Next week marks the third anniversary of an incredibly consequential U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down key provisions of landmark civil rights legislation. The high court’s 5-4 ruling in Shelby County vs. Holder meant that Alabama and many other southern states no longer had to seek federal approval to change their election laws under the Voting Rights Act. But what happened, and how we got there, is so much more complicated. To really understand the narrative arc of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, you have to go back 100 years to the end of the Civil War and the three so-called “Reconstruction Amendments” to the U.S. Constitution. The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments outlawed slavery, established citizenship for blacks, and gave them the right to vote. “For nearly a century, the U.S. government had done very little to defend voting rights under the 15th Amendment, and you fall into a long, deep period of disenfranchisement,” University of Oklahoma political scientist Keith Gaddie told KGOU’s Oklahoma Voices. “By 1910, across the South – including Oklahoma – you have a variety of different acts, state actions, put into place that keep blacks out of the polling place and the last black officeholder has been driven from politics.” … There was no federal statute to enforce voting rights until 1957. Blacks that did try to register to vote faced poll taxes, literacy or educational competence tests, and even violence. Georgia had the highest rate of black voter registration in the Deep South by 1960, but even then, only 1 in 4 blacks eligible to vote registered. “In 1946, a black man voted in the gubernatorial election in Georgia and was shot dead in the streets in Spaulding County,” Gaddie said.
President Lyndon Johnson wanted to make civil rights a central pillar of his legacy, and already cemented his place in history with the 1964 Civil Rights Act. A year later, the “Bloody Sunday” attack at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama prompted him to go a step further, and put together “an act with teeth.”
“He asked his attorney general, Nick Katzenbach, for ‘the goddamndest, toughest voting rights law’ he could write,” Gaddie said. “What made it different was it gave the national government the authority to basically freeze in place all election laws and practices in states where you had really low voter participation.”
That forced the states to show that they did not discriminate on the basis of race if they wanted to make any changes to election laws. Section 4(b) establishes a coverage formula that affected most of the Deep South, and Section 5 created this idea of “preclearance” – the provision that states wanting to change their election laws had to seek approval from the federal government.