Southern History and Civil Rights in the News 6 August 2021

Scout Johnson's picture
6 August 2021
This Week’s History:
This week we celebrate the fifty-sixth anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Section 2 reads, “No voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” The bill was framed “to enforce the guarantees of the Fifteenth Amendment” by eliminating literacy, citizenship, or morality tests, as well as adding federal officials empowered to register voters in jurisdictions that were lagging in participation. Section 5 added the “preclearance” statute to many of those same jurisdictions, requiring preapproval from either the US Attorney General or the DC District Court for any changes to voting laws. The law also followed up the Twenty-Fourth Amendment (1964) which had outlawed poll taxes in federal elections, by doing the same for state and local elections.
The VRA has been called the most significant Civil Rights Legislation since the Reconstruction Amendments. In the final five months of 1965 over 250,000 African Americans registered to vote across the South, and by the end of the following year, over two-thirds of southern states had registered over half of all eligible African Americans.
In addition to the rise in voter participation of groups previously excluded, that participation engendered by the VRA resulted in better outcomes and more funding for schools and infrastructure in areas that had been chronically underfunded for decades because of their racial makeup. Additionally, African Americans in elected office increased dramatically in the decade following enactment, more than tripling at the national level. With greater representation at the state and national levels, this has had a domino effect, with more civil rights legislation has been passed.
After President Lyndon B Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, he famously quipped that Democrats had “lost the South for a generation.” The Voting Rights Act of 1965 added to southern Democrats’ disaffection. He was correct in that the new civil rights legislation led to the realignment of the “Solid South.” White voters, who had previously been overwhelmingly members of the Democratic Party began leaving in droves for the GOP. The vast majority of new voters, many of them African American, who had stuck with the “Party of Lincoln,” transferred their allegiance to the Democrats. LBJ was wrong in that we are well on our way through the second generation and only minor cracks have started to show in the GOP’s hold on the South, and those only in the last few election cycles.
In 2013 the United States Supreme Court struck down the formula used for determining which jurisdictions were subject to preclearance in the Shelby v Holder decision. The 5-4 majority ruled that the circumstances had changed enough to invalidate the formulas. Noting all of the benefits that had accrued since passage, the Court ruled that the law had done its job. The four justices in dissent agreed that voting discrimination had decreased, but that was because the Act was still in place. In one of the most famous lines from a dissenting opinion, Justice Ginsburg wrote that “throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” Since Shelby, many jurisdictions have enacted new laws and voting restrictions (and in many cases had been blocked by the preclearance requirements) which has made it harder to vote for many citizens. To rectify those changes, two new laws, The For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act have been proposed in Congress. Both have passed the US House this year and are awaiting action in the Senate.
References and Further Reading:
The Voting Rights Act of 1965, OurDocuments.gov
The Voting Rights Act of 1965, National Voting Rights Museum and Institute
Race, Representation, and the Voting Rights Act,” Sophie Schult, Jon C Rogowski, American Journal of Political Science, 16:3 (July 2017), 513-526.
Doris Kearns Goodwin: Signing of Voting Rights Act an ‘Emotional Moment’ for the US,” MSNBC
Valuing the Vote: The Redistribution of Voting Rights and State Funds following the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” Elizabeth U Cascio & Ebonya Washington, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 129:1 (Feb 2014), 379-433.
Bending toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy, Gary May, Basic Books (2013)
Quiet Revolution in the South: The Impact of the Voting Rights Act, 1965-1990, Chandler Davidson & Bernard Grofman, Princeton University Press (2021)
News Links:
Southern History
Letters Penned to MS Governors during Civil War Era Provide Broader History,” Jackson Clarion Ledger
Unsettling Histories of the South,” Southern Cultures
Civil Rights
Bob Moses Obituary,” The Guardian
Robert P ‘Bob’ Moses, Who Crusaded for Civil Rights and Later, Math Education, Dies at 86,Richmond Free Press
History in the Making: Newport Jazz and the Civil Rights Movement,” What’s Up Newp
Family of Henrietta Lacks Hires Civil Rights Attorney to Seek Funds over Famous Cells,” The Washington Post
National Civil Rights Museum Calls for Artifacts,” WREG—Memphis

Until next week, take care,
Michele “Scout” Johnson
Editor, H-South
This series of posts to H-South, “Southern History and Civil Rights in the News,” aims to generate and track informed public discussions of southern history and civil rights. To recommend a reading, please email Dr. Michele Johnson at mrj028@uark.edu