Voting Rights Act… the journey

The legislative agendas of African-American Members in the post-1970 era reflected the diversity of their committee assignments and the range of interests within the general membership of Congress. Most sought to advance a broad progressive legislative agenda supported by advocacy groups such as the National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)—extending voting rights protections, improving educational and economic opportunities, fostering urban renewal, and providing access to better health care. Increasingly, African American Members were emboldened to pursue legislative agendas that reflected the unique needs of their constituencies or their personal positions on issues.

Voting Rights

MLK Holiday Hand BillView LargerImage courtesy of the Library of CongressCongress enacted legislation in 1983 to commemorate the birth date of Martin Luther King, Jr., as a national holiday—marking a major legislative triumph for the CBC. This hand bill, noting the anniversary of King’s 1968 assassination, sought to rally public support for the creation of the holiday.Extensions of civil rights era voting protections were a touchstone for African-American Members of Congress. Efforts to retain and expand upon the provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965—which Barbara Jordan once referred to as the “frontispiece” of the civil rights movement—provided continuity between Members of the civil rights generation and their successors in the post-1970 generation of African Americans in Congress. Two extensions were of particular importance: the Voting Rights Acts of 1975 and 1982.

The Voting Rights Act of 1975 strengthened the provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (as well as its 1970 extension).72 The House passed the act on June 4, 1975, by a vote of 341 to 70. After Senate passage, and after the House accepted some Senate amendments, President Gerald R. Ford signed the measure into law on August 6, 1975—the 10th anniversary of the original landmark bill. As with earlier acts, jurisdictions covered by the 1975 extension had to submit to the U.S. Attorney General any changes in local and state election law for “preclearance” in which federal authorities determined whether the proposed modification to the law had discriminatory intent. The 1975 act also increased jurisdictions covered by the act to include locations in the North and West. Moreover, it applied not just to African Americans, but also “language minorities,” including Spanish speakers, Native Americans, and Asian Americans. It required bilingual elections in areas where there were large numbers of voters whose English literacy was below the national average.73Barbara Jordan and Ronald DellumsView LargerImage courtesy of Moorland–Spingarn Research Center, Howard UniversityAs leaders in Congress, Barbara Jordan of Texas (left foreground) and Ronald Dellums of California (center background) sought to build coalitions inside and outside of the Congressional Black Caucus.African-American Members played a prominent part in this debate. “The voting rights act may have overcome blatant discriminatory practices,” noted Barbara Jordan, testifying before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Constitutional Rights. But she added, “it has yet to overcome subtle discriminatory practices.” Charles Rangel agreed that the protections were needed. “Malevolent local government must not be exposed to any temptation to take back the political rights and powers that have so recently come to southern blacks,” Rangel said.74Andrew Young pointed to vastly improved registration numbers in the seven southern states covered by the original 1965 act (29 percent registered in 1964 had expanded to 56 percent in 1972) as well as in the number of elected black officials in the South (72 in 1965 compared with 1,587 in 1975). “The remarkable effect of this act is that it has a preventative effect,” Young observed. “There are some reports that the threat of suing examiners has a deterrent effect—that local registrars began to register black voters so that federal examiners would be kept out.”75

The 1982 Voting Rights Act extension provided another victory for the civil rights movement and also paved the way for the expansion of African-American representation in Congress in the 1990s.76 During floor debate—prior to overwhelming passage by the House—a number of black Members of Congress spoke on behalf of the bill. Representative Bill Clay Sr. cast the debate in broad terms: “Are we willing to continue our forward momentum in America’s bold and noble attempt to achieve a free and just democratic society? Or, will we embrace the politics of reversal and retreat; the super rich against the wretchedly poor, the tremendously strong against the miserably weak?”77

The bill extended the act’s major provisions for 25 years. It also established a procedure by which jurisdictions that maintained a clean voting rights record for at least a decade could petition a panel of judges to be removed from the preclearance list. The bilingual election materials requirements established in the 1975 act were also enacted for another decade. Mickey Leland, who succeeded Representative Jordan in her Houston-centered district, addressed the House in Spanish to make a point about the need for extending those provisions. “Many of you cannot understand me,” Leland said in Spanish, “and if you cannot understand me . . . nor can you understand 17 percent of all the adult workers in the Southwest. . . . And even though you cannot understand me when I speak Spanish maybe you can begin to understand the hypocrisy of our political system which excludes the participation of Hispanic-Americans only for having a different culture and speaking a different language.”78

Most significant, the Voting Rights Act of 1982 established that certain voting rights violations could be proven to be the result of voting modifications, even if intent could not be established. That section of the bill overturned a 1980 Supreme Court decision in Mobile v. Bolden that found a violation could be proven only if the intent to discriminate could be substantiated. This legislative instrument provided the basis for the creation of majority-black districts following the 1990 Census, particularly in southern states.79

In 2006 the Voting Rights Act was once again extended for 25 years.80 Many Republicans opposed the extension and emphasized that the districts which were required to meet the preclearance standards of Section 5 were being perpetually punished for voter repression that occurred in the past. They also objected to the bilingual voter assistance provisions of the law.81 As a compromise with the bill’s most fervent opponents, House Republican leadership allowed four amendments to reach the floor that might kill the measure, but all of the amendments were rejected, and the law preserved the preclearance provision in Section 5 and mandated the printing of bilingual ballots.82

Despite the 2006 extension, opponents of the Voting Rights Act continued to challenge parts of the law, only this time in the courts. In Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that the coverage formula in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which determined which counties would be subjected to federal preclearance, was unconstitutional. Citing methodological deficiencies in establishing the coverage formula, the 5–4 majority rendered the preclearance provisions inoperative.83