College of LAS « Illinois

Research

Winning and Retaining the Right to Vote

The Voting Rights Act is now 40 years old and facing renewal. Scholars evaluate the effects of the historic law and why it's still relevant today.

On March 7, 1965, 600 American citizens dressed in their Sunday best attempted to cross the narrow, hog-backed Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Ala. It was the beginning of a march to the state capital of Montgomery to protest voting rights discrimination. They would not even make it to the other side of the bridge. On that day, "Bloody Sunday," Alabama state troopers brandishing nightsticks, barbed clubs, bullwhips, and cattle prods attacked the marchers, clubbing some into unconsciousness. More than 100 were injured and 17 hospitalized.

The attack of peaceful Americans by law enforcement officials embarrassed and horrified the country and became, if not a turning point, a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement. On August 6, 1965, almost five months to the day, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.

Vernon Burton

Vernon Burton, LAS history professor and a long-time scholar of voting rights, says the violence of Bloody Sunday opened a window on conditions in the South to the rest of the nation. "Blacks had no meaningful vote, no way to have a voice in the government. In 1958, the Civil Rights Commission reported that there were 44 counties in the deep South where there was not a single black voter registered." In Selma, where African Americans made up more than 56 percent of the population in 1965, only 1.9 percent of eligible voters were registered.

As the country completes its observance of the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act and prepares for the upcoming battles over its renewal, it is a good time to remember the conditions that led to this historic law.  Although the 15th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which was ratified in 1870, gave African Americans—and, in fact, all American male citizens despite "race, color, or previous condition of servitude"—the right to vote, they were routinely prevented from that right through a series of unlawful measures. This was particularly true in the South, where African Americans held large majorities of the population, a threat to the power base of Southern whites. In addition to overt intimidations through beatings, arsons, and murders—often carried out by the Ku Klux Klan and the Knights of the White Camellia—more covert disfranchising measures included poll taxes, literacy tests (recite the Georgia State Constitution), and disqualification for "crimes of moral turpitude." The last measure included hog stealing in South Carolina. Poll taxes were eliminated in 1964 with the ratification of the 24th Amendment to the Constitution.

The Voting Rights Act represents what is widely considered the most important piece of legislation to emerge from the civil rights movement, even more powerful than the 1964 Civil Rights Act itself. In an article titled, "Air Conditioning and The Voting Rights Act of 1965: It Must Not Be Humid Enough in the North," Burton writes, "Two things have changed the modern South: air conditioning and the Voting Rights Act. Unfortunately, Americans understand better the functions of air conditioning than those of the Voting Rights Act."

Burton writes that the Act "outlawed literacy tests and provided for the appointment of federal examiners (empowered to register qualified citizens to vote) in those jurisdictions that were ‘covered' according to a formula provided in the statute. Section 2, which closely followed the language of the 15th Amendment, applied a nationwide prohibition of the denial or abridgment of the right to vote on account of race or color." It has withstood robust and numerous court challenges and has been amended in 1970, 1975, and 1982.

While researching the years following the Act's passage, Burton found that "an immediate effect of more minority voters was the replacement of blatant bigotry in electioneering with more subtle racial appeals.  A longer-term effect has been the election of minority citizens to almost every level of government."

Frederick Wirt, LAS emeritus professor of political science, has also researched the before-and-after effects of civil rights legislation in Panola County, Miss. According to Wirt, this rural county of the Delta had typically horrific living conditions for African Americans in the early 1960s, including 45 percent of housing classified as "dilapidated." Yet, without a clear means to challenge those conditions—beginning with the vote—African Americans felt powerless.  After the Voting Rights Act became law, African Americans in the South finally voted in numbers that truly represented their populations. Figures from the U.S. Department of Justice show that in Mississippi from 1965 to 1988, registration rates of African Americans grew from 6.7 percent to 74.2. Similar increases were the norm for the entire South.

Soon African Americans were holding office and effecting change. Burton notes, "In 1964 only 72 African Americans held political office in the South. By 1974 African Americans held 1,314 offices, an 1,800 percent increase, and every single southern state had at least one black legislator." Today, nationwide, there are more than 9,000 black elected officials and almost 5,000 Latino elected officials. One of those minority officials is James Perkins, an African American businessman who was elected mayor of Selma in 2000, replacing the former segregationist Joe Smitherman, the same white mayor who was in office on Bloody Sunday.

A sea of change began among elected officials, too. Wirt found "the restrictive laws that had once kept blacks from registering and voting were now opposed by the new southern representatives…. Once blacks did get more votes under federal law, to oppose black interests would have escalated the political costs for representatives."

Dianne Pinderhughes

Dianne Pinderhughes, LAS political science professor, says despite the Voting Rights Act's positive effects, renewal of several special provisions of the Act in 2007 is not guaranteed. While researching material for a forthcoming book on the subject, Pinderhughes found that the bipartisan conditions that led to the Act's passage 40 years ago "have gradually shifted toward partisan divergence over civil rights policy." And, she notes, the 2004 elections strengthened a one-party control over all branches of government, a party less inclined to support traditional civil rights issues.

"These changes threaten voting rights policy as we have known it. The current Republican Party leadership strongly disapproves of group-based policies, voting rights legislation, judicial and administrative policies designed to remedy problems arising from America's history of racial and ethnic discrimination.  African Americans, Latinos, and Asians, who have suffered exclusion from the electoral system based specifically on race and, in the case of Latinos, based on their status as a language group, are examples of groups targeted for protection by voting rights legislation."

Pinderhughes also points to a sea change in determining government policies with the emergence of various special interest groups, legal defense funds, and think tanks that have systematically challenged the traditional civil rights movement.

In a chapter titled "African American Politics on the 40th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act," Pinderhughes writes, "With the current partisan balance, the Congress and President could fail to renew the legislation even though this option is unlikely.  The President and the Congress will probably support the extension of the Voting Rights Act in 2007; but with policy development handled by administrative agencies and federal courts with substantially divergent policy interests from the traditional civil and voting rights coalition, the Voting Rights Act may well become a useless appendage, a false echo of the legislation's original intent."

One provision that she says will be hotly contested in Congress is Section 5 of the Act, which requires jurisdictions in the South to obtain "preclearance" for new voting practices and procedures from either the District Court for the District of Columbia or the United States Attorney General. Proponents of letting Section 5 expire say racist conditions in the South no longer exist and the need for federal oversight in voting practices is antiquated.

Pinderhughes disagrees. "While we've had 40 years of the Voting Rights Act, and while political and economic interests have changed a lot, there are still problems. States like Mississippi have made a good deal of progress. But poverty has not gone away. Lower levels of literacy have not gone away.

"Nor has the capacity for state governments to incorporate attempts to constrain the black population from voting. For those reasons I think it's important to maintain those federal special powers."

President Bush concurs. On December 2, in a ceremony in Washington, D.C., to honor a forthcoming statue of the late civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, the president said: "Eventually the civil rights movement would succeed in persuading Congress to pass more sweeping legislation that dealt with voting rights and discrimination in public places, and school segregation.

"And the United States Congress should renew the Voting Rights Act of 1965."

By Stephen J. Lyons
Fall/Winter 2005-06