August 6th marks the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). This momentous piece of legislation worked to ensure Black Americans could exercise their constitutional right to vote by combating voter suppression tactics.
“I have said this before, and I will say it again – the vote is precious. It is almost sacred. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democracy.” – John Lewis
Right after the Civil War ended in 1870, the United States ratified the 15th amendment — which extended the right to vote to Black people. The amendment reads: “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” But despite its ratification, most Black people in the country could not vote due to voter suppression tactics such as poll taxes, intimidation, and literacy tests. It was during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s – almost a century after the 15th amendment was ratified – that President Lyndon Johnson announced intentions to pass a voting rights act due to the tireless work of activists.
In 1965, the VRA was signed into law. The legislation worked to ensure all Black people had the right to vote by outlawing literacy tests and institutionalizing federal oversight to voter registration in places with implemented voter suppression tactics. Following its passage, the country saw a radical shift in Black voter registration. In Mississippi, the Black voter registration rate went from 6.7% in 1965 to 59.8% in 1967.
Unfortunately, in 2013 all of that changed. The United States Supreme Court, in Shelby County v. Holder, struck down the oversight portion of the VRA. This means that the federal government no longer has the power to stop states from enacting suppressive voting laws.
Now, the VRA has been almost completely gutted, and states are getting away with silencing thousands of voices by passing restrictive legislation – such as voter ID laws. Following the death of Rep. John Lewis – a civil rights activist who fought for voting rights – activists have pushed even harder for the VRA’s restoration, stating the proper way to honor him is to ensure voting rights are protected.
Sources: NAACP 08/06, Brennan Center for Justice 08/06, History 08/06, New York Times 08/06