The Importance of the Voting Rights Act

I hope you will join me in recognizing the anniversary of the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965. Signed into law on August 6th 1965, the Voting Rights Act was enacted to ensure the rights of African Americans. In the time since its passage, it has been used to extend voting rights in several areas.

As Reconstruction drew to a close more than a 100 years ago, the several hundred African Americans elected to serve in Southern state legislatures and in Congress had dwindled to a handful. An onslaught of discriminatory practices -- a system known as "Jim Crow" -- had become pervasive. Southern voter registration boards used poll taxes, literacy tests, and other bureaucratic barriers to deny African Americans their legal rights. Southern African Americans also faced harassment, intimidation, economic reprisals, and physical violence when they tried to register or vote.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 sought to reverse this disenfranchisement. Public protest and private political negotiation set the stage for the monumental civil rights victory. Beginning in 1961 civil rights groups staged protests in several Southern towns and cities. Citizens throughout the country saw newspaper photos and television broadcasts of attacks on peaceful protesters with nightsticks, tear gas, and police dogs. The American conscience was awakened.

Reflecting this changing paradigm in American attitudes toward racial equality, President Johnson made a televised address denouncing the attacks against peaceful civil rights protesters. President Johnson, a champion of civil rights causes throughout his administration, had used his political skill to pass the Twenty-Fourth Amendment outlawing poll taxes in 1964. Two days after a horrific attack on protesters in Selma, Alabama, President Johnson sent the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to Congress. Signed into law August 6th, 1965, the resolution empowered the federal government to oversee voter registration and elections in counties that had used tests to determine voter eligibility or where registration or turnout had been less that 50 percent in the 1964 presidential election.

Since then, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been extended three times -- in 1970, 1975, and 1982. Changes include increasing the Act's scope to cover non-English speaking minorities such as Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans, Alaskan Natives, and other minority groups. It has also been used to examine and challenge election formats that dilute minority votes and have a discriminatory effect.

Cesar Chavez once said, "...we don't need perfect political systems; we need perfect participation." The right to choose one's representatives in the voting booth is the linchpin of a free society, without which it is often impossible to exercise other rights. Without a meaningful vote, there can be no equality before the law, no equal access, no equal opportunity. Today, on this 39th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 I ask you to join me in reflecting on the importance of the right to vote for all citizens.


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