Nearly a year after the Voting Rights Act passed in the United States on Aug. 6, 1965 — 55 years ago today — the Black writer and political activist James Meredith was shot while marching for the right to vote without fear.
He was traveling from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, to challenge "the all-pervasive and overriding fear" that Black people still felt when registering to vote in the country.
He survived the assassination attempt and organized another march that drew more than 15,000 people, many of whom helped register citizens to vote in Misssissippi. The percentage of Black Americans registered to vote in the state increased, in part due to his efforts, from 6.7% in 1965 to 59.8% in 1967.
The passage of the Voting Rights Act was a major civil rights victory. It legally secured the right to vote for Black Americans and other marginalized groups after centuries of disenfranchisement and oppression. But Meredith’s story emphasizes a key and often overlooked aspect of the amendment’s history that resonates today: it was achieved through struggle and hardship and it’s been assailed by voter suppression tactics ever since its passage.
"It was not an easy fight — it was a very difficult fight," Caleb Jackson, voting rights legal counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, told Global Citizen. "People actually shed blood for the Voting Rights Act to be passed in 1965. This wasn’t something that people lobbied Congress to pass; this was something that people had to be beaten down on the Selma bridge to pass."
"I think if people understood how difficult it was for people to fight for the act to be passed, they would understand how important it is today," he added.
The right to vote has never been universal in the US because of constant voter suppression tactics that make it hard for women, people of color, and working-class people to cast a ballot.
State troopers swing billy clubs to break up a civil rights voting march in Selma, Ala., March 7, 1965. John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (in the foreground) is pictured as he is beaten by a state trooper.
Lewis was beaten and hospitalized while marching in favor of the amendment in the 1960s.
"We don't want to go back. I'm shocked, dismayed, disappointed. I take it very personally," Lewis told ABC News after the Supreme Court decision to strip a key voting rights provision. "I gave a little blood on that bridge for the right to vote, for the right to participate in a democratic process."
The history of voting rights in the US is marked by progress and setbacks like this. It’s no surprise, then, that voting rates for people of color continue to trail voting rates for white people to this day, and that people of color have to wait longer in lines and travel farther distances to vote.
"Voting is power," Gilda Daniels, former deputy chief in the US Dept. of Justice Civil Rights Division, Voting Section, told Global Citizen. "Voting is about: Who is the sheriff? Who is the district attorney? Who is the mayor? Who decides where the money goes? What communities are improved? That’s power and those decisions are determined by who gets to vote."
"The system that makes sure folks are denied the opportunity to cast a ballot started with the founding of our country when only white men with property could access the right to vote," she added.
Understanding the current state and future of voting rights in the country requires us to look back at its history.
Following the Civil War, the US passed the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments between 1865 and 1870, which constitutionally guaranteed the right of Black men to freely participate and vote in elections.
Soon, Black lawmakers were elected to office at local and state levels across the country, but they were met with racist backlash. Southern states began implementing "Jim Crow" laws to disenfranchise Black voters and create a new racial apartheid.
When it came to voting, the Jim Crow laws sought to prevent Black voters from casting their ballots by any means necessary. Black voters faced steep poll taxes, esoteric literacy tests, voter purges, and other dehumanizing measures that bluntly conveyed their intent — to crush the Black vote.
The effects of these measures were swift. In a span of eight years beginning in 1896, the number of registered Black voters in Louisiana fell from 130,334 to 1,342.
Before Jim Crow, Mississippi had two Black senators. Afterwards, the state has only ever had white senators.
When women’s suffrage passed in 1920, women were allowed to vote for the first time — except Black women in Jim Crow states.
This was the decades-long context surrounding the movement for voting rights in the 1960s. Black people, although guaranteed the right to vote by the Constitution, were systematically deprived of that right.
Activists protested and marched through Washington and across the South, demanding that the federal government pass a comprehensive amendment to protect voting rights.
"They chose Selma [for protests] because that’s where local officials had been shutting down registration drives," Jackson said, referring to the famous 54-mile march organized by civil rights leaders from Selma, Alabama to the state capital of Montgomery.
Amelia Boynton is carried while another injured man tended to after they were injured when state police as they broke up a demonstration march in Selma, Ala on March 7, 1965, widely known as "Bloody Sunday."
Eventually President Lyndon Johnson championed the Voting Rights Act and it passed into law in 1965.
"Black people have been in the US for 400 years and have only been voting for 55," Daniels said. "The legacy of the Voting Rights Act is monumental, it changed the complexion of the electorate, as well as elected officials."
The Voting Rights Act gave the federal government the power to protect the right to vote for all citizens. The amendment banned local and state governments from passing laws that blocked citizens from voting, including literacy tests, poll taxes, and other forms of suppression.
Section 5 of the amendment also required jurisdictions with a history of voter discrimination to get preclearance from the federal government before making changes to voting policy.
"The voting section [of the Justice Department] reviewed tens of thousands of submissions ranging from moving a polling place to congressional redistricting after census," Daniels said. "Every little change had to be approved to make sure voters of color weren’t put in a worse position."
The Voting Rights Act changed the dynamics of politics in the South where Black voter registration skyrocketed once it had passed. There were only 72 Black officials in the South in 1965, according to Time, and within a decade, that number rose to more than 1,000.
A big reason why early outcomes were so positive was because of the scrutiny applied by the federal government, according to Daniels.
"The Voting Rights Act opened the door for federal observers and registrars [to monitor the vote]," she said. "The fact that we had to have the federal government bring employees in to register people to vote because the states refused to — that’s amazing."
"The ability to have observers come in and observe voting in tumultuous, tenuous situations to ensure that Black and Brown voters could get a ballot and cast a ballot, those things had to occur long after the Voting Rights Act," she added.
Voter suppression continued in the years after the Voting Rights Act in a variety of ways.
People with felony convictions have been largely stripped of their right to vote, although most states have made progress toward restoring this right.
Gerrymandering has diluted the voting power of people of color by changing the boundaries of congressional districts in highly partisan ways. Voter registration rules have made it hard for people to sign up to vote, change their party affiliation, and request absentee ballots. And the lack of a national holiday and early voting periods around elections makes it hard for working-class people to cast their ballots.
Voter suppression was made worse following the Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court decision in 2013, which struck down section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the preclearance provision.
Since then, more than 25 states have enacted voting restrictions, including new voter ID laws, registration restrictions, and voter purges.
"We lost a lot when the Supreme Court handed down the Shelby County versus Holder decision," Daniels said. "We lost the ability to vet voting changes in states that had proven they were going to try to systematically eliminate voters of color."
"We now have a system where states and localities are able to put in place whatever disenfranchising measures they can dream of," she added. "We still have section 2 of the Voting Rights Act [which allows lawsuits to overturn discriminatory voting laws], but now we’re litigating after the fact. Section 5 was preemptive; section 2 is reactive. We’re now reacting to the polling place that was just moved, or the purge that just occurred."
In Georgia, hundreds of polling stations in predominantly Black and Brown communities were closed during the 2018 election, following a massive voter purge. In Tennessee, voter registration groups have been criminalized. In Texas, voter ID laws have made it difficult for people of color and college students to vote and a voter roll review purged naturalized citizens.
Both Daniels and Jackson highlighted Florida as an example of recent voter suppression.
After the Florida electorate overwhelmingly voted to restore voting rights to people with felony convictions, the state required that before they could vote, they had to pay fees, fines, and restitution for their time served.
"Florida has literally seen the evolution of the poll tax after voters said, 'We think these people should be able to vote.' Florida said, 'Okay, that’s fine, but first they have to pay,'" Jackson explained.
"People often don’t understand that felon disenfranchisement was rooted in the idea that Black people shouldn’t vote," he added.
The COVID-19 pandemic has recast the age-old American struggle around voting rights in grim new terms. In recent months, local and state officials have grappled with how to accommodate voters amid the public health crisis.
The changes being made to voting laws will culminate in the 2020 Presidential election on Nov. 3.
In this April 7, 2020, file photo, voters wait in line to cast ballots at Washington High School while ignoring a stay-at-home order over the coronavirus threat to vote in the state's presidential primary election in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, File)
Already, the presidential election has become a battleground for those seeking to expand the right to vote and those seeking to curtail it. Many voting rights advocates argue that voting-by-mail needs to be expanded to protect the health of immuno-compromised people in the time of COVID-19.
"One of my biggest concerns is the misinformation about voting by mail," Jackson said. "We’ve seen attacks on the validity of absentee voting that are inaccurate. There are relatively few incidents of voter fraud across the country, and the postal service has systems in place to make sure that ballots don’t just get where they need to be — but that they’re also verified and tracked."
Following John Lewis’ death, voting rights advocates have argued that Congress should prioritize the passage of the Voting Rights Advancement Act to restore the original amendment and create new protections.
"The number one way we can honor John Lewis is for the senate to pass the bill to restore the Voting Rights Act," Jackson said. "The thing he shed blood for, the same things he fought for, nearly died on that [Selma] bridge for, have been taken away towards the end of his life. It’s a shame in the final years of his life that he saw the thing he worked so hard for stripped away."
There’s another bill awaiting a vote in the senate that would ensure a safe 2020 election by making it easier to vote early and by mail, while providing voting stations with personal protective equipment (PPE) and more personnel.
"We need to have early voting having, no-excuse vote-by-mail," Daniels said. "If you’re going to have in person balloting, you have to make sure it’s safe, and certainly adheres to public health and safety requirements. We have to invest in PPE and masks. There’s legislation in Congress that’s on Mitch McConnell’s desk that would give states the money they need to ensure a safe election."
Global Citizen and HeadCount have teamed up to launch Just Vote, a campaign mobilizing young Americans to register to vote ahead of the 2020 election and beyond. As part of the campaign, your favorite artists and entertainers are offering exclusive experiences, performances, and memorabilia — and they can only be unlocked once eligible voters check their voter registration status. Learn more about Just Vote and how you can take action here.