"It is wrong—deadly wrong—to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country,” President Lyndon B. Johnson declared in the wake of “Bloody Sunday,” a day of brutal encounters in Selma, Alabama, between peaceful civil rights activists and police in 1965. The protest in Selma was just one in a series of voting rights protests that took place across the South in the mid-20th century. After the end of slavery in the United States and in the wake of Reconstruction, when the 15th Amendment prevented states from denying men the right to vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” southern states imposed new laws that erected immense barriers to voting for African Americans. Literacy tests and poll taxes helped reverse many of the political gains won after the Civil War. White southerners also resorted to outright violence, including lynching, as a way to intimidate African American voters.
African Americans struggled to end this regime. Those who moved north as part of the Great Migration in the 1910s and 1920s became an essential part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition. Civil rights activists mobilized to build pressure on southern states and on the US Congress, and voting rights became a central goal for the Civil Rights Movement that blossomed in the 1950s and early 1960s under the leadership of figures such as Martin Luther King Jr.
The federal government finally took action following the confrontation in Selma. With Lyndon Johnson in the White House, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), whereby the federal government committed to protecting the voting rights of all Americans, regardless of race. The legislation prohibited the use of literacy tests and required certain states and local governments to obtain preclearance for any changes to their voting laws if they had a demonstrated pattern of denying voting rights. The legislation also established a formula for how jurisdictions subject to preclearance requirements would be identified.
The VRA enabled the federal government to step in to prevent states from making policy that kept people away from the polls. It complemented the Supreme Court’s one man–one vote rulings between 1962 and 1964; among other things, Baker v. Carr in 1962 and Reynolds v. Simms in 1964 ensured that states could not create districts that gave heavily populated urban areas the same representation as sparsely populated rural areas.
The VRA worked. The reforms of the mid-1960s were incomplete, with many issues still left on the table, but the trajectory was clear. In Mississippi, the state with the worst track record of race-based voter suppression, the percentage of eligible African American voters jumped from 7 percent in 1965 to 67 percent by 1969. The number of black elected officials in states where the federal government stepped in to enforce the VRA increased from about 72 in 1965 to over 1,000 by the mid-1970s.
The promise, however, was never fulfilled. By the early 1980s, a new generation opposed to African American political participation was resurrecting the old bromide of “voter fraud” in what would eventually become a successful attack on the VRA. A generation of conservative lawyers, many of whom cut their teeth in the Reagan White House (including future Supreme Court justice John Roberts), developed arguments that would be deployed by conservatives for gradually restricting the federal protections enacted in the 1960s.