“The Act Has Not Failed”: A Call to Extend the Voting Rights Act of 1965


Ultimately, on June 22, 1970, President Richard M. Nixon signed into law a bill that extended the Act’s provisions—including Section 5—for five additional years, and in addition, lowered the voting age throughout the country to 18.

 

The Voting Rights Act of 1965—called “the most successful civil rights law in the nation’s history” by Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights—was enacted in order to force Southern states and localities to allow all citizens of voting age to vote in public elections. Although the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, guaranteed citizens the right to vote regardless of race, discriminatory requirements, such as literacy tests, disenfranchised many African Americans in the South. In 1965, following the murder of a voting rights activist by an Alabama sheriff’s deputy and the subsequent attack by state troopers on a massive protest march in Selma, President Lyndon B. Johnson pressed Congress to pass a voting rights bill with “teeth”. The Act, signed into law on August 6, applied to states or counties where fewer than half of the citizens of voting age were registered in 1964—Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia, and numerous counties in North Carolina. For these areas, the law banned literacy tests, appointed Federal examiners to oversee election procedures, and, according to the Act’s controversial Section 5, required approval by the U.S. Attorney General of future changes to election laws. In the following letter to a 1969 Senate subcommittee hearing on extending the Act, New Jersey Senator Harrison A. Williams, Jr., provided statistics to show the law’s effect. The position described in the letter was Attorney General John Mitchell’s proposal to replace Section 5 with an oversight mechanism more amenable to the white South.