By William Fisher
The summer of 1965 found the United States in turmoil.
President Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, who had taken office in 1963 following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, was already stepping up troop deployments to Vietnam, and an embryonic anti-war movement was beginning to gain the traction that would ultimately cause Johnson to decline to run for reelection in 1968.
Elsewhere in the nation, however, millions of Americans were not yet focused on Vietnam. Their struggle – begun soon after the Civil War in the 1860s – continued to be to secure equality and justice for African Americans.
The effects of the historic 1954 Supreme Court decision barring school segregation, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawing racial discrimination in restaurants, hotels and other public facilities, had yet to be fully felt. And a key factor in the fight for racial equality had yet to be addressed.
Throughout the southern states and in many in the north, African Americans were effectively denied the right to vote. The 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted almost a century earlier, guaranteed every (male) citizen the right to vote. But the amendment was being routinely circumvented by state-imposed poll taxes, literacy tests, gerrymandering and ‘grandfathering’ – allowing the vote only to persons who had voted earlier, whether or not they were literate, and thus excluding black citizens.
African Americans also risked harassment, intimidation, economic reprisals, and physical violence when they tried to register or vote. As a result, very few African Americans were registered voters, and have virtually no political power, either locally or nationally.
In the sleepy town of Selma, Alabama, the right to vote had led to frequent and often bloody demonstrations. There were angry confrontations between civil rights supporters and the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups, usually supported by the police.
Black citizens there were outraged by the killing of a demonstrator by a state trooper in nearby Marion, Alabama, and scheduled a march from Selma to
Montgomery, the state capital, to appeal directly to Governor George C. Wallace to stop police brutality and call attention to their struggle for suffrage.
But when the marchers reached the city line, they found a posse of state troopers waiting for them. As the demonstrators crossed the bridge leading out of Selma, they were ordered to disperse, but the troopers did not wait for their warning to be heeded.
They immediately attacked the crowd of people who had bowed their heads in prayer. Using tear gas and batons, the troopers chased the demonstrators to a black housing project, where they continued to beat the demonstrators as well as residents of the project who had not been at the march.
One of the organizers of the Selma-Montgomery march was John Lewis, who had been a voting rights registration organizer, and one of the young men beaten on the Selma Bridge that Sunday. He currently serves as a U.S. Congressman for the State of Georgia.
The day came to be known as “Bloody Sunday”. Numerous marches were organized in response, and Rev. Martin Luther King led a second march to the Selma Bridge the following Tuesday, during which one protestor was killed.
But it was the death of a white man that gave President Johnson the political juice to call for an end to the violence. On the evening of Bloody Sunday, a group of Selma whites killed a northern white minister who had joined the demonstrations.
In contrast to the killing of a black man, Jimmy Lee Jackson, a few weeks earlier, Reverend James Reeb's death led to a national outcry. The combination of public revulsion to the violence and Johnson's political skills stimulated Congress to act.
As a result of Bloody Sunday, Johnson gave a passionate speech to congress demanding suffrage for black citizens. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act “to enforce the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution” the same year. The act was signed into law on August 6, 1965, 95 years after the 15th Amendment was ratified. It outlawed discriminatory voting practices including poll taxes and literacy tests as prerequisites to voting.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 had an almost immediate impact by greatly increasing the number of southern blacks able to register to vote. 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 period.
By the end of 1965, a quarter of a million new black voters had been registered, one-third by Federal examiners. By the end of 1966, only 4 out of the 13 southern states had fewer than 50 percent of African Americans registered to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was readopted and strengthened in 1970, 1975, and 1982.
The Voting Rights Act was the most significant statutory change in the relationship between the Federal and state governments in the area of
voting since the Reconstruction period following the Civil War. So it was not surprising that it was immediately challenged in the courts. Between 1965 and 1969, the Supreme Court issued several key decisions upholding its constitutionality.
But injustices against African Americans have not gone away. The U.S. Senate is currently considering a resolution apologizing for the epidemic of lynching that terrorized black Americans up to the mid-20th century, but Congress has never passed an anti-lynching law, though it is clear it had the necessary votes.
And it has resisted attempts to expand hate crimes statutes. Civil rights commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson wrote recently, “The Congressional inaction on an expanded hate crimes law reinforces the public perception that terrorism comes only in the form of Al-Qaeda attacks, and presumes that sexually and racially motivated violence are isolated acts committed by a handful of quacks and unreconstructed bigots, and that state authorities vigorously report and prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes. This is a myth.”