The Voting Rights Act of 1965

Beverly L. Watts

Beverly L. Watts

In watching the movie Selma, I was reminded that it is a powerful movie about the push for and passage of the Voting Rights of 1965, which celebrates its 50th Anniversary this year. It captures the strength and the tenacity of Dr. King, his lieutenants, the clergy and many citizens from across this country and the citizens of Selma who marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965 as part of the campaign to secure the passage of equal voting rights.

After the March 7, 1965 Selma to Montgomery March across the Edmund Pettus Bridge erupted in violence with armed officers attacking peaceful civil rights demonstrators commonly known as Bloody Sunday, the movement gained momentum. After this incident Dr. King urged clergy from around the nation to come to Selma and President Johnson in a March 15, 1965 speech to Congress urged passage of the Voting Rights Act. In his speech he noted that the issue of voting rights was “an American problem” and noted “Their cause must be our cause too, because it is not just Negroes but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome….” Two days later on March 17, 1965 the Voting Rights Act (S. 1564) was introduced in the Senate by Democrat Mike Mansfield (Mont.) and Republican Everett Dirksen (Ill.). The senate bill passed on May 26, 1965 and the house bill passed on July 9, 1965. Both the House and Senate agreed and passed the bill in early August with President Johnson signing the Act into law on August 6, 1965. The Act eliminated literacy tests, poll tax, and other subjective voter tests that were widely responsible for the disfranchisement of African Americans in the southern states and provided Federal oversight of voter registration in states and individual voting districts where such discriminatory tests were used.

The movie and the actual history of these events highlights the challenges and issues of today. While watching the movie I couldn’t help but reflect on current demonstrations and marches, like ‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ and ‘I can’t breathe.’ There were no dogs, clubs, hoses or bombs like in 1965 but there has been excessive force, racial profiling and inequities in the administration of justice. There has been push back on the Voting Rights Act itself with the Supreme Court decision in June 25, 2013 Shelby County v Holder. The Court ruled 5-to-4 that Section 4(b) was unconstitutional because the coverage formula was based on 40-year-old data was no longer responsive to current needs and created an impermissible burden on the principles of federalism and equal sovereignty of the states. Numerous civil and human rights groups have been advocating for Congressional action to correct this decision arguing that current voter ID laws and other efforts have disenfranchised voters.

Some say the civil rights movement actually began with the arrival of Africans in 1619 with most remembering the successful movement of the 1950s and the 1960s and continues through today. The movement has had goals from its earliest days until now which include the elimination of racial discrimination, equal access to public facilities, fair housing, equal educational access and opportunities, economic justice, health equity, environmental justice, the pursuit of equal protection of the laws and the right to vote. The movement goals have also continued to expand from its initial coverage of African Americans to include coverage of other groups (women, other minorities, persons over 40, religious groups and emerging issues including LGBTQ to name a few) and issues including police profiling, and disproportionate incarceration rates for minorities.

Civil and human rights challenges continue to exist today in the very areas that Dr. King worked to eliminate. We continue to experience problems identified above and we continue to work on ways to overcome, ways to enhance and strengthen the victories of the 1960s and insure equal access for all. Dr. King noted that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We must identify today’s injustice and work to combat it. Some say that we have made great strides but the journey to achieve full equality is not complete. The issues we are fighting today are not as visual as those in the past but they are just as limiting and discouraging the principles of democracy. Our job is to rededicate ourselves to actions that will eliminate disparities and ensure access for all.

Beverly L. Watts is the executive director of the Tennessee Human Rights Commission.