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The Voting Rights Act at 50: Why We Still Need It—All of It

Liz Kennedy

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, which has been both sword and shield for racial equity and inclusive democracy. And yet today, the right to vote for millions of Americans is in more danger than at any time since the passage of the law, thanks to the Supreme Court decision two years ago that struck down the most important part of the law and cleared the way for states to enact targeted voting restrictions.

Just six months after Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965, when nonviolent civil rights marchers were attacked in Selma, Alabama, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Congress passed and President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The fight to realize political rights for people of color has been a story of advances and regressions, constructions, reconstructions, and deconstructions. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “Give Us the Ballot” address in 1957, noting the opposition to the Brown v. Board of Education decision and practice of “nullification” throughout the South. He indicted the continuing practices in which “all types of conniving methods are still being used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters. The denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic tradition.”

The 15th Amendment grants Congress the power to enact legal measures designed to stop racial discrimination in voting. The adoption of the 15th Amendment during Reconstruction—along with the 13th and 14th Amendments—was a condition for the former Confederate states to rejoin the Union after the Civil War. But since the end of Reconstruction in 1876, with the disputed election of President Rutherford B. Hayes and the withdrawal of federal troops, Southern states had been effectively nullifying the 15th Amendment. The VRA finally put real legal protections and power behind the push for political participation by people of color.

For the last 50 years, the VRA has been the most successful civil rights law ever enacted by Congress, and always on a bipartisan basis. Each time Congress has reauthorized the enforcement provisions, they were signed by Republican presidents—Nixon in 1970, Ford in 1975, Reagan in 1982, and George W. Bush in 2006. Whatever political disagreements existed, there was a basic understanding that voting rights—and particularly voting that is free of racial discrimination—was fundamental to our identity as a free people because it is preservative of all other rights.