Joyce Ladner was a senior at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., in the early 1960s when she failed the voter registration literacy test for the third time. But she said she already knew the registrar would not pass her because she was black. And aside from questions like, “How many grains of salt are in a quart jar,” one stood out to her and she knew her answer would not sit well with the registrar. “What are the characteristics of a good citizen?” she read. Her response: “One who follows just laws and disobeys unjust laws.” Ladner later registered under a court order and helped others exercise that same right by working as a field organizer with her sister Dorrie Ladner and South Carolina native Cleveland Sellers in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). On Aug. 6, 1965, after years of tumultuous violence and lives lost, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.
The act prohibits the denial or abridgement of the right to vote with tactics like literacy tests. Section 5 of the act requires jurisdictions like South Carolina with a history of voter discrimination, outlined in Section 4(b), to have any voting changes approved by the U.S. attorney general or the U.S. District Court before implementation. This is also known as preclearance and its purpose is to ensure those changes are not discriminatory.
While Ladner, a Mississippi native now living in Florida, said she felt passage of the act was a joyous occasion for her and others who risked their lives to register blacks to vote, she knew in 1965 that it was not the end. “We knew it wasn’t going to solve all the problems, but we had legal backing,” Ladner said.
Now, almost 48 years after the act was passed, many aspects of voting rights are still not settled. The Supreme Court soon is expected to decide in Shelby County v Holder whether Congress’ decision in 2006 to extend Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to 2031 is constitutional under the constraints of Section 4(b). The case was argued before the Court on Feb. 27 and is likely to be decided before the close of the session this month. The pending outcome has some Americans, especially those living in the South, asking whether the country has progressed to the point where preclearance is outdated.