When he signed the federal Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson did not rely on understatement to express the significance of the legislation. “Today is a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that ever been won a on any battlefield,” Johnson told members of Congress and dignitaries assembled in the Capitol’s rotunda. Standing beneath a large painting of the British surrender to George Washington at the Revolutionary War battle of Yorktown, and flanked by a statue of Abraham Lincoln, Johnson harkened back 350 years to the arrival of the first African-Americans at colonial Jamestown, Virginia, “in darkness and chains” as slaves. “Today, we strike away the last major shackle of those fierce and ancient bonds,” Johnson said. “Millions of Americans are denied the right to vote because of their color. This law will ensure them the right to vote.”
The Voting Rights Act, along with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, proved to be the legislative pillars of the civil rights movement. They were pushed through Congress by Johnson after years of civil rights protests punctuated by the 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott led by Rev. Martin Luther King to King’s March on Washington in 1963. There were smaller legislative achievements along the way, such as the a limited voting rights bill Johnson shepherded through Congress as Senate Majority Leader in 1957.
By the time the Voting Rights Act passed, it had been a century since the Civil War and three post-war Constitutional amendments which outlawed slavery, extending the right to vote to former slaves, barred racial discrimination in voting laws, and granted equal protection to all citizens under the law,
It was President Ulysses S. Grant, the leading general of the Union Army, who signed the 15th Amendment guaranteeing African-Americans the right to vote in 1870.
But in some parts of the country, particularly in the South, legal segregation lived on, where states had imposed barriers, like poll taxes and literacy tests, that deprived most black Americans the opportunity to register to vote or cast a ballot.
The Voting Rights Act gave the federal government greater powers to prevent racial discrimination. For the past 48 years, the Justice Department has routinely monitored elections and reviewed changes to any voting rules, ranging from poll locations and hours, to registration and identification requirements and the redrawing of legislative district lines.
The issue before the Supreme Court in next Wednesday’s oral arguments in “Shelby County v. Holder” is just one part of the Voting Rights Act — Section 5 — which requires 9 states and parts of 7 others to obtain Justice Department approval, known as “preclearance,” before changing voting laws or maps.
Full Article: Voting Rights Act faces Supreme Court challenge – CBS News.