Civil Rights and Voting: History and Law
Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last reviewed July 14, 2017
The right to vote is one of the most fundamental and significant rights in the United States. As a major democracy in the world, the U.S. strives to ensure its citizens carry out the most significant function of democracy: choosing their own governmental representatives. The Voting Rights Act protects this right, but before its enactment, many people who had the stated legal right to vote were still unable to vote in practice. Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had legally ended segregation, discrimination was still prevalent, making it difficult for millions of African Americans to vote.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) was enacted to prohibit discrimination in voting practices based on race and to ensure that states and localities did not pass laws blocking citizens from the equal opportunity to vote. The VRA was amended in 1975 to include translation of voting materials, acknowledging non native English speakers. The Act also contains provisions relevant to the voting rights of the disabled.
Voting Discrimination Before the Voting Rights Act
Throughout U.S. history, many Americans have been discriminated against in voting practices and procedures on the basis of race and/or color. Although the 15th Amendment, passed in 1870, guaranteed the right to vote to African American males (women were not granted the right to vote until the 19th Amendment in 1920), many African Americans had been denied this right, especially in the South. In the years after the enactment of the 15th Amendment, the Ku Klux Klan and other extremist groups used harassment, intimidation, and outright violence to prevent its enforcement.
State governments also engaged in strong-arm tactics by establishing grandfather clauses and white primaries. The U.S. Supreme Court declared both practices as violations of the 15th Amendments. However, poll taxes and literacy tests were other effective means used to prevent African Americans from voting.
Voting rights issues continued into the time of the Civil Rights Movement because there were still many barriers for registering African American voters. In 1959, Alabama passed laws to limit black voter registration. In the years after these laws were passed in Alabama, activists launched voter registration drives. In 1963, "Freedom Day" occurred when hundreds of African Americans attempted to register in Dallas County. Most of the applications were denied, but the day helped create momentum. The voting rights movement gained further momentum in response to the increase in violence in opposition to the movement, which resulted in the murders of voting rights activists in various cities throughout the nation.
Selma to Montgomery Marches
The 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches were a trio of marches in support of African American suffrage. The marches were intended to be nonviolent protests, but were marred by violent opposition. The first march was held on Sunday March 7, 1965. The protestors were on their way to the Alabama state capital in Montgomery and marched peacefully across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. They were ambushed by state troopers who demanded that the marchers turn back. The protestors continued on their path, but the law officials attacked them with tear gas, billy clubs, and bull whips and beat some protestors to the point of unconsciousness. Finally they retreated. This day became known as "Bloody Sunday."
Two days later, the second march took place. Again, the Edmund Pettus Bridge was a scene of confrontation between the protestors and law enforcement, but this time Dr. Martin Luther King instructed the crowd of approximately 2,000 to disperse. This day has become known as "Turnaround Tuesday." The last march began on March 21, 1965 in Selma and ended five days later with the walk to the capital in Montgomery. The marches greatly contributed to the eventual passing of the Voting Rights Act, which was signed into law on August 6, 1965.
The 1970 and 1975 Amendments
The Voting Rights Act was amended in 1970, which extended Section 5 of the VRA for five years and for seven years in 1975. The 1975 extension gave voting rights protections to minority groups such as Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Alaskans, Hawaiians, and other groups who were denied voting rights because of language barriers by requiring certain jurisdictions to provide both written translation materials in other language besides English and oral translators.
The 1982 Amendments
In 1982, Congress adopted a new standard allowing jurisdictions to terminate coverage under the provisions of section 4 of the Act. Also, Congress amended Section 2. Plaintiffs no longer have to prove discriminatory purpose for a Section 2 violation.
In addition to the VRA amendments, the Supreme Court has made rulings that affect the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Section 4 of the VRA is unconstitutional. Because Section 5 is connected with Section 4, its applicability has changed as well.
Assert your Voting Rights
The Voting Rights Act is arguably the best example of civil rights legislation. It was designed to protect our rights as voters. If you are being denied access to voting through any means, your rights under the VRA might have been violated. To know for sure, talk to an experienced civil rights attorney in your area.
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