years, the VRA has been used time and time again to protect and uphold equal voting rights for voters of color. With the voting rights of people of color at stake in state and federal legislatures, it’s time to take a look at where it all began and what you can do now to protect the right to vote for all Americans.
The VRA became law in the 1960s, but the history of voting rights for non-white Americans goes back much further than that. During the period after the Civil War, a series of Reconstruction Amendments were added to the U.S. Constitution. The 14th Amendment granted citizenship to those “born or naturalized in the United States,” including Black people as citizens for the first time. Given their new citizenship status, Black Americans—men only until 1920—were also granted the right to vote with the 15th Amendment, which prohibits denying any citizen the right to vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Initially, the federal government strongly monitored state laws to ensure against discrimination, and during this time, Black men voted and even held public office. This time was brief, and within a few years, states enacted extremely restrictive voting laws, such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and severe intimidation tactics, making voting accessibility and political representation nearly impossible for Black Americans despite having the right to vote.
Jim Crow Era & the Civil Rights Movement
By the Twentieth Century, these and other restrictive Jim Crow laws impacted not only Black Americans but also Indigenous, Hispanic, Asian, and other Americans of color and their right to vote. As the Civil Rights Movement took off and won major victories like the Civil Rights Acts of 1960 and 1964 to dismantle discrimination, Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) still lacked the full political power and representation that comes through voting. Civil rights activists continued to organize and called for a federal solution to these suppressive laws. Young people, too, were involved in this fight, even to the point of putting their lives on the line. A young John Lewis and other activists were brutally beaten for marching for voting rights on Bloody Sunday, and Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney, and Michael Schwerner were murdered for registering Black Americans to vote in Mississippi during Freedom Summer of 1964.
Eventually, their activism contributed to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, banning the racist and discriminatory voting laws and practices that had followed Reconstruction. Importantly, Section 5 of the VRA placed protections against future anti-voter laws. States that had a history of discriminating against voters, would now need to have any proposed changes to their voting laws pre-cleared to ensure that they did not have a discriminatory intent or effect. This helped re-clarify the 15th Amendment to include voter accessibility and protection in addition to eligibility. Because of this, the VRA had a dramatic impact on the political power of Black Americans, who by the 1980s had equal voter registration rates as white Americans.
In 2013, however, the Supreme Court, arguing that such protections were no longer needed, got rid of this preclearance requirement in Shelby County v. Holder. In her dissenting opinion, the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated “throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” Unfortunately, Justice Ginsburg’s statement has been confirmed time and time again. Within a few hours of the Shelby decision, states that were once monitored under Section 5 enacted restrictive voter laws. Eight years since this decision, there continues to be an increase in racist and discriminatory anti-voter laws, echoing the Jim Crow era. In this year alone, 47 states have proposed nearly 400 anti-voter bills, many of which are being enacted into law, that disproportionately affect voters of color.
Over fifty years since the Voting Rights Act was passed, the country is once again at a place of extreme attacks on voting rights and political representation for BIPOC Americans, as well as young people, people with disabilities, and the elderly. Given the amount of states moving towards restricting the vote, it is clear that this needs to be addressed at the federal level. Luckily, your U.S. Senators and Representatives already have the answers: the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the For the People Act. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement would restore the VRA back to its original and full power which would prevent future discriminatory bills from being passed. Similarly, the For the People Act, which has already passed the U.S. House of Representatives, would expand voting access for all Americans. Help get these bills passed by signing our petition and contacting your Senators today!
About the Author
Rachel Sondkar is the Communications Associate at The Andrew Goodman Foundation. She is a UC Berkeley graduate, and a former Andrew Goodman Ambassador.