The Voting Rights Act: A 20th Century American Revolution

Today is the 47th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965 by a bipartisan (if sectional) majority of Congress, and signed by President Lyndon Johnson. With the fight over who deserves to vote having been reignited by the partisan push for voter identification, and with conservatives mounting legal attacks on key provisions of the Act, it’s worth noting the degree to which the VRA was a milestone for democracy in this country.

Prior to the VRA, African American voting in the South was close to nonexistent. A minority of blacks were registered to vote, and small percentages made it to the polls, but the overwhelming majority were kept disenfranchised through taxes, tests, onerous registration requirements, and outright violence—in 1873, to name one especially bloody example, a group of whites murdered over 100 blacks who'd assembled to defend Republican lawmakers from attack in Colfax, Louisiana.

It was during this time that the Democratic Party emerged as the chief political vehicle for white supremacy in the former Confederacy. The emergence of the Solid South allowed whites to exclude black or black-supported candidates from primaries, and to suppress the Republican Party as a means for partisan resistance. If that wasn’t enough to keep blacks out of the political process, some election officials would simply disregard their votes.

This map, provided by the University of Michigan, shows the percentage vote for Republican candidates in the 1922 election. The blue-shaded counties are ones where Republicans received less than 30 percent of the vote. The dark blue counties are ones where Republicans received zero votes. In the South, this can be used as something of a proxy for black voting; it's almost all blue:

As the map shows, few if any blacks, who were overwhelmingly Republican, voted in federal elections—much less state and local elections—at the beginning of the 20th century. There’s a painful irony in this; just five years earlier, President Woodrow Wilson had led Americans into a war to make the world “safe for democracy.” His administration also resegregated Washington, D.C., and opposed federal anti-lynching laws under the guise of federalism.

To call the Voting Rights Act a “landmark” law is to understate its significance. Given the context—a century of violent efforts to destroy black political participation—the VRA was an act of genuine revolution. August 6, 1965—the day the law went into effect—was the beginning of a sea change in American political life. The law would directly and indirectly franchise more than 20 million people, and open elected office to blacks for the first time since Reconstruction. This chart gives you a sense of the change:

Within a generation, in the former Confederacy, African American voter registration more than doubled from an average of 30 percent to an average of 65 percent. Likewise, the number of black elected officials jumped from nearly zero in 1964 to more than 9,000 in 2000, with two-thirds residing in the South. These tremendous strides were, in numerical terms, on par with democracy movements in developing countries around the world.

Here’s the big picture: African Americans have spent the vast majority of their time in this country—177 years, starting from the ratification of the Constitution—without the right to vote, or the ability to exercise it. This history should serve as a reminder; voter identification laws are so pernicious because for the most part, they are a disgraceful callback to a time when political parties used government to keep citizens from exercising their rights.