Today in History: The 1965 Voting Rights Act

king and johnsonOn this day in 1965, many African American citizens gained the right that they had been robbed of for centuries; the right to vote. Prior to the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, black potential voters were intimidated and threatened when they attempted to register to vote.  It was legal to force poll tests at the ballot box, to recite the Constitution or perform literacy tests at the polls & were turned away if they failed to do so.   But today, the progress we’ve been working toward for decades is under attack.

The Voting Rights Act passed the House 333-85, going on to become one of the most meaningful pieces of legislation passed (it was renewed in 2006 by a margin of 390-22). Martin Luther King Jr. joined President Johnson in signing the Voting Rights Act into law 53 years ago.  In Mississippi alone, black voter turnout increased from 6 percent in 1964 to 59 percent in 1969. In 1965, there were only 6 African Americans in the U.S. House of Representatives and none on the U.S. Senate. By 1971, there were 13 black U.S. House Representatives and 1 black U.S. Senator. Today, there are more than 50 African Americans in the 115th Congress, and representation has increased for Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islanders, making this Congress the most diverse in history.   

Over the last five years, the Supreme Court has allowed the Voting Rights Act to be gutted in favor of discrimination and at the expense of our democracy.  In 2013, the case of Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme court invalidated one of the key protections of the Act.  With this year’s recent Supreme Court ruling in Husted v. A. Phillip Randolph Institute, the Supreme Court decided that it was admissible for states to remove voters from the roles. Voting rights should be indisputable and protected, but the courts are chipping away at the protections for our democracy.

The most recent Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh does not bode well for voting rights either. He has supported voter ID laws that disproportionately affect African Americans. He has indicated that he too would side with justices on the court who would strip away the protections of the Voting Rights Act.  As a country, we cannot allow one of the most groundbreaking and democratic functions of our country to be threatened.  We need to protect voting rights now, more than ever.