The Voting Rights Act of 1965: 40 Years After 'Bloody Sunday,' A Promise Still Unfulfilled

3-10-05, 1:15 pm


The Right to Vote With No 'Ifs,' 'Ands' or 'Buts.'

Forty years ago this coming Sunday, on March 7, 1965, Americans were stunned by the spectacle of law enforcement officers brutally assaulting more than 500 non-violent civil rights marchers attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The protesters had set off on a 54 mile trek to the state capitol in Montgomery to dramatize the call for voting rights and highlight the deadly police shooting of 26-year-old Jimmy Lee Jackson two weeks earlier. It all ended suddenly in a cloud of tear gas and a swarm of billy clubs when state troopers and mounted sheriffs' deputies descended furiously on the marchers. That night, ABC television interrupted their premier broadcast of Judgement at Nuremberg, a film about Nazi racism, to air the images from Selma nationwide.

The events of 'Bloody Sunday' repelled the nation, energized the civil rights movement, and advanced President Lyndon B. Johnson's demand for 'the goddamnedest toughest voting rights act' that his Attorney General, Nicholas Katzenbach, could devise. Speaking of his commitment to push desegregation, Johnson told then Vice President Hubert Humphrey, 'I want all those other things - buses, restaurants, all of that - but the right to vote with no ifs, ands or buts, that's the key.' Five months after Selma, a bipartisan Congress passed the Voting Rights Act and President Johnson signed it into law on August 6, 1965.

The Voting Rights Act at 40 Years

The VRA has become one of the most successful civil rights laws in American history. In the 40 years since its passage, it has guaranteed millions of minority voters the equal opportunity to participate in elections and have their voices heard. It ended literacy tests, poll taxes and other purposefully prejudiced mechanisms that had long poisoned the well of our democracy. The right to bilingual election materials has been established in language minority communities across the country. And the end of deliberately discriminatory at-large elections, as well as the creation of majority minority legislative districts, has created tremendous opportunities for racial and ethnic minorities to elect candidates of choice to thousands of federal, state, and local offices in all parts of the country. In 1964, there were only approximately 300 African Americans in public office nationwide, including just three in Congress. There are now more than 9,100 black elected officials, including 43 members of Congress, the largest number ever. The VRA also has opened the political process for many of the more than 6,000 Latino public officials that have been elected and appointed nationwide, including approximately 260 elected at the state or federal level, 27 of whom serve in Congress. And Native Americans, Asians and others who have historically encountered harsh barriers to full political participation also have benefited greatly.

The Voting Rights Act: America's Continued Need

While considerable progress has been made since Bloody Sunday 40 years ago, violations of the VRA are still a persistent feature of the American political landscape. Sadly, the nation has yet to achieve the constitutional goal of equality of political opportunity and the ideal of 'one person, one vote,' is still just that - an ideal: For many decades, African American voters in Louisiana have faced an unbroken pattern of hostility to their political participation. Since passage of the VRA, no Louisiana state House of Representatives redistricting plan submitted to the Justice Department for review has been precleared. Undaunted by this tradition of noncompliance, Louisiana officials controlling redistricting in 2003 deleted those provisions in the state redistricting guidelines that set out Louisiana's obligations under the VRA. Next, the State chose to spend taxpayer money to protect a redistricting plan that was designed to diminish the political opportunities of African-American voters.

The efforts of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and minority voter advocates resulted in favorable pre-trial rulings from the federal court, which caused Louisiana to withdraw its original plan and restore a district where African Americans had an opportunity to elect a candidate of choice. While there are indeed many African American elected officials in Louisiana, this example clearly demonstrates how attempts to undermine minority voting power in Louisiana continue to the present day.

Statewide redistricting plans also have been used to drastically reduce Latino political influence. In Texas, for example, the legislature redistricted the State House of Representatives in 2003 to eliminate one Latino-majority district and reconfigure three others so that Latinos could no longer elect their candidate of choice. Using the special provisions of the VRA, and aided by federal opposition to the new legislative plan, Latino advocates were able to restore the districts and maintain political opportunity for the Latino voters of Texas.

Latino and Asian American voters in Texas have faced other forms of discriminatory treatment which have been remedied using the Voting Rights Act. In 2003, Bexar County officials tried to undermine Latino voting strength by deliberately failing to put polling places in areas that were accessible to Latino voters. Using the Voting Rights Act, advocates won important relief in federal court which enabled Latino voters to more easily get to the polls. That same year in Harris County election officials violated the Voting Rights Act when they failed to provide bilingual voting materials in Vietnamese. It wasn't until community leaders and the Department of Justice intervened that election officials agreed to follow the law. A Vietnamese-American candidate later won a local legislative seat.

Supporters of an incumbent on the city council of Bayou La Batre, Alabama, challenged Asian-American voters during a primary contest as part of a concerted effort to racially target and intimidate supporters of a Vietnamese-American candidate. The Department of Justice launched an investigation and barred challengers from interfering in the general election. The first Asian-American was then elected to city council.

In 2004, a federal court determined that South Dakota discriminated against Native American voters by adopting a redistricting plan three years earlier that packed Indians into a single district in order to remove their ability to elect a representative of their choice to the state legislature. The illegal plan altered the boundaries of two counties, Shannon and Todd, thereby 'packing,' or over concentrating, Indian voters so they comprised fully 90 percent of District 27. In the process, the District was made one of the most overpopulated in the state. South Dakota also refused to submit the redistricting plan to the U.S. Justice Department for preclearance, as required by law. After four Native American voters sued the state, the U.S. District Court invalidated the 2001 legislative plan on the grounds that it illegally diluted Indian voting strength. In its detailed 144-page opinion issued in 2004 the court also found that there was 'substantial evidence that South Dakota officially excluded Indians from voting and holding office.'
The 2007 Reauthorization:

The Voting Rights Act was never meant to be a quick fix. As President Johnson foretold: 'the battle [is] not over.' In 2007, three crucial sections of the Voting Rights Act will expire unless Congress votes to renew them. These include: A requirement that states and local jurisdictions with a documented history of discriminatory voting practices submit planned changes in their election laws or procedures to the U.S. Department of Justice or the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. for preclearance. A bipartisan Congressional report in 1982 warned that without this provision, discrimination would reappear 'overnight.' Requirements that communities with concentrations of voters who are Limited English Proficient provide them with bilingual election assistance including bilingual ballots, election materials, and pollworkers. The authority to send federal examiners and observers to monitor elections. The expiring provisions of the Voting Rights Act remain essential to ensure fairness and equal opportunity for minorities in American politics. Notably, four Republican Presidents – Nixon, Ford, Reagan and George H.W. Bush – have supported reauthorization of key parts of the law in the past: 1970, 1975, 1982 and 1992, respectively. The Act has also consistently won the bi-partisan support of federal lawmakers, with Congress voting 389 to 24 to pass the 1982 extension.

In one sense, the Voting Rights Act stands as a model of democratic inclusion, bridging the gap between our foundational ideal of political equality and the continued persistence of exclusion. On a more basic level, the VRA also stands as a powerful tool to check the persistent impulse to discriminate that has plagued our nation since its founding.

At a time when America is vigorously engaged in promoting the ideal of multi-ethnic democracy in Iraq and across the globe, we need to ensure that lawmakers preserve and strengthen the necessary tools to ensure the continued success of democracy here at home. Reauthorization of the 1965 Voting Rights Act is a first step. 

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