The Voting Rights Act is arguably the most significant piece of legislation for voter participation in U.S. history.
Prior to 1965, African-American men and women received the right to vote from Congress through the 15th Amendment in 1870 and the 19th Amendment in 1920, respectively. Despite their existence, racist state-level policies— particularly in the south— kept many men and women of color from exercising their right to vote. Also, racially motivated terror groups such as the KKK used fearmongering and violence as a way to keep minorities away from the polls, often without any legal repercussions.
The civil rights era of the 1960s represented a major upheaval in racial justice politics and organizing for equal rights. In the summer of 1964, groups like the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) mobilized volunteers to register black voters in Mississippi, known as the Freedom Summer.
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The historic voter registration campaign to ensure more people had the right to vote led to the KKK murdering three volunteers, two white and one black. This was a crucial moment in turning public opinion and Congress went on to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended segregation in all public spaces and outlawed employer discrimination based on race, religion, sex or national origin.
This new legislation was a huge win for civil rights, but minority voters still weren’t able to vote without legal obstacles or putting their safety in danger.
The following year, black activists planned a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to fight for the right to vote. On March 7, 1965, the peaceful march ended when an angry mob led by state troopers attacked marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge with billy clubs, hospitalizing many of the protesters. News outlets captured the violence of the day, now known as Bloody Sunday, which galvanized public support for the civil rights cause.
The march from Montgomery to Selma was planned again on March 9, this time with Martin Luther King Jr. successfully leading the marchers — both white and black— linked arm-in-arm as they made their way across the bridge. Following the events in Selma, President Johnson introduced what would become the Voting Rights Act to Congress that month and made into law by Congress later that year.
The new law picked up where the 15th amendment left off by legally banning all discriminatory practices that had previously barred people of color from voting. African-Americans and minority voters have relied on the protections from the Voting Rights Act for years, and due to the bravery of civil rights activists decades ago are able to reap the rewards of their work. In 2017, things have certainly come a long way but voting rights in America require constant vigilance and communities across the country continue to grapple with many obstacles that keep people from participating in the democratic process.
Voting is a right that people have fought and died for don’t let your vote go to waste. VICE Impact has partnered with Democracy Works in their Turbovote campaign to get people to register and vote. Register now so you can participate in a fundamental American right.