Fifty years ago this month, American democracy was born anew with the signing into law of the U.S. Voting Rights Act.
Forged in the crucible of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s, when black Americans and other minorities organized to end decades of discrimination against them, the law both reaffirmed their basic rights as citizens and revolutionized our political system.
The act, signed by President Lyndon Johnson on August 6, 1965, affirmed blacks’ and other minorities’ right to vote, a right that came with the fall of slavery a century earlier but was often denied by political means. It struck down many procedures used in various cities and states to maintain white political control by limiting the votes of minorities. These included requirements that voters pay a tax to cast a ballot and be able to prove they could read and write. It also provided federal oversight of elections where black voter registration was low, and it empowered the attorney general to investigate other tactics used to suppress the vote.
Almost overnight, black voter registration grew exponentially, most markedly in the South where discrimination had been most pronounced. Since then, Congress has followed up by adding amendments several times, most notably by requiring bilingual elections, thus enfranchising foreign speakers as well as racial minorities.
In the years to follow, our political leadership — from city halls to state houses to the U.S. Capitol and the White House — grew more diverse. By the mid-1990s, these moves and the broadening of the U.S. electorate they fostered had culminated in an almost complete realignment of our two major political parties.
As the nation celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and the great strides we’ve taken as a nation since, we also remember those who worked to make the law and its ideals a reality, securing for all the full blessings and privileges of American life.