Fifty years ago, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. At the ceremony, he called the measure "one of the most monumental laws in the entire history of American freedom.”
The law bans discrimination based on a voter’s race or skin color. It also requires states with histories of racial barriers to get federal approval before changing any election rules.
The Voting Rights Act followed years of civil unrest and violence. African-Americans already had the constitutional right to vote. But the legislation helped end legal barriers that some states and counties had established.
"Millions of Americans are denied the right to vote because of their color," President Johnson said during the signing ceremony August 6, 1965. He promised that the new law would ensure that the federal government "will not turn aside until Americans of every race and color and origin in this country have the same right as all others to share in the process of democracy."
Registering new voters
In the next 50 years, U.S. voting lists added millions of African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans and others. Americans have voted an increasing number of minorities into public office, as well. And they have chosen a black man, Barack Obama, for the nation’s highest elective office – twice.
Many states also have eased voter registration processes and expanded voting times and absentee voting. Such steps have increased access to voting.
But some observers say the Voting Rights Act is under attack.
John Lewis is a Democratic Party lawmaker from Georgia. He has said there is a “systematic attempt to make it harder and more difficult for the disabled, students, seniors, minorities, poor and rural voters” to take part in voting.
Mr. Lewis has been involved in civil rights for many years. He was wounded in a 1965 march for voting rights.
The American Civil Liberties Union says a record number of voting restrictions were established in 2011. The group says the measures include photo identification requirements and other restrictions to voter registration.
Legislative activity sped up
Wendy Underhill is with the National Conference of State Legislatures. She said states have been making more changes to local voting laws since the narrowly won presidential race of 2000. She said states legally can make changes. But, she said, any changes must also honor federal law.
In June 2013, the Supreme Court rejected an enforcement provision of the Voting Rights Act. The provision involved nine states with histories of severe racial discrimination. The provision required them to get federal approval before changing election processes.
North Carolina in spotlight
A month after the ruling, North Carolina enacted a combination of new rules. The state law ended same-day voter registration, stopped preregistration of 16- and 17-year-olds, and cut back early voting from 17 days to 10.
The U.S. Justice Department and several civil rights groups disputed the new election law. They said the Republican-led legislation meant to exclude many African American, Hispanic and young voters from the voting process. These groups generally vote for Democrats.
However, the state argued that there was no discriminatory design. And it said that the voting rate of African-Americans had increased after the new rules were in place.
A judge is expected to decide the case later this year.
A signal event
After the Civil War, the U.S. ended slavery, guaranteed citizenships and gave African-American men the right to vote. But some states and counties established rules that prevented them from doing so. Many blacks risked beatings and other deadly force for attempting to vote.
The civil rights movement reached a turning point on March 7, 1965. The day came to be known as Bloody Sunday. Some 600 voting rights supporters planned to march peacefully to Alabama’s state capital of Montgomery from Selma. But as they left Selma, the marchers encountered 150 police at the Edmund Pettis Bridge. The security forces attacked the demonstrators.
"They came toward us, beating us with nightsticks, trampling us with horses, releasing the tear gas," recalled Congressman Lewis, who had helped organize the march. The 25-year-old was hit on the head with a police stick and suffered a concussion.
“I thought I was going to die. I thought I saw death."
Victory at last
The public was horrified at the images of the attack on television and in newspapers. Martin Luther King came to see Congressman Lewis at the hospital. He remembers what the civil rights leader said to him.
"…and said, John, don't worry, we will make it from Selma to Montgomery and the Voting Rights Act will be passed."
King's prediction came true. He and 2,000 others completed the march to Montgomery in late March. The Voting Rights Act became law about five months later.
These days, Congressman Lewis is pushing to restore Voting Rights Act protections he said were ended by the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision.
He said, "If we fail or cannot repair the damage done to this act ... we will be less a democratic country, a democratic society.”
I’m Jonathan Evans with Caty Weaver.
VOA’s Chris Simkins and Carol Guensburg reported this story. Caty Weaver wrote it for Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.
Words in This Story
monumental – adj. very important
county – n. an area of a state or country that is larger than a city and has its own government to deal with local matters
origin – n. the point or place where something begins or is created: the source or cause of something
absentee voting – n. legal entry of votes by voters who is not able to be present when the election occurs
provision – n. a condition that is included as part of an agreement or law