In 1865, 1868, and 1870, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the US Constitution guaranteed black citizens important freedoms—outlawing slavery, granting universal citizenship and due process, and extended voting rights to all men. But the triumph of the “Reconstruction Amendments” was short-lived. In 1877, the federal government abandoned military Reconstruction in the South, which ushered in almost a century of “Jim Crow” legislation enforcing segregation and inequality. In cases including the Civil Rights Cases of 1883 and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court supported the constitutionality of discrimination and segregation. Thus the battle for freedom, citizenship, and enfranchisement continued long after the Civil War and Reconstruction.
Though the Fifteenth Amendment extended enfranchisement to every male citizen regardless of race, for decades this right was all but erased by poll taxes, literacy tests, terror, murder, and intimidation aimed at preventing black people from voting. In the 1950s and 1960s, the civil rights movement worked to end these and other racist practices, organizing protests and political actions such as the Montgomery bus boycott (1955-56), the Freedom Rides (1961), the March on Washington (1963), and the Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches (1965), among many others. These years saw legislative and judicial victories, and in 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” The federal government needed to do more to ensure fair voter registration and election procedures across the country, however. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 put in place procedures and overseers to guarantee full enfranchisement for African Americans and people of color.
Yet the battle for voting rights continues to the present day. Gerrymandering and legislation still perpetuate discriminatory practices. In the 2013 case Shelby County v. Holder, the US Supreme Court struck down key parts of the Voting Rights Act, claiming that federal oversight was no longer justified. The sources in this set provide further insight into the context of this important Act: Why was it necessary? What did it do? Have its goals been achieved?
Additional resources for research
- Congress and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, National Archives and Records Administration.
- History of Federal Voting Rights Laws, United States Department of Justice.
- “The Voting Rights Act at 50: How It Changed the World,” Time.
- “A Dream Undone,” The New York Times Magazine.