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Voting Rights Act Turns 50

Yoichi Okamoto
Image Serial Number: A1030-17a

Fifty years ago President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law – prohibiting the discriminatory voting practices that had been adopted in many southern states after the Civil War.

Efforts to break the grip of state disfranchisement had been underway for a number of years with modest success. But the unprovoked attack on marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma placed those efforts on the fast track.

“I’m not sure that was the thinking that it was going to change,” said Rev. H-K Matthews – a Pensacola-area civil rights activist then and today who was at Bloody Sunday.

Now 87, he says before Selma, African-Americans wishing to vote in his native Alabama had to overcome massive intimidation, along with a number of requirements such as a literacy test. That, Matthews says, led to the march.

“I come from Wilcox County. We didn’t know what it was to vote,” Matthews said. “There were certain things that we were required to do, like reciting the Constitution or counting beans in a jar. Just requirements that were not placed on anybody else.”

Speaking to a joint session of Congress one week after Bloody Sunday, President Lyndon B. Johnson called for a strong voting rights law. He said the march in Selma had plainly shown that this would be the only path to carry out the command of the U-S Constitution. Inside the call was a veiled threat to the Southern states.

“To those who seek to avoid action by their national government in their home communities, who want to and who seek to maintain purely local control over elections, the answer is simple,” said Johnson. “Open your polling places to all your people. Allow men and women to register and vote, whatever the color of their skin.”

During legislative hearings, Congress determined that existing federal anti-discrimination laws were not enough to overcome state officials who were resisting enforcement of the 15th Amendment – which was enacted in 1870 granting African-American men the right to vote.

The hearings also showed that efforts by the Justice Department to end discrimination at the polls by litigation -- on a case-by-case basis – had also been unsuccessful. It was a legal game of “Whack-a-Mole.” Every time one discriminatory practice or procedure was proven unconstitutional and enjoined, a new one would be substituted in its place and new litigation would be needed.

The House approved the final version of the bill 328-74 on August 3rd. It passed the Senate 79-18 the following day and was sent to the President, who signed it on August 6th, 1965.

“They came in darkness, and they came in chains,” Johnson said. “And today, we strike away the last major shackle of those fierce and ancient bonds.”

The U-S Supreme Court upheld the law the following year, and five amendments were added between 1970 and 2006. In 2012 the Supreme Court struck down a provision requiring certain Southern states – including Florida -- to pre-clear with the Justice Department any changes to their voting laws.

Rev. H-K Matthews says that has raised “significant concerns.”

“I’m sure that every justice on that Supreme Court is aware of ‘Bloody Sunday,’” said Matthews. “And yet, they sat up there and gutted a portion of that Act. And I think it’s ludicrous; I think it’s awful, I think it’s racist, and I think they ought to be ashamed of themselves.”

Meanwhile, voter apathy appears to be the modern-day scourge of the electoral process. Matthews has a message to those who are eligible to vote, but don’t: re-think your position, then go cast your ballot.

Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.