Voting Rights Act of 1965 and African-American Politics Thesis

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Voting Rights Act of 1965

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On February 12, 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) became one of the nation's first civil rights organizations aimed at promoting equal rights for African-Americans. Although the NAACP was founded mainly to combat racial violence, its overarching goal was "to secure for all people the rights guaranteed in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution, which promised an end to slavery, the equal protection of the law, and universal adult male suffrage, respectively" (APA, 2009). In 1910, the NAACP saw an early court victory, helping end a "discriminatory Oklahoma law that regulated voting by means of a grandfather clause" (APA, 2009). However, these discriminatory practices continued, and, after successful lobbying for the integration of the armed forces, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the NAACP lobbied for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (APA, 2009). To do so, the NAACP banded together with other civil rights organizations, to support the act. These civil rights organizations engaged in a series of highly-publicized protests, aimed at drawing attention to the voter disparity. There were protests throughout Alabama, including the famous march from Selma to Montgomery. These protests were met with tremendous violence by white people, including an "unprovoked attack on March 7, 1965, by state troopers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama" (USDOJ, 2008). This action prompted President Lyndon Johnson, who had not always been a proponent of civil rights, to ask Congress to enact a voting rights act with teeth.

TOPIC: Thesis on Voting Rights Act of 1965 and African-American Politics Assignment

Looking at the history of voting discrimination, Congress came to realize that "the existing federal anti-discrimination laws were not sufficient to overcome the resistance by state officials to enforcement of the 15th Amendment" (USDOJ, 2008). Even more significant was the fact that the legislative hearings revealed the futility of prior Department of Justice attempts to remedy the discrimination through lawsuits; "as soon as one discriminatory practice or procedure was proven to be unconstitutional and enjoined, a new one would be substituted in its place and litigation would have to commence anew" (USDOJ, 2008). Therefore, they, along with the Johnson Administration, began to work on a version of a voting rights protection act. Support for the act was far from unanimous; many congressmen still opposed the act. Both the Senate and the House initially passed their versions of the act, which were different, and both passed the act that resulted from a conference between the two houses. However, the final act was not supported by approximately 1/5th of the Senate and substantially more than 1/5th of the House of Representatives. President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law on August 6, 1965 (USDOJ, 2008).

The law had several significant features. First, it did not purport to outlaw some of the measures, like the poll tax, which had been traditionally used to deny African-Americans the right to vote. It did, however, prohibit voting literacy tests. Even more essential, although also more controversial, was the fact that the Act targeted specific jurisdictions:

where Congress believed the potential for discrimination to be the greatest. Under Section 5, jurisdictions covered by these special provisions could not implement any change affecting voting until the Attorney General or the United States District Court for the District of Columbia determined that the change did not have a discriminatory purpose and would not have a discriminatory affect. In addition, the Attorney General could designate a county covered by these special provisions for the appointment of a federal examiner to review the qualifications of persons who wanted to register to vote. Further, in those counties where a federal examiner was serving, the Attorney General could request that federal observers monitor activities within the county's polling place (USDOJ, 2008).

While the Voting Rights Act of 1965 did not prohibit the use of poll taxes, it did direct the Attorney General to challenge the use of those taxes. The Attorney General did so, and "on Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections, 383 U.S. 663 (1966), the Supreme Court held Virginia's poll tax to be unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment. Between 1965 and 1969 the Supreme Court also issued several key decisions upholding the constitutionality of Section 5 and affirming the broad range of voting practices that required Section 5 review" (USDOJ, 2008). In this way, the Supreme Court demonstrated support for the Act, showing that all three branches of the government were committed to voting equality. Moreover, Congress responded to the Supreme Court's broad support for the Act by extending the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in 1970 and 1975. In response to testimony that Hispanic, Asian, and Native American citizens had experienced significant voting discrimination, the 1975 amendments "added protections from voting discrimination for language minority citizens" (USDOJ, 2008). Throughout the 1970s, claims aimed at ending racially-discriminatory gerrymandering were successful, though that largely came to a halt in the 1980s, after the Supreme Court determined that racially discriminatory gerrymandering had to have a discriminatory purpose. Congress renewed the act in 1982, and amended Section 2 "to provide that a plaintiff could establish a violation of the Section without having to prove discriminatory purpose" (USDOJ, 2008).

Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 builds on two constitutional amendments. The first of those is the 15th Amendment, which granted African-American men the right to vote (U.S. Const. amend. XV). The second of those is the 19th Amendment, which granted female citizens, including African-Americans, the right to vote. Combined, these two amendments theoretically granted all African-Americans the right to vote, although there is still no constitutional amendment guaranteeing citizens the right to vote.

Voting Rights and African-Americans

The Civil Rights Division

The U.S. Department of Justice established the Civil Rights Division in 1957, in response to the first civil rights statutes since Reconstruction. Although these civil rights statutes now protect people from various racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, they were originally drafted to combat the institutionalized racism found in the Jim Crow south. "The Division is the primary institution within the federal government responsible for enforcing federal statutes prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, sex, handicap, religion, and national origin" (USDOJ, 2009). As such, it enforces national civil rights provisions, prosecutes criminal actions under the civil rights acts, and coordinates the civil rights enforcement efforts of other federal agencies.

Civil Rights Movement and Politics

While the federal civil rights statutes and the Civil Rights Division were instrumental in helping end legalized segregation and helping forward equality in America, it would be unwise for one to assume that the Civil Rights Movement was a political movement. On the contrary, the Civil Right Movement of the 1960s was a social movement, and it was social pressure, not political pressure that helped change the face of America. While white narratives of black acquiescence during the Jim Crow era might lead one to believe that blacks tacitly accepted such discrimination, the reality is that African-Americans actively opposed the institution of segregation from its beginning. "The NAACP had supported numerous legal battles from the 1920s forward- usually local litigation and investigations of lynching, challenging the unequal facilities of state institutions and laying down thereby a body of legal precedent used by the courts in the 1950s" (Davis, unknown). This resulted in a dramatic shift in African-American voter registration, going from more than 150,000 southern African-Americans registered to vote in 1940 to more than a million by 1952, despite the fact that there were still strong laws that were determined to prohibit blacks from voting (Davis, unknown). Rather than fighting for equality in the political realm, where African-Americans had little influence because they were being denied the right to vote, many of the early Civil Rights leaders chose to battle it in the courtroom, where they had a better chance of obtaining equality.

In addition, one must look at the Civil Rights Movement in a global context, and not simply from an American point-of-view. During much of the Jim Crow era, large parts of the world were still held as colonies, and racial exploitation was an accepted fact of life worldwide. However, the tide had begun to turn by the time that America entered into its Civil Rights Movement. While not all African-Americans at the time, or now, agree with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s position that passive resistance was the way to gain equality, the fact is that it made for very compelling press. Around the world, other citizens could see how white Americans responded with brutality and violence against black Americans who were only seeking to be treated as equals. Perhaps more significantly, Americans who did not live in the racially restrictive South, and who may not have otherwise believed that segregation was inappropriate, could see how pervasively evil the practice was.

African-American Politics

American Society Turnout

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