Story at a glance
- President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law on August 6.
- On it’s 55th anniversary, battles over voters’ rights are playing out in several states ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
- The legislation has since been reauthorized, but in 2013 the Supreme Court struck down a provision of the act.
Less than a month before the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the last living activists present at its signing died. In an essay published postmortem in the New York Times, John Lewis called on Americans to exercise the right he had fought for.
“Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it,” he said.
The Voting Rights Act prohibits any state or political subdivision from imposing voting qualifications or prerequisites to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color. A major victory for the civil rights movement of the 1960s, it carried the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, signed into law just a few months later, on its coattails, opening the door to immigrants from Asia and other non-northwestern European countries.
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In the wake of Lewis's death, the Democratic-led House passed a bill in his name to amend the 1965 law, although the Republican-controlled Senate has not taken up the legislation. The amendment would create a new way of determining if states require oversight for violating voting rights after the Supreme Court decided in 2013 that the law's original method was unconstitutional.
“Our country has changed,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority. “While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”
Currently, an estimated 1 in 13 black Americans does not have the right to vote due to past convictions, according to a report by the Sentencing Project, and the Supreme Court recently sided with a lower court ruling that could strip voting eligibility from up to 1 million Florida felons. Black voter registration has also been declining since hitting a record 73 percent in the 2012 presidential election, dropping to about 64 percent in the 2016 and 2018 elections. At the same time, the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately affected Black Americans, is also threatening voter turnout.
“Voter suppression is still thriving in our country. The primaries in Wisconsin, Georgia, Kentucky and Texas offer recent examples of excessively long lines, closing of multiple poll sites, and the use of voter ID laws that directly suppress the Black and Brown vote. The fight for free and fair access to the ballot should be every American’s cause regardless of party affiliation,” said LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund, which is calling for Congress to go further by establishing a federal agency to oversee elections across all 50 states and territories, in a statement.
Brown, who calls herself “a daughter of Selma,” also invoked the “unsung Black women suffragists” who stood alongside Lewis both at the signing and throughout the civil rights movement. Amelia Boynton Robinson, Marie Foster and Diane Nash were just a few of the women who led and organized the mobilization of Black voters in the South, including Selma.
"Men always got the attention, but the ones who were really organizing it and were really making it work were women," Lynne Olson, author of "Freedom's Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830 to 1970," told CNN. "And that was true going back to the time of abolitionists."
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was originally set to expire by 1970, but has been reauthorized five times. The last time was in 2006, when President George W. Bush signed into law the "Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006," in honor of another three essential figures in its history. The act was reauthorized for another 25 years, but its future remains uncertain.
In the immediate aftermath of the bill’s passage, black voter registration increased by almost 70 percent in the next election, James Cobb, history professor at the University of Georgia and a former president of the Southern Historical Association, told USA Today. But in the eight years since the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision, states across the American South have closed nearly 1,200 polling places, according to the Leadership Conference Education Fund.
Luci Baines Johnson stood behind her father when he signed the Voting Rights Act into law on Aug. 6, 1965. On Aug. 6, 2020, she wrote in an opinion editorial for USA TODAY, “Our nation is once more grieving. I entreat the Senate to show the courage it did in 1965 and support the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act. Let us do it in honor of John Lewis. Let us deliver on our pledge with 'liberty and justice for all.' I promise — I’ve been there — our children and history are watching.”
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