The Voting Rights Act of 1965: Definition, Summary & Facts

Instructor: Stephen Benz

Stephen has taught history, journalism, sociology, and political science courses at multiple levels, including the middle school, high school and college levels.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 provided protection for minorities against discriminatory practices in voting. We'll consider its historical background, its provisions, its amendments, and its recent interpretation by the Supreme Court.

Definition

Imagine standing in a long line to vote, only to be told that you are not literate enough to cast your ballot, or you didn't own property so your right to vote was invalidated. Most likely you would be upset, maybe even irate. But for many African Americans in the American South during the 1950s, this was the reality of voter discrimination. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, however, sought to end these discriminatory practices.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was the most comprehensive voting rights bill signed into law in order to protect the rights of minorities against discrimination. In this article, we examine the historical background of the Act, look at its subsequent amendments, and then look at the latest Supreme Court ruling on the Act.

Historical Background

Post Civil War

After the Civil War, the 14th and 15th amendments were passed with the idea of protecting the rights of newly freed African Americans. But Southern legislatures quickly found ways to circumvent African Americans' right to vote. The Jim Crow laws prevented black people from voting by imposing literacy tests, poll taxes, property ownership requirements, moral character tests, document interpretation tests, and in some cases, the requirement that one's grandfather had voted (an impossible task for most African Americans). In addition to these laws, there were widespread intimidation campaigns led by racist groups like the KKK that threatened African Americans who voted.

Civil Rights Movement

During the 1950s and early 1960s, leaders of the Civil Rights Movement called for an end to widespread Jim Crow practices of segregation in public places and voting rights discrepancies. Two legislative victories were gained -- namely the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But both bills were flawed when it came to voting rights and made it very difficult for the federal government to prove that Southern states were discriminating against racial minorities by imposing literacy tests.

Selma Protests

Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) initiated a rally in Selma, Alabama for the protection of voters' rights. In this protest, Dr. King was arrested for violating a protest ordinance in Selma. Although President Lyndon Johnson did not want to push the issue of voters' rights forward quite yet, the protest in Selma brought the issue back into the limelight.

Martin Luther King Jr. helped lead protests against voter discrimination.
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Another protest march by Civil Rights leaders put the issue even more at the forefront. Protesters planned to march from Selma to the Alabama state capital of Montgomery. But in a nationwide televised event, the peaceful protestors were viciously beaten by state police officers as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus bridge.

Protestors clash with Alabama State Police at the Edmund Pettus bridge.
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This event forced the President to call a joint session of Congress to immediately consider adding more voting rights protection for minorities. The result was the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

General Provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965

The major provision of the Voting Rights Act was that: 'No voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color. '

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