Voting Rights Act: Beyond the Headlines
By Emilye Crosby and Judy Richardson
The Voting Rights Act (VRA), which was signed into law on August 6, 1965, was a significant victory for the Civil Rights Movement, southern African Americans, and American democracy. It outlawed many of the strategies that had been used by white supremacists to disfranchise Black citizens and included provisions to facilitate the registration of new voters. Together with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act ended most of the remaining legal forms of white supremacy. Although this was tremendously important, it did not end all forms of racial discrimination, many of which were—and are—strongly embedded in the structures of our society.
Many textbooks approach history through a top-down lens that gives President Lyndon Johnson, along with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., most of the credit for this important legislation. While both men did play a key role, the Voting Rights Act came into being through intensive organizing and activism spearheaded by the Black community, including people who are often marginalized and not seen as central to our democracy. It is tempting to think of universal voting rights as one of the fundamental pillars of our country, but access to the vote has been hard fought and even today we face many challenges and rollbacks. Moreover although voting rights have always been essential, they are not a given and do not alone secure equality. The struggle for civil and human rights for all must continue. An understanding of the untold history of the VRA can inform and strengthen that struggle. Here are some key points missing from most textbooks.
1.) Long before the Voting Rights Act, Reconstruction launched another vibrant period of democracy and voting rights.
During Reconstruction, African Americans used the vote to democratize the South. Although only men were allowed to vote in formal elections, women and children often participated actively in Black community meetings, even voting on delegates and platforms. Black women often accompanied men to the polls, sometimes bringing weapons for protection.
This community-wide engagement with the vote translated into progressive laws, including policies that laid the foundation for free universal public education. As with many rights secured by the African American struggle, the Black vote expanded benefits beyond the Black community.
2.) Black voting rights have been attacked and rolled back throughout our history.
African American political power gained during Reconstruction was overthrown by massive fraud and domestic terrorism. The federal government stood by as white supremacists regained control over state and local governments. The timing and process varied across the South, but the end result was the re-establishment of white oppression through Jim Crow laws that remained in place until the modern Civil Rights Movement.
A prime example is Wilmington, NC, where whites in the Democratic Party conducted a coup d’etat that annihilated the legitimately elected local government (an alliance of Black Republicans and white populists) and destroyed the Black newspaper. Reports vary widely, but at least 25 (and quite possibly more) African Americans were murdered and many others fled in response to this violent assertion of white power.
3.) From the end of Reconstruction through the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, white supremacists used numerous tactics to keep African Americans from accessing their constitutional right to vote.
From the end of Reconstruction (approx. 1877) through the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, whites in power used a range of tactics to suppress or manipulate black voting.
These included the “grandfather clause,” literacy and comprehension tests, the white primary, and the poll tax–all applied almost exclusively to African Americans. Whites also used economic terrorism and violence to harass and punish potential (and actual) voters. The impact was wide scale disfranchisement based on race. For example, in Lowndes, County, Alabama, before the Voting Rights Act, there were no Blacks registered to vote even though they made up 81% of the county’s population. In contrast, approximately 130% of eligible whites were on the rolls (2500 whites registered to vote although there were only 1900 eligible), a clear example of fraud.
Mississippi native Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer describes what happened when she took the registration test in August 1962:
Well, there was 18 of us who went down to the courthouse that day and all of us were arrested. Police said that the bus was painted the wrong color–said it was too yellow. . . . I went back to the plantation where [my husband] Pap and I had lived for eighteen years. My oldest girl met me and told me that Mr. Marlowe, the plantation owner, was mad and raising sand. He had heard that I had tried to register. That night he called on us and said, “We’re not going to have this in Mississippi and you will have to withdraw.” . . . If you don’t withdraw you will have to leave. . . So I left that same night. Pap had to stay on till work on the plantation was through. Ten days later they fired into Mrs. Tucker’s house where I was staying. They also shot two girls at Mr. [Sisson’s].
Even as Hamer and her husband struggled to find work and housing to care for their family, she continued her activism. A year after her first attempt to register, Mrs. Hamer and eight other people returning from Citizenship Education training were arrested and viciously beaten. She recalled, “after I got out of jail, half dead, I found out that Medgar Evers had been shot down in his own yard.” Testifying at the 1964 Democratic Convention, Mrs. Hamer said, “All of this is on account of we want to register, to become first-class citizens” and concluded with these words:
If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?
4.) The modern voting rights struggle had deep roots in the rural South.
At times African Americans prioritized improving educational opportunities, securing land ownership, and developing the institutions–such as churches–that later provided a critical base for the Civil Rights Movement, but they never conceded their right to vote. Even when it was extremely dangerous, there were always men and women trying to register and vote. In 1944, the NAACP won a landmark case, Smith v. Allwright, ruling the white primary–where only white voters could participate in political primaries–unconstitutional. This victory inspired an upsurge in Black voter registration that was reinforced by Black veterans returning home from overseas. One of these veterans was Medgar Evers, who became Mississippi’s first NAACP field secretary and was assassinated in June 1963 for his civil rights work. He describes his first attempt to vote after successfully registering:
[S]ix of us gathered at my house and we walked to the polls. I’ll never forget it. Not a Negro was on the streets, and when we got to the courthouse, the clerk said he wanted to talk with us. When we got into his office, some 15 or 20 armed white men surged in behind us, men I had grown up with, had played with. We split up and went home. Around town, Negroes said we had been whipped, beaten up, and run out of town. Well, in a way we were whipped, I guess, but I made up my mind then that it would not be like that again, at least not for me.
In 1955, the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, which Evers and Amzie Moore helped lead, hosted a meeting of more than 10,000 Black citizens. According to Jet magazine, Moore was almost trampled giving out voter registration forms.
Following the Brown decision and the rise of the white Citizens’ Council, there was a huge backlash. Such meetings became impossible and many leaders were forced out of the state.
5. The federal government has played a contradictory role in the fight for voting rights.
The Supreme Court gradually outlawed discriminatory practices, like the grandfather clause, the white primary, and the poll tax, but in general the federal government played a relatively passive role. This was exacerbated by the power of Southern Democrats (known as Dixiecrats) in Congress who used their power to advance states’ rights and white supremacy. Partly because of the suppression of the Black vote, many Dixiecrats had considerable seniority, which allowed them to control key committees and make it difficult to pass civil rights legislation. Even when the Kennedy Justice Department used what civil rights activist Bob Moses calls “the crawl space” created by the 1957 Civil Rights Act to file lawsuits charging numerous Southern officials with racial discrimination in voter registration, their work was undermined by other branches of the federal government.
Some white supremacist judges, including a few nominated by Kennedy, blocked the department’s work at every turn and the FBI only reluctantly carried out the necessary investigations. Under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI was more interested in undermining Dr. King than helping the Justice Department prove its racial discrimination cases. Moreover, after initially promising to protect anyone working on voter registration, the Kennedy administration backtracked and the FBI flatly refused to protect civil rights workers, even when they were attacked on federal property in front of agents. More lives might have been lost if Black citizens had not used weapons to protect themselves and the young organizers they were working with.
6.) SNCC’s organizing around voter registration fundamentally changed our country, both because of what they did and how they did it.
SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), an organization of young people that emerged from the 1960 sit-in movement, developed an approach to grassroots community organizing that has influenced every subsequent progressive movement. Their voter registration work in the deep South was built around canvassing–going door-to-door, talking to people–and relied on patience, education, and building relationships. The work could be slow and tedious. It took place out of the spotlight, with few big or quick victories.
Influenced by Ella Baker and community leaders, the young people in SNCC made decisions by consensus, helped develop leadership skills in others, and challenged hierarchies that privileged wealth and education. In the summer of 1961, a group of about 16 young people put school and jobs on hold to become SNCC’s first field staff and commit to full time movement work. Their approach to voter registration, which quickly found a base in the Mississippi Delta, was strongly influenced by WWII veteran Amzie Moore, working closely with SNCC’s Bob Moses. Over the next four years–working with other organizations and allies–SNCC was successful at organizing rural African American communities and making it impossible for the country to ignore the violence and discrimination at the heart of Jim Crow and white supremacy. Though SNCC was not acting alone, their work was at the heart of the movement that moved people to insist that our country eliminate the legal basis of white supremacy. SNCC’s organizing led directly to the Voting Rights Act, expanding the electorate and ending the undemocratic stranglehold of the Southern Dixiecrats. Their work made the national Democratic Party more explicitly representative (in race and gender).
Perhaps most importantly, SNCC recognized and nurtured leadership in people that the rest of the country had dismissed, like Mrs. Hamer. She went from a circumscribed life as a sharecropper with a 6th grade education to being a nationally-recognized leader and one of the first Black women seated on the floor of the Senate. SNCC’s alliance with these everyday people breathed new life into our democracy–challenging longstanding ideas of who and what was important.
7.) SNCC upended traditional ideas about who was qualified to vote.
White supremacists responded to the voting rights campaign by manipulating the registration process, firing and evicting people, burning and bombing homes and churches, as well as beating and even murdering people. White officials then used the low numbers of African Americans registered to vote to insist that Blacks had no interest in politics. In response, SNCC organized Freedom Days, first in Selma, Alabama, in 1963and in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in 1964. Whether in the punishing sun or pouring rain, people lined up to demonstrate their desire to vote. With little chance of actually registering, much less voting, they stayed in line and refused to be intimidated by white threats and harassment.
Working with a coalition of civil rights groups called COFO, SNCC also organized a Freedom Vote, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and the Congressional Challenge. Each was designed to demonstrate that Blacks did want to vote and participate in politics. In addition, each provided an important experiential education for people who had been excluded from the political process for almost a century. Throughout this process, SNCC field secretaries were learning from the people they were working with. SNCC field secretary Prathia Hall reflected,
The local people had the wisdom of the elders–or perhaps the wisdom of the ages–to share with us. They had lived under that system of domination and brutality for generations. Everyone knew someone whose loved one had been beaten or killed by its violence. They also knew about life and how to live life without surrendering humanity or dignity to those who sought to crush them. It was an exchange of mutual learning. (Prathia Hall, in Hands on the Freedom Plow, p. 176. Read more.)
By 1963, in addition to helping people improve their literacy, SNCC began to challenge the whole idea of requiring literacy to vote. Bob Moses pointed out that white Mississippians used the political process to deny Blacks access to a quality education and then used their poor education to deny them access to the political process. Moreover, they had encountered many people who had been denied education but still had more than enough wisdom to vote on their representatives. Stokely Carmichael described the delegates selected to represent the Delta’s Congressional district at a state meeting of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party this way:
The “politically unsophisticated” people in their collective wisdom knew who could be trusted. Who deserved the honor. Who had earned the right. Who had a clear head and strong heart. The delegation was a cross section of service and merit, across sex and age, status or education. I mean you had the old warriors . . . who’d kept hope and dignity alive during some long, dismal, savage years. The valiant women . . . mothers of struggle. And too, the next generation, a few young college students, clearly intended to keep the struggle going. (Carmichael with Thelwell, Ready for Revolution, p. 394)
8.) Though Dr. King and President Johnson are typically credited with passage of the Voting Rights Act, an organized grassroots movement made it happen.
President Lyndon Johnson supported the Voting Rights Act, but the critical push for the legislation came from the Movement itself. SNCC organizers played a key role in demonstrating–and documenting–the unrelenting, often violent, and officially-sanctioned discrimination that prospective Black voters faced. This gave Justice Department officials, including John Doar, clear examples of discrimination in the voting rights lawsuits they filed against hostile white registrars in the Deep South. Over time, the slow pace and piecemeal nature of these cases helped convince the Justice Department that a more systematic solution was necessary. Doar, speaking at the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Civil Rights division at the Justice Department, asserted that the Selma and voting rights success was built on the preceding but more obscure work of SNCC and the dirt farmers in Greenwood, Mississippi, which first prompted the department’s development of a comprehensive new approach to voting rights protection, that became the template for the department’s interventions in Selma.
This, in conjunction with the demonstrations led by Dr. King in Selma, Alabama, generated public support for voting rights legislation. Scholar Charles Payne warns us that it is easy to focus on major legislation when, in fact, what may be more significant is the groundswell that made it necessary or subsequent action that made it meaningful.
9.) SNCC sought not only Black access to the vote, but also to transform voting into “freedom politics” and small-d democracy for all.
After marching through Lowndes County during the Selma-to-Montgomery march, SNCC organizers returned to the county known as “Bloody Lowndes,” intent on using the Voting Rights Act to improve the daily lives of African Americans in the community. The organizing effort in Lowndes County provides a wonderful case study of SNCC’s approach to using the vote. As they considered their options–including a racist local Democratic Party (which had “white supremacy for the right” as its slogan) and a nationally mixed, but locally non-existent, Republican Party–SNCC’s Courtland Cox asked, “what would it profit a man to have the vote and not be able to control it?” He explained,
The Negroes of Lowndes County want a political grouping that is controlled by them. They want a political grouping that is responsive to the needs of the poor, not necessarily the black people, but those who are illiterate, those who have poor educations, those of low income, that is to say, those who are [considered] unqualified in this society. To do this they had to form a group on the county level that represented their own interests.
Based on this idea, SNCC worked with local residents to form an independent political party, the Lowndes County Freedom Party (LCFP). According to Gloria House, one of SNCC’s field secretaries, “we were helping to equip the people with the information and skills essential to running the county themselves not just as new voters but also as political leaders. We found that a review of African American and African history, giving a strong sense of historical identity, was of immeasurable significance in this process.”
In fact, according to historian Hasan Kwame Jeffries, SNCC “developed a unique political education program for Lowndes County residents that used workshops, mass meetings, and primers to increase general knowledge of local government and democratize political behavior.” This wasn’t just voting or even politics as usual. Jeffries explains that SNCC linked their “egalitarian organizing methods” with the people’s civil and human rights goals to create what he calls “freedom politics,” an approach which rejected traditional American politics and instead emphasized acting on the community’s best interests. The LCFP developed its platform before nominating candidates and the candidates who stepped forward reflected the community’s goals. For example, Alice Moore, who ran for tax assessor, announced that she would “tax the rich to feed the poor.”
SNCC’s work clearly followed Ella Baker’s belief that “In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed… It means facing a system that does not lend its self to your needs and devising means by which you change that system.”
SNCC’s work in Lowndes also provided the base for their use of the phrase “Black Power,” popularized by Stokely Carmichael in June 1966. According to SNCC’s Courtland Cox, Black Power meant “1) the power to define oneself; 2) the power to control one’s own condition and vote to control one’s own community; and 3) the power to use politics to enhance one’s own economic condition.”
10.) The Black Panther symbol was first used in Lowndes County, Alabama.
When the Lowndes County Freedom Party was founded, Alabama law required that it have a symbol to help illiterate voters. They chose the Black Panther, which was indigenous to Lowndes, as their ballot symbol.
John Hulett explains, “This black panther is a vicious animal as you know. He never bothers anything, but when you start pushing him, he moves backwards, backwards, backwards into his corner, and then he comes out to destroy everything that’s before him.” When young Black activists in Oakland, California, established an organization to combat police brutality, they adopted the snarling black panther symbol and the LCFP’s informal name, the “Black Panther Party.”
Although white Southerners had a long history of using violence to maintain their power, the federal government and media expressed considerable alarm when African Americans chose the Black Panther as a symbol, exposing a persistent double-standard related to race and violence. Many white Americans voiced fear of armed African Americans and called on Black citizens to be “nonviolent,” while ignoring or downplaying the persistent violence perpetrated by whites, including those in law enforcement.
11.) Federal protection for voting rights is still necessary.
In July 2013, the deeply divided United States Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, a case coming out of Alabama. Arguing in part that it is arbitrary and no longer necessary to focus exclusively on the former Confederacy, the court’s majority eliminated the pre-clearance requirement for nine Southern states. This means that the Justice Department can no longer check for racial bias in new voting and electoral laws in these states. Given widespread efforts to block voting access in areas across the nation that were not governed by federal review, it may well be arbitrary to hold the former Confederate states to a different standard. But the response of those states, along with other forms of voter suppression enacted throughout the country, makes it quite clear that we still need robust, proactive tools to protect voting rights for all citizens, but particularly African Americans, students, immigrants, and other marginalized groups. Rather than being curtailed, the Voting Rights Act should be extended. No doubt future historians will look back at today’s voter ID laws, ex-felon disfranchisement, and other forms of voter suppression (including Jim Crow voting booths) as a 21st-century version of the literacy tests, poll tax, and grandfather clause of the last century.
12.) The Civil Rights Movement made important gains, but the struggle continues.
The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts removed most forms of legal discrimination against African Americans, but they did not bring an immediate end to the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow. Current protests over police brutality and the disregard for Black lives; the persistence of extreme economic and racial segregation; and the tenacity of separate and unequal schools clearly demonstrate that although the Voting Rights Act was necessary, it is not sufficient for addressing white supremacy and oppression of people of color. Unfortunately, the words of Ella Baker, one of the most important figures in the black freedom struggle, still echo today. In 1964 she asserted, “until the killing of black men, black mother’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest.” Baker’s words were captured in “Ella’s Song,” by Bernice Johnson Reagon, a SNCC field secretary and founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock. Although the context has changed, there are many direct links between the freedom struggle of the 1950s and 1960s and today. And millennial activists are creating a new movement that builds on the work of previous generations.
This brief introduction to the bottom up history of the VRA can help students and others learn valuable lessons. Reagon explained to an interviewer that the movement gave her “the power to challenge any line that limits me. . . . And that is what it meant to me, [it] just really gave me a real chance to fight and to struggle and not respect boundaries that put me down.”
Emilye Crosby is professor of history and coordinator of Black Studies at SUNY Geneseo. She is the author of A Little Taste of Freedom: The Black Freedom Struggle in Claiborne County, Mississippi and editor of Civil Rights History from the Ground Up. She is working on a book length project, Anything I Was Big Enough To Do: Women and Gender in SNCC, with a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Read more.
Judy Richardson was on the staff of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1963-66 and was researcher, series associate producer, and education director for the 14 hour PBS series Eyes on the Prize. Her other films include Malcolm X: Make It Plain and Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre 1968. She is currently on the SNCC Legacy Project Board and the editorial board for the One Person, One Vote pilot collaboration between the SNCC Legacy Project and Duke University. She co-edited Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC. Read more.