The Voting Rights Act of 1965
An act to enforce the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States and for other purposes, August 6, 1965.
This “act to enforce the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution” was signed into law 95 years after the amendment was ratified. In those years, African Americans in the South faced tremendous obstacles to voting, including poll taxes, literacy tests, and other bureaucratic restrictions to deny them the right to vote. They also risked harassment, intimidation, economic reprisals, and physical violence when they tried to register or vote. As a result, very few African Americans were registered voters, and they had very little, if any, political power, either locally or nationally.
In 1964, numerous demonstrations were held, and the considerable violence that erupted brought renewed attention to the issue of voting rights. The murder of voting-rights activists in Mississippi and the attack by state troopers on peaceful marchers in Selma, AL, gained national attention and persuaded President Johnson and Congress to initiate meaningful and effective national voting rights legislation. The combination of public revulsion to the violence and Johnson’s political skills stimulated Congress to pass the voting rights bill on August 5, 1965.
The legislation, which President Johnson signed into law the next day, outlawed literacy tests and provided for the appointment of Federal examiners (with the power to register qualified citizens to vote) in those jurisdictions that were “covered” according to a formula provided in the statute. In addition, Section 5 of the act required covered jurisdictions to obtain “preclearance” from either the District Court for the District of Columbia or the U.S. Attorney General for any new voting practices and procedures. Section 2, which closely followed the language of the 15th amendment, applied a nationwide prohibition of the denial or abridgment of the right to vote on account of race or color. The use of poll taxes in national elections had been abolished by the 24th amendment (1964) to the Constitution; the Voting Rights Act directed the Attorney General to challenge the use of poll taxes in state and local elections. In Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections, 383 U.S. 663 (1966), the Supreme Court held Virginia’s poll tax to be unconstitutional under the 14th amendment.
Because the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was the most significant statutory change in the relationship between the Federal and state governments in the area of voting since the Reconstruction period following the Civil War, it was immediately challenged in the courts. Between 1965 and 1969, the Supreme Court issued several key decisions upholding the constitutionality of Section 5 and affirming the broad range of voting practices for which preclearance was required. [See South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 327-28 (1966) and Allen v. State Board of Elections, 393 U.S. 544 (1969)]
The law had an immediate impact. By the end of 1965, a quarter of a million new black voters had been registered, one-third by Federal examiners. By the end of 1966, only 4 out of the 13 southern states had fewer than 50 percent of African Americans registered to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was readopted and strengthened in 1970, 1975, and 1982.
On March 20, 1965, Mrs. Bertram Jeffrey sent this letter to Representative Emanuel Cellar, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, advocating for the passage of the Voting Rights Act for the continuance of a true democratic system.
Letter from Mrs. Bertram Jeffert in Favor of the Voting Rights Act, 3/20/1965, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives (ARC 593573)
Plaintiffs’ Proposed Plan for March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, 1965
This plan submitted to the court pertains to the march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama in support of voting rights in 1965. In association with this lawsuit, the marchers submitted a plan for the court’s approval defining their proposed route, number of participants, distance covered per day, and other details.
March is Women’s History Month!
Photograph, Suffrage Parade, 1913
From the Series: Photographs Used in Publications, Records of the Office of War Information, Record Group 208
As March 2013 marks the 100th anniversary of the watershed Women’s Suffrage Parade in Washington DC, be sure to watch for more #Suffrage13 features from the National Archives, including:
U.S. vs. Susan B. Anthony, Indictment for Illegal Voting, 01/24/1873
The indictment charges Susan B. Anthony with “wrongfully and unlawfully” voting for a candidate for Congress from the City of Rochester, New York.
On November 18, 1872 a deputy U.S. marshal arrested Susan B. Anthony for voting in the 1872 presidential election. She was indicted two months later for voting illegally on November 5, 1872, “being then and there a person of the female sex.” She was convicted in June and sentenced to pay a $100 fine and court costs.
This is the resolution proposing the Twenty-Fourth Amendment, which was ratified January 23, 1964, and grants that the right to vote shall not be denied by reason of failure by a U.S. Citizen to pay any poll tax. Poll taxes were used by some states during Reconstruction to prevent African Americans from voting.
Joint Resolution Proposing the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, 08/27/1962
On August 6, 1965, The Voting Rights Act was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The Act applied a nationwide prohibition of the denial or abridgment of the right to vote on account of race or color. It outlawed discriminatory literacy tests, expanded voting rights for non-English speaking Americans, and appointed Federal examiners to oversee voter registration and elections. Read More
The law had an immediate impact. By the end of 1965, a quarter of a million new African American voters had been registered, one-third by Federal examiners.
In this photo, LBJ signs the Voting Rights Act in the Capitol Rotunda, Washington, DC. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders stand behind him.
In 1942, Michigan Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg introduced Senate Joint Resolution 166 which would have amended the U.S. Constitution to extend the vote to citizens 18 years of age or older. Although not ratified at the time, the proposal came up again during the Vietnam War. The 26th Amendment was ratified on July 1, 1971 after being passed by Congress just a few months earlier. Although not necessary for the amendment to become law, President Richard Nixon, accompanied by several 18-year old witnesses, signed the amendment on July 5, 1971.
Learn more about the Constitutional Amendment Process.
Senate Joint Resolution 166 Proposing the 26th Amendment, 10/19/1942 (ARC 1633716)
On June 4, 1919, the suffrage amendment passed both houses of Congress and was sent to the states for ratification. Initial efforts to secure the right to vote for women in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s achieved some success at the state level, but women’s organizations finally concluded that an amendment to the U.S. Constitution was essential for woman suffrage. World War I played an important role in helping women achieve the right to vote as many women began to work outside the home to support the war effort. In 1917 President Woodrow Wilson called for a Constitutional amendment, and though the House passed a woman suffrage amendment in 1918, it failed in the Senate, largely because of the opposition from southern states. After the amendment passed Congress in 1919, many states quickly approved it, and on August 18, 1920 Tennessee became the 36th state to approve the amendment. Two weeks later, on August 26, Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed the certification that the required number of states had ratified the Nineteenth Amendment. However, in early 1920, five states rejected the amendment. Mississippi was among them. Political cartoonist Clifford K. Berryman portrays the Mississippi rejection as an April Fool’s joke played on the suffrage movement.
April First by Clifford K. Berryman, 4/1/1920, U.S. Senate Collection (ARC 6011595)
Extending the right to vote
Senate Joint Resolution 7 proposed an amendment to the Constitution that would extend the right to vote to citizens 18 years of age or older. Introduced on January 21, 1971, during the first session of the 92nd Congress, and passed by Congress March 23, 1971, it became the 26th Amendment to the Constitution
Mrs. E. Jackson wrote to the House Judiciary Committee the day after Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, in Selma, Alabama. She was reacting to scenes of police brutality during a voting rights march that many Americans witnessed on television news programs. The interlined handwriting in pencil is likely that of House Judiciary Chairman Emanuel Celler, who was Mrs. Jackson’s representative in Congress and an active supporter of voting rights legislation in the House. Interested in teaching or learning more about Voting Rights Act of 1965? Visit our web-lesson, Congress Protects the Right to Vote: the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Letter from Mrs. E. Jackson, 3/8/1965, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives (ARC 2173239)
Happy Birthday Susan B. Anthony!
February 15, 1820 – March 13, 1906
Convicted for Voting
Suffragette Susan B. Anthony registered and voted in the election of 1872 in Rochester, New York. As planned, she was arrested for “knowingly, wrongfully and unlawfully vot[ing] for a representative to the Congress of the United States,” convicted by the State of New York, and fined $100.
There never will be complete equality until women themselves help to make laws and elect lawmakers.––Susan B. Anthony, 1897
U.S. vs. Susan B. Anthony, Record of Conviction, 06/28/1873
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution: Women’s Right to Vote
Passed by Congress June 4, 1919, and ratified on August 18, 1920, the 19th amendment guarantees all American women the right to vote. Achieving this milestone required a lengthy and difficult struggle; victory took decades of agitation and protest. Beginning in the mid-19th century, several generations of woman suffrage supporters lectured, wrote, marched, lobbied, and practiced civil disobedience to achieve what many Americans considered a radical change of the Constitution. Few early supporters lived to see final victory in 1920.