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Looking Back on Voting Rights

Excerpt of President Johnson’s Speech on Voting Rights, March 15, 1965

In recent months, many state legislatures have tried to implement voter identification laws, in some cases requiring photo identification for people coming to vote. However, many of these efforts have been thwarted. Last week, the Wisconsin State Journal reported:

"A Dane County judge on Tuesday barred the enforcement of the state photo ID law at polling places during the general election on April 3, calling it an 'extremely broad and largely needless' impairment of the right to vote."

Similarly Talking Points Memo ran a story about the Texas voter identification law, writing that:

"the Department of Justice refused to preclear a photo voter identification law signed by Texas Governor Rick Perry because it would have a greater impact on Hispanic voters."

ABC News noted that:

"Texas is the second state to see its voter ID law shot down by the Obama administration, after a similar law in South Carolina was struck down in December."

To supporters of these efforts, they are designed to prevent voter fraud. To some observers, however, these efforts harken back to the 1960s, when civil rights activists and everyday citizens protested voting restrictions, especially on African Americans. Talking Points Memo quoted former President Bill Clinton as saying:

“There has never been in my lifetime, since we got rid of the poll tax and all the Jim Crow burdens on voting, the determined effort to limit the franchise that we see today.”

From the 1890s, African Americans had been denied the right to vote by state laws that were administered in a racially discriminatory manner by local voting registrars. These included literacy tests, "good character" tests, and the poll tax. The poll tax was eliminated by constitutional amendment in 1964, which left the literacy test as the major barrier. In 1965, civil rights activists organized a march from Selma, Alabama, to protest restrictions on voting. On March 7, 1965, about 600 civil rights marchers headed out from Selma only to be met with violence as state and local police attacked and beat some protesters bloody in scenes that appeared on national television.

Seizing on the public revulsion, President Lyndon Johnson used the opportunity to propose the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In a joint session of Congress on this day in 1965, President Johnson made his case before the American people. He signed the Voting Rights Act on August 5, 1965. After the law was passed, the results were immediate and significant. Black voter turnout tripled within four years, coming very close to white turnouts throughout the South. 

Watch the full speech here.

 

 

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