Civil Rights and Voting: History and Law

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits discrimination in voting practices or procedures because of race and color. In 1957 and 1960, Congress had enacted voting rights laws that took small steps toward increasing minority voting participation for all Americans. The 1965 Act, however, made huge strides towards making voting rights a reality. The Act prohibited literacy tests and poll taxes which had been used to prevent blacks from voting. In 1975, Congress recognized the need to protect citizens who did not read or speak English well enough to participate in the political process and expanded the protections of the Voting Rights Act to them.

In 1963, civil rights activists began an effort to register black voters in Dallas County, Alabama. During 1963 and 1964, although they brought potential voters by the hundreds to the registrar’s office in the courthouse in Selma, they were unable to get them registered to vote. In January and February 1965, protests were held in Selma to bring attention to this violation of rights. The protests were met by violence by Sheriff James Clark and his deputies. On February 17, a small civil rights march ended in the shooting of Jimmy Lee Jackson who died from his wounds several days later. The civil rights activists decided to hold a memorial march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery on March. 7.

Approximately 600 marchers started out on the march that Sunday morning. When the marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge on the outskirts of Selma, they were met by about 200 state troopers, and Sheriff Clark and his deputies mounted on horseback, all armed with tear gas, night sticks and bull whips. The marchers were ordered to turn back. When they did not, they were attacked by the law enforcement officers. The air filled with tear gas and marchers were beaten, whipped and trampled by the horses. Finally, they turned around and returned to Selma. 17 marchers were hospitalized.

Dr. King and his supporters filed a federal lawsuit requesting to be permitted to proceed with the march. On March 21, the march began again, with federal troops protecting the marchers, and proceeded to Montgomery. In Montgomery, a rally was held on the steps of the state capitol. However, within hours of the end of the march, 4 Ku Klux Klan members shot and killed Viola Liuzzo, a white 39-year-old civil rights volunteer from Detroit, Michigan, who had come to support the Alabama African-Americans. President Lyndon Johnson said, “Mrs. Liuzzo went to Alabama to serve the struggle for justice. She was murdered by the enemies of justice who for decades have used the rope and the gun and the tar and the feather to terrorize their neighbors.” In August, 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act.

According to a report of the Bureau of the Census from 1982, in 1960 there were 22,000 African-Americans registered to vote in Mississippi, but in 1966 the number had risen to 175,000. Alabama went from 66,000 African-American registered voters in 1960 to 250,000 in 1966. South Carolina’s African-American registered voters went from 58,000 to 191,000 in the same time period.