The Voting Rights Act: Looking Back and Moving Forward

The Voting Rights Act: Looking Back and Moving Forward

Written by Tracy Yao

In the opening line of his opinion last week in Shelby County v. Holder, Chief Justice John Roberts writes, “The Voting Rights Act of 1965 employed extraordinary measures to address an extraordinary problem.”

The Chief Justice is wholly correct. It is absolutely extraordinary when citizens are denied something as fundamental as the right to vote. In the aftermath of the Civil War, African-Americans were treated as second-class citizens, and many were denied the right to vote despite the passage of the 15th Amendment. In response, some ordinary citizens decided to take extraordinary actions.

On March 7, 1965, John Lewis led hundreds of impassioned civil rights activists on a 54-mile march for voting rights from Selma, Alabama to the state’s capitol in Montgomery. The group only made it six blocks. At the Edmund Pettus Bridge, state troopers fired tear gas into the crowd, and many non-violent demonstrators were beaten and bloodied with nightsticks and bullwhips. Lewis suffered a fractured skull. The day would come to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”

It took two more tries before the protesters finally made it to the Alabama State Capitol, and their efforts changed the country. The brutality the marchers endured and the goal of their marches resonated with the American public. Five months later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the VRA into law in the presence of Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders.

And nearly a half century after that, the current Supreme Court has decided to dismember the pre-clearance section of the Voting Rights Act. This ruling is a disservice to all that past and current voting rights activists have worked for. “We don’t want to go back. I’m shocked, dismayed, disappointed. I take it very personally,” Lewis said. “I gave a little blood on that bridge for the right to vote, for the right to participate in a democratic process.”

The ruling also rolls back much of the progress that has been made since the Act’s passage. Since this ruling, five states have implemented voter ID laws which had previously been deemed discriminatory under the VRA. One of the strictest laws comes from Texas; individuals there are required to show proof of citizenship and residency. Such laws disproportionately affect low-income minorities, as the necessary documents are expensive and may be difficult to obtain. These laws are echoes of the Jim Crow era; they are implemented to keep citizens from voting.

Our nation has undoubtedly come a long way since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but barriers to the ballot persist, and this extraordinary problem has yet to be fully resolved. The Supreme Court’s decision may have stripped the VRA of much of its gravitas, but that piece of legislation is not the only bastion for voting rights. The VRA was the culmination of human action and passion, and individuals today continue to dedicate themselves to this important work of expanding the vote. As the persistence of the 1965 marchers and the movements of organizations today have shown, people will go to extraordinary lengths for their right to participate in this government, be it 54 miles or more.