Why We Need the Voting Rights Act


“The First Vote”, wood engraving by Alfred Rudolph Waud, from the title page of Harper’s Weekly 11 (568) November 16, 1867.

Many of us are too young to remember the 1960s or never experienced the systematic racism found in certain states in that era, so in light of last week’s Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder which overturned Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act, it is helpful to recall the historical context which made the Voting Rights Act an essential part of our democracy.

The 15th Amendment to the Constitution granted African American men the right to vote by declaring that the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Although ratified on February 3, 1870, the promise of the 15th Amendment would not be fully realized for almost a century. Through the use of poll taxes, literacy tests and other means, Southern states were able to effectively disenfranchise African Americans. It would take the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 before the majority of African Americans in the South were registered to vote.

Following the jump is an example of a “literacy” test which was used in Louisiana in 1964. On its face (prima facie) the test is “unbiased;” nothing in the test explicitly favors one race over another. However, the test is clearly designed so that no one can truly succeed — especially a would-be black voter with access only to the sort of education provided to blacks in the South at that time. “Designed to put the applicant through mental contortions, the test’s questions are often confusingly worded. If some of them seem unanswerable, that effect was intentional. The (white) registrar would be the ultimate judge of whether an answer was correct.”

Find out if you would have been allowed to vote in Louisiana prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

The test follows the jump. Click here for the “answers”.

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