1965 Voting Rights Act

After the American Civil War many state governments in the Deep South employed literacy tests as part of the voter registration process. These tests were intended to disenfranchise racial minorities. In July 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. The legislation attempted to deal with the problem of African Americans being denied the vote in the Deep South. The legislation stated that uniform standards must prevail for establishing the right to vote. Schooling to sixth grade constituted legal proof of literacy and the attorney general was given power to initiate legal action in any area where he found a pattern of resistance to the law.

The following year, President Lyndon Baines Johnson attempted to persuade Congress to pass his Voting Rights Act. This proposed legislation removed the right of states to impose restrictions on who could vote in elections. Johnson explained how: "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."

"By the way, what's the big word?"Bill Mauldin, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (1964)
"By the way, what's the big word?"
Bill Mauldin
, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (15th May 1962)

Although opposed by politicians from the Deep South, the Voting Rights Act was passed by large majorities in the House of Representatives (333 to 48) and the Senate (77 to 19). The legislation empowered the national government to register those whom the states refused to put on the voting list.

When Johnson signed the 1965 Civil Rights Act he made a prophecy that he was “signing away the south for 50 years”. This proved accurate. In fact, the Democrats have never recovered the vote of the white racists in the Deep South.

Just before his assassination in 1968, Robert Kennedy forecast that the United States would have a “Negro president” in 40 years. This prediction came true when Barack Obama was elected in November 2008. However, his Republican rival, John McCain, won the former Confederate states of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee.

Primary Sources

(1) In 1964, 650 members of the Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee went to Mississippi to help African Americans register to vote. One student wrote to his parents explaining what happened in the county of Milestoon when they attempted to help blacks register.

We got about 14 Negroes to go to the court house with the intention of registering to vote. Sheriff Smith greeted the party with a six shooter drawn from his pocket, and said "Okay, who's first?" Most of the Negroes remained cautiously quiet. After several seconds a man who had never before been a leader stepped up to the Sheriff, smiled and said, "I'm first, Hartman Turnbow". All registration applications were permitted to be filled out and all were judged illiterate. The next week, Turnbow's house was bombed with Molotov cocktails. When the Turnbows left the burning house, they were shot at. A couple of days later, Turnbow was accused of having bombed his own house which wasn't insured. Sheriff Smith was the one witness against them. Mr. Turnbow was convicted.

(2) In 1964, eleven civil rights campaigners were murdered in Mississippi. This included the murders of two white men, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. Michael Schwerner's wife made a statement to newspapers on the murders.

My husband, Michael Schwerner, did not die in vain. If he and Andrew Goodman had been Negroes, the world would have taken little notice of their deaths. After all, the slaying of a Negro in Mississippi is not news. It is only because my husband and Andrew Goodman were white that the national alarm had been sounded.

(3) Lyndon Baines Johnson, speech on the Voting Rights Act (15th March, 1965)

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 rights. 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.

(4) Lyndon Baines Johnson, speech at Howard University (4th June, 1965)

At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.

There, long-suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many were brutally assaulted. One good man - a man of God - was killed.

This was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose. The great phrases of that purpose still sound in every American heart, North and South: "All men are created equal" - "Government by consent of the governed" - "Give me liberty or give me death". And those are not just clever words and not just empty theories. In their name Americans have fought and died for two centuries.

Experience has clearly shown that the existing process of law cannot overcome systematic and ingenious discrimination. No law that we now have on the books can ensure the right to vote when local officials are determined to deny it. Wednesday I will send to Congress a law designed to eliminate illegal barriers to the right to vote. 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.

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