This month 40 years ago, Aug. 6 to be exact, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally was enacted into law after a century of congressional stonewalling on fully implementing the 15th Amendment and granting full suffrage to African-Americans. Prior to enactment of that law, some states in the South had used poll taxes, literacy tests and outright intimidation to deny blacks their legal right to vote. The Voting Rights Act put an end to those abuses.
It abolished poll taxes and literacy tests and effectively prohibited any voting practice that would abridge the right to vote on the basis of race. The law also provided for criminal and civil sanctions against individual who interfered with the right to vote.
Congress finally enacted the Voting Rights Act largely in response to public outrage at the murder of voting rights activists, both white and black, and the unprovoked police violence visited on peaceful voting-rights advocates marching from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., an event that came to be known as "Bloody Sunday." When marchers, led by the courageous John Lewis, now a congressman from Georgia, attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama state troopers attacked the peaceful demonstrators with billy clubs, tear gas and bullwhips, resulting in the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was shot while attempting to protect his mother from being beaten by police.
"We were beaten, tear-gassed and trampled by horses," recalled Lewis.
The 1965 law empowered the federal government to oversee voter registration in counties using discriminatory tests and in counties that had low minority turnout rates in the 1964 presidential election. The impact of the law was immediate. It's hard to imagine today, but just 40 years ago discrimination against African-Americans was so pervasive that there were many counties in the Deep South where no black people voted, period. Within four years of the law's enactment, black registration in Mississippi rose from 7 percent to 60 percent. While only 19 percent of eligible black voters were actually registered to vote in Alabama in 1965, today 74 percent are registered.
In order to prevent new forms of voter restrictions, the law has been renewed four times. In 1975, the law was expanded to require bilingual ballots in areas with high concentrations of foreign-speaking citizens. In 1982, the Voting Rights Act was extended to cover the rights of voters with disabilities.