Wow, I wrote this over 16 years ago. Enjoy.
African Americans and the Right to Vote in the Twenty-first Century: A Study of the 1965 Voting Rights Act
LaTasha T. Johnson
1 December 1997
Political Science 326 Honors
Black Political Participation in America
Professor Floyd W. Hayes, III
“Though African Americans never stood passively by acquiescing to white hegemony, theirs was a constant uphill struggle.” –John David Smith
Have you heard the rumors that in the twenty-first century African Americans will lose the right to vote and will no longer be full American citizens? What about the rumor that the African American right to vote was only meant to be temporary? I heard these rumors, and I wondered what people were talking about. As far as I knew, the Fifteenth Amendment gave African American males the right to vote, and the Nineteenth Amendment gave women the right to vote. So, I asked myself: Do the rumors mean that these Constitutional Amendments are temporary? Or, do the rumors refer to something else. I finally realized that the rumors referred to something other than the Constitution when my grandmother told me the story of why she did not get to vote for Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1964 presidential elections.
In Shreveport, Louisiana, in a neighborhood called Stoner Hill, in preparation for the 1964 presidential elections, African Americans were secretly meeting. These secret meetings were being held in the neighborhood elementary school. African American men and women were being taught (by my grandmother, my great-grand-aunt, and others) how to pass the tricky, bias literacy tests for voter registration. All was going well until one of the African Americans told their white employer about the meetings. Luckily the organizers and attendants learned of the betrayal and were able to leave safely before the police arrived. When the time arrived for voter registration, the African Americans of this community met at a prearranged place and went together in a great number to the designated place for registration. The police were there in full force. Even though it was no where near closing time, the African Americans were told that the registrar was closed. Not to be deterred or defeated the African Americans returned the next morning three hours before opening time. The police had no choice but to allow them access to the registrar. Besides, there were other ways to stop African Americans from voting.
My grandmother was told that she did not pass the literacy test. (She was one of the major people teaching the others how to pass the test.) The actual passing or failing had nothing to do with test results and everything to do with the registrar’s discretion. One person (my great-grandfather) was allowed to register because his employer happened to be one of the registrars. However, the man was so nervous and frightened that he registered as a Republican. The main thing is that he was now a registered voter. So, that is the story of why my grandmother did not get to vote for Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1964 presidential elections. My grandmother’s story combined with the rampant rumors about African American suffrage sparked my interest in the African American right to vote.
As an African American woman, the right to vote is of great importance to me. One obvious reason is that it is a power that I can exercise as an American citizen. My great concern with the right to vote, my grandmother’s story, and rumors concerning African American suffrage all combined to fuel my growing interest in what came to be the topic of this study: African Americans and the Right to Vote in the Twenty-first Century: A Study of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
This paper is not only about the 1965 Act but it also concerns the history leading up to the Act, results of the act, subsequent issues, and amendments to the Act. There is much discourse concerning the 1965 Voting Rights Act, some views confer, some differ. This paper will discuss the Act and raise questions about African American suffrage in the twenty-first century. This topic is significant to the course because the African American right to vote has a direct correlation to “Black political participation in America”. Effective voting power enhances political participation. Likewise, this topic is significant in a much broader sense because African American suffrage is a determining factor in the history and future of the United States of America. Whether or not the United States allows all of its citizens the full privileges of citizenship will depend on political reform such as the Voting Rights Act. One purpose of this paper is simply to study the history leading to the 1965 Voting Rights Act (briefly), the Act itself, and its results and consequences. The other purpose of this paper is to question the fate of African American suffrage in the twenty-first century, or more specifically, in 2007 when the Voting Rights Act expires. The ultimate question is: Will African Americans retain an effective right to vote in 2007 if the Voting Rights Act is allowed to expire? In order to answer this question, we must take a look at the historical evidence. We must first come to an understanding of why after ninety-five years (1870 to 1965) the Voting Rights Act was necessary and still not entirely effective.
Brief History of African American Suffrage until 1965
“An understanding of the pervasiveness and intensity of white racism is a key to comprehending the obstacles to true black freedom and equality.” –John David Smith
In the beginning stages of the formation of the United States of America, some of the new states generally granted universal male suffrage. After 1776, free African American males were voting in most of the northern states and in North Carolina; yet, there was no state-wide expansion of African American male suffrage after 1776 with the exception of new states which allowed universal male suffrage. (Finkelman, 1992) In 1788 the United States Constitution was ratified. Suffrage was primarily for white male property owners and taxpayers. (Zimmerman, 1995) When Tennessee became a state in 1798, it allowed free African American males to vote until the 1830s.
By the mid-1830s, free African American males had lost suffrage rights in many states with the exception of Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. For example, in 1835, North Carolina amended its constitution to read that “no free Negro, free Mulatto, or free person of mixed blood, descended from Negro ancestors to the fourth generation inclusive . . . shall vote for members of the Senate or House of Commons”. (Zimmerman, 1995) Suffrage was allowed in New York if the African American could meet certain property requirements which did not apply to whites. When Rhode Island became a state in 1842, African American males were allowed suffrage. During this same era, in some areas of the Mid-West African American males voted in violation of state constitutions. For example, by the 1850s at least one African American man was elected to public office in Ohio, despite the fact that he could not legally vote in the election. In 1859, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that mulattos were allowed suffrage under that state’s constitution. (Finkelman, 1992) In 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery. (Edwards, 1985; Finkelman, 1992)
White southerners tried everything imaginable (and unimaginable) to keep African Americans “generally landless, undereducated, and powerless”. African Americans who demanded “respect, fair treatment, and equal opportunities threatened the very fabric of the South’s biracial system”. (Smith, 1993) In 1866, a majority of congressional Republicans believed African American male enfranchisement was too radical. Nevertheless in 1867, the Reconstruction Act, adopted over President Andrew Johnson’s veto, enfranchised African American males in the south. The next year, 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment extended state and federal citizenship to African Americans and allowed Congressional representation to be diminished if adult male citizens were not allowed to vote. (Finkelman, 1992) In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment prohibited discrimination in voting “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude”. (Edwards, 1985; Finkelman, 1992)
In the following three decades, intimidation, violence, and widespread state-constitutional disfranchisement became the norm for keeping African American males away from the ballot. (Finkelman, 1992) Between 1890 and 1910, African American males were effectively disfranchised with voting registration requirements such as literacy tests. (Edwards, 1985) Many other methods were pioneered to disfranchise the African American voter: poll taxes, property requirements, grandfather clauses, white primaries, and various other formal and informal tests, requirements, or restrictions. The real hopes for disfranchisement were “in the hands of election registrars who were given wide discretionary powers”. John Hope Franklin states that “it was ‘legal’ disfranchisement that gave the entire trend respectability and maintained in the South the fiction that it was not running over the federal constitution but living under it”. (Franklin, 1957) On 18 August 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified extending suffrage to women, effectively eliminating sex as a basis for disfranchisement. (Butler, 1985)
From 1930 to 1964 there was a rapidly rising rate in African American voting. Paul Lewinson attributed it to “growing activism and self-confidence” which he states is self-evident. In addition, he attributes it to “white acquiescence” i. e. white liberalism and federal intervention. National attributions include “the Supreme Court decisions after 1930 that struck at the legality of discrimination and of segregation: in public transportation, in education, in eligibility for jury duty, and in declaring racially-restrictive real-estate covenants unenforceable”. Other factors Lewinson attributes to the rapidly rising rate of African American voting from 1930 to 1964 are civil rights demonstrations, the passage of the 1957 and 1960 Civil Rights Acts, the formation of organizations such as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and by what he terms as the “increasing militancy of older organizations like the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] and the Urban League”. (Lewinson, 1965)
In 1957, 1960, and 1964, the Civil Rights Acts strengthened the right to vote; yet, scare tactics were still being used effectively by whites to stop African Americans from voting. On 23 January 1964, the Twenty-fourth Amendment was ratified outlawing the poll tax “as a condition for voting in federal elections”. (Zimmerman, 1995) A little over eighteen months later, “by votes of 328 to 74 in the House of Representatives, and 79 to 18 in the Senate, bill H. R. 6400 was signed into law by Johnson on 6 August 1965.” (Marable, 1991) It “suspended the use of literacy tests and other devices historically used to prevent African Americans from voting”. (Edwards, 1985)
The Voting Rights Act of 1965, Results, Extensions, and Amendments
The Voting Rights Act was a direct result of efforts of groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). It increased African American voting power. (Marable, 1991; McCartney, 1992) There was an increase in voter mobilization and in the number of African American elected officials. The African American Congressional delegation rose from four to thirteen. These new elected officials felt they were the legitimate leaders of this new era and civil rights leaders were out-dated. (Smith, 1996) At first the Act was considered “the most important political civil rights law since the Fifteenth Amendment”. (Van DeBurg, 1992) Despite the immediate results, the Voting Rights Act was not a cure-all for the political system in America. President Johnson himself admitted as much in a commencement address at Howard University:
You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, do as you desire, and choose leaders you please.
You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “You are free to compete . . .” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. (Bennett, 1984)
The Act did finally give African Americans an effective right to participate in Democratic primaries in the south. It also facilitated rapid growth in the number of African American elected officials. (Smith, 1996) This rapid growth was accompanied by an enormous increase in southern white voter registration and other actions aimed at diluting the new African American voting power. (Van DeBurg, 1992)
The key provisions of the Act are sections 2 and 5. Section 2 is the basis for many court cases. Applied nationally, it outlawed voting practices and procedures that denied or abridged suffrage. Section 5 required southern jurisdictions to preclear any and all proposed changes relating to voting procedures or practices to the United States Attorney General or the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. (Edwards, 1985)
On 22 June 1970, President Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon signed a bill extending the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to 1975. (Bennett, 1984) The 1970 amendments suspended all voting tests and devices, until 6 August 1975, and the 1975 amendments made the suspension permanent. The 1982 amendments modified the preclearance provisions, and laid out provisions for language barriers and voter assistance. These amendments allowed a jurisdiction to bailout from Section 5 coverage through a specific formula regulated by the District of Columbia District Court. (Edwards, 1985; Zimmerman, 1995) Don Edwards maintains that the 1982 amendments were to encourage Section 5 jurisdictions “to provide equal and permanent access to their political process for minority citizens”. (Edwards, 1985) Many political and social scientists have much to say about the Voting Rights Act and its various sections and amendments. To help in our search for the answer to the question proposed earlier, we will need to explore related discourse.
Katherine Butler espouses that “the most basic aspect of the right to vote must be access to the ballot , or enfranchisement”. Section 2 as amended by Congress is used to combat the “dilution of minority voting strength,” and it confirms that political effectiveness means more than “mere access to the ballot”. Butler clearly states her argument:
If blacks and other minorities are able to form political alliances, to have their interests considered by elected officials through threat of political action, and are generally able to secure through their ballots the benefits of citizenship, they are effectively participating in the political process. They are receiving from the right to vote the same value as others.”(Butler, 1985)
More than that, she argues, is too much. Butler is not alone in her concern that the Voting Rights Act may go too far in protecting “minority votes”.
Linda Chavez contends that “the Voting Rights Act was devised to correct a specific and regional problem of discrimination”. The legal ability to challenge voting practices and procedures appealed to the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) and other Hispanic organizations. MALDEF’s and others’ efforts to include Hispanics and language minorities have short term benefits and long term problems according to Chavez. She avers that “the natural corollary to the notion that Hispanics can best represent the interests of Hispanics is that non-Hispanics can best represent the interests of non-Hispanics. This is a dangerous game for any minority to play.” Chavez notes that MALDEF and others used discrimination as the basis for legal cases despite the fact that factors other than discrimination were more prominent. She contends that when Hispanic voters move to a broader geographic area it will cause unnecessary problems in districting under the Voting Rights Act. (Chavez, 1992) Chavez and Butler are not the only two political scientists who express the dangers in allowing the Voting Rights Act to continue forever.
Abigail M. Thernstrom states the single aim of the Voting Rights Act was African American enfranchisement. She takes the position that racial categorization for political purposes “and sanctioning group membership as a qualification for office may inhibit political integration”. Thernstrom’s analysis of Section 2 of the Act finds that it has the potential to lead to reserved political positions such as the case in India’s caste system. (Thernstrom, 1987) Not everyone is in accordance with Thernstrom, Chavez, and Butler.
In response to Thernstrom, Bernard Grofman, Lisa Handley, and Richard Niemi argue (optimistically) that the Voting Rights Act will “outlive its usefulness and (will become) no longer necessary” through the assimilation of African Americans, Hispanics, and other groups into the American political process. They argue that the Act enhances minority integration into the American political process, and it “ameliorates” the former exclusion of minorities. Grofman and the others go on to say that the conditions highlighted by the Voting Rights Act were already present; so, enforcement of the Act can not be a cause of racial categorization for political purposes. (Grofman et al., 1992)
After briefly considering these varying views and arguments along with the history surrounding the 1965 Voting Rights Act, questions still remain: What will happen if the Voting Rights Act is allowed to expire? Is the Act still needed?
Responses and Possible Answers
In 1990, John R. Bauer published a study of voter participation patterns. The most important facts to note in this study, pertaining to the topic of this paper, are (1) that people are more likely to vote if the obstacles to voting are not greater than their desire to vote, and (2) that restrictive voter registration laws significantly lower voter turnout rates. (Bauer, 1990) These two facts have been true throughout American history including contemporary times. Particularly, African Americans have often faced obstacles greater than our desire to vote, and restrictive voting laws have been used not simply to lower our voter turn-out rate but to obliterate our voter turnout rate. African Americans challenged these huge obstacles through social movements, particularly in the 1960s. One of the results of these movements was the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Ninety-five years after the Fifteenth Amendment, the 1965 Voting Rights Act allowed African Americans to effectively exercise the right to vote. This fact cannot be mentioned without noting that a huge surge of racist violence accompanied the Act. From the personal account above, one can see that the police in that particular case (and numerous others) were the enforcers of white racist hegemony in the south. For a group of African Americans to be forced to meet secretly, ninety-nine years after the Thirteenth Amendment, for educational or any other purpose, shows that the conditions of the slavery era still existed (and still do exist).
The history leading to and surrounding the Voting Rights Act of 1965 clearly shows that in the Dred Scott decision it was accurate to say that Africans and people of African descent in America under the Constitution of the United States of America were never intended or meant to be included as citizens of America. Although the Fourteenth Amendment allowed African descendents citizenship (African Americans), the ideology of the Dred Scott decision is pervasive in America today. We still hear shouts of “GO BACK TO AFRICA” even though we haven’t been there in about four hundred years. Despite the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Nineteenth Amendments to the Constitution, despite the numerous Supreme Court cases that knocked on the wall of racism, despite all of these things, the 1965 Voting Rights Act was needed to ensure that African Americans could effectively secure the right to vote. That was still not enough. The Act had to be expanded and extended many times.
The results of the Act are very promising, especially for African Americans who have a desire greater than the obstacles in place and who are in a place with less restrictive voting registration laws. However, level of education is also a determining factor in voter turnout rates. (Bauer, 1990) As noted within the brief history above, whites have struggled to keep African Americans (among many other things) undereducated.
The consequences of the Act included increased violence towards African Americans. Other significant consequences were greater federal intervention in state affairs. There was another increase in state challenges to federal authority. The actors within the white racist hegemony created think tanks to get around the Act. There were, and are, many efforts to get rid of the Act and return to a more subtle form of discrimination and racism than previously practiced.
The numerous extensions of the Act show that the conditions of the new slavery in America have not substantially changed. Racism has been upheld repeatedly through legal and judicial procedures. It is the cornerstone of America. The Voting Rights Act may be seen as an attempt to chip away at this cornerstone. It does not go too far in protecting the “minority vote”. The fact that no jurisdiction has been successful in using the bail-out provisions is further evidence in the pervasive racism in America. Racism is an American institution. It is a corporation. The amendments to the Constitution were not enough to insure effective African American political participation. The Supreme Court decisions were not enough. The 1965 Voting Rights Act was not enough. The results, consequences, extensions and amendments to the 1965 Voting Rights Act are not enough. Therefore, it is absurd to argue that the Act goes too far.
Butler acknowledged the fact that mere enfranchisement is not enough to be politically effective. The scope of her argument, even though meant to be broad, is too narrow. African Americans and others have done and continue to do what she suggests whenever possible. The Voting Rights Act is in no danger of going too far, because, clearly, it serves to ensure that African Americans and others “are receiving from the right to vote the same value as others.” Granted, the Act does not do this effectively because of all the efforts to get around it, but it does help tremendously. Being from Louisiana, I definitely would not be a registered (and voting) voter if not for the Voting Rights Act. This is a sad fact in American history; yet, it is not surprising.
Chavez criticizes Hispanics for jumping on the bandwagon concerning discrimination and the Voting Rights Act. Although her argument is reliable, well-written and well-documented, it sounds as if she has bought into the traditional American hegemony. Her main concern is that middle and upper class Hispanics not be grouped with Hispanics of a lower income bracket when it comes to voting practices and procedures. Her concerns about representation is what American politics is all about. The question is not truly whether a person of a certain hue can effectively represent persons of another hue. The question is whether or not people have the right to effectively vote for a candidate of their choice. If the similarities between the constituents and the representative extend to ethnicity then so be it.
Grofman and others ascertain that Thernstrom is blaming the treatment on the disease. They are correct. Thernstrom is concerned about whether or not the Voting Rights Act will lead to reserved political positions for African Americans and other groups. She totally ignores the fact that political positions have traditionally been reserved for one group — White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) American males of the upper class — with few exceptions.
As for the argument given by Grofman and others, it is unrealistic in the current context of the American political system to believe that the Voting Rights Act will “outlive its usefulness and no longer (be) necessary”. They fail to realize that the Act is not about minority integration into the American political process. It is about minority participation in the American political process.
So, what are possible answers? Honestly, I do not know. The historical evidence until 1965 suggests that the “American way” is one ruled by a racist hegemony. Mainstream America has historically alienated, isolated, and discriminated against certain target groups, especially African Americans. With this in mind, it is difficult to say that the Voting Rights Act will become obsolete because minorities will be integrated into the American political system. Using the history until 1965 as evidence, the answer must be that if the Voting Rights Act is allowed to expire African Americans will lose an effective right to vote. It is debatable whether or not African Americans have an effective right to vote under current conditions.
If the immediate results of the Act are used as indicators, one might assume that the Voting Rights Act will indeed become outdated. To do this one must presume that the immediate positive results will continue to take place without the pressure of the Act while the negative results would cease. In 1970, this was found to be an incorrect assumption and the Act was extended. It was extended again in 1975 and again in 1982. These extensions clearly show that the Act had not outlived its effectiveness. Such a conclusion would lead one to believe that without the Voting Rights Act, voting practices and procedures would resemble the conditions prior to the 1960s. The amendments to the Act lead to the same belief. Not only was the Act found to be in need of an extended time frame, but also it was found to be weak. It had to be strengthened. One could adapt Bauer’s first voter turn-out to read that people are more likely to participate in disfranchisement if the obstacles to disfranchisement are not greater than their desire to disfranchise. This was obviously the case before 1965, and it still is.
The various arguments against the continued existence of the Act almost convince one to believe that the Act serves to promote political segregation and alienation instead of eliminating it. These arguments fail to be convincing because they ignore the racist history, racist trends, and racist hegemony of the American political system. The arguments in favor of the Act support the claim that voting practices and procedures would disfranchise African Americans without the pressures of the Act. All of these arguments taken together suggest that if the Voting Rights Act expires, disfranchisement of African Americans will occur in many instances, but not all.
When one combines the historical evidence, the results, the extensions, the amendments, and the various opinions about the 1965 Voting Rights Act presented in this study, one must come to the conclusion that African American enfranchisement and suffrage is in danger.
The question posed at the beginning of this study concerning the fate of African American suffrage in the twenty-first century is: Will African Americans retain an effective right to vote in 2007 if the Voting Rights Act is allowed to expire? No. The danger is that the African American right to vote effectively, with effective results, will be greatly reduced and even eliminated with the expiration in 2007 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The best thing to do to prevent the disfranchisement of African Americans and to thwart yet another wave of slavery and oppression in America would be to incorporate the Act into the Constitution. The 1965 Voting Rights Act should be the next amendment to the federal constitution.
Scholarly Journal Articles
Bauer, John R. “Patterns of Voter Participation in the American States” in Social Science Quarterly v. 71 (Dec. ‘90) pp. 824-834
Chavez, Linda. “Hispanics, Affirmative Action, and Voting” in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science v. 523 (Sept. ‘92) pp. 75-87
Zimmerman, Joseph F. “Election Systems and Representative Democracy: Reflections on the Voting Rights Act of 1965” in National Civic Review v. 84 (Fall/Winter ‘95) pp. 287-309
Finkelman, Paul, ed. African Americans and the RIGHT TO VOTE v. 6 of Race, Law, and American History 1700-1990 New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1992, pp. vii-ix
–Franklin, John Hope. “ ‘Legal’ Disfranchisement of the Negro.” Journal of Negro Education 26:2 (Spring 1957) 241-248. [Reprinted in Finkelman pp. 207-214]
Foster, Lorn S., ed. The Voting Rights Act: Consequences and Implications New York: Praeger Publishers, 1985
–Butler, Katherine. “Denial or Abridgement of the Right to Vote: What Does It Mean?” pp. 44-59
–Edwards, Don. “The Voting Rights Act of 1965, as Amended” pp. 3-9
Grofman, Bernard; Lisa Handley, and Richard Niemi. Minority Representation and the Quest for Voting Equality. Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Lewinson, Paul. Race, Class, and Party: A History of Negro Suffrage and White Politics in the South New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1965
Smith, John David, ed. Disfranchisement Proposals and the Ku Klux Klan: Solutions to “The Negro Problem” Part 1 v. 9 of Anti-Black Thought 1863-1925: “The Negro Problem”, An Eleven-Volume Anthology of Racist Writings. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1993, pp. xiii-xx Thernstrom, Abigail M. Whose Votes Count? Affirmative Action and Minority Voting Rights. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1987
Bennett, Lerone, Jr. Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America Fifth Edition. New York: Penguin Group, 1984
McCartney, John T. Black Power Ideologies: An Essay in African-American Political Thought. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.
Marable, Manning. Race, Reform, and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction in Black America, 1945-1990. Second Edition. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991
Smith, Robert C. We Have No Leaders: African Americans in the Post-Civil Rights Era. New York: State University of New York Press, 1996
Van DeBurg, William L. New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965-1975. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992
Personal interview with E. Jean Dorton in Carson, California, spring 1997.
While the Voting Rights Act is not specific to African Americans, I will discuss it as it pertains to African Americans.
It is important to note that when I say “an effective right to vote”, I am including the right to an effective vote, though they are not synonymous.
The Thirteenth Amendment ends slavery except in America’s prisons.
The cases Lewinson cites are: Henderson v. U.S., 1950; Gale v. Browder, 1956 in public transportation; Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, 1938; Sipuel v. University of Georgia, 1948; Sweatt v. Painter, 1950; Brown v. Board of Education, 1954 in education; Avery v. Georgia, Norris v. Alabama, 1953 in jury duty eligibility; and Shelley v. Kramer, 1948 in real-estate.
This book went to print one month before the 1964 presidential elections.
The Voting Rights Act is included in an appendix.
The appendix is taken directly from this book.