Fifty-six years ago today, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law by Lyndon Baines Johnson. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a milestone piece of federal legislation that prohibited racial discrimination in voting and was signed into law during the peak of the civil rights movement. It reinforced the rights secured by the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitutions and sought to ensure the freedom for minorities to vote, particularly in the South. As a result, it is “considered one of the most far-reaching pieces of civil rights legislation” in the United States.
Black voters were often told they had to take literacy tests to vote, that they had gotten the date, time, polling place wrong, or that they filled out an application incorrectly. In addition, those in charge of the polls told them that they had to recite the entire Constitution to vote. But, of course, none of these things were true.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed in the Senate by 77-19 and in the House by 333-85. LBJ signed the bill into law on August 6, 1956. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders were present at the ceremony.
The Voting Rights Act created a political realignment by enfranchising minorities. Suddenly, Democrats turned more liberal, while Republicans turned more conservative and suddenly had control of the white conservative vote that used to go to Democrats. Perhaps it makes sense, then, why the Republicans of 2021 do not want to strengthen the bill today with the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
John Lewis was a civil rights icon turned congressman from Georgia who died in 2020. He is the first African-American lawmaker to lie in state in the Rotunda of the Capitol of the United States with a public viewing and procession through Washington DC. It is named after the voting rights activist.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Act (also known as HR 4) restores and strengthens parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, particularly those struck down by the Supreme Court decision of Shelby County v. Holder in 2013. It would again require, like before Shelby County v. Holder. that states clear particular changes to voting laws with the federal government.
Why aren’t Republicans for this? It’s simple. They’re not for this for the same reasons they weren’t for this in 1965. They may not be flat-out asking for literacy tests, and they’re not saying the quiet part out loud. Still, we know what Representative John Kavanagh, a Republican legislator who chairs Arizona’s Government and Elections Committee means when he bluntly states, “Quantity is important, but we have to look at the quality of votes, as well.” The exact words weren’t straight out of Jim Crow, but the implication was obvious. We also have the highly conservative National Review, which was against The Voting Rights Act of 1965 back then. Today, they’re against both The John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the For The People Act, hysterically calling them “a partisan assault on American democracy.” That is obviously untrue, as Republicans can win just as much if either act is put into law — as long as they get the numbers. (That’s the problem. Without partisan gerrymandering and federal approval to voting changes to ensure they’re fair, Republicans won’t have the numbers unless they change their policies to make them more popular among the people.) The Intelligencer is quite direct in their critique: “National Review should be more honest in its criticism:
Passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act (HR4) and the For the People Act (HR1) are of utmost importance for our Senate today. First, however, let’s take a day to celebrate what happened fifty-six years ago. Because of fighters in the civil rights movement, we passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It was groundbreaking at the time. So let us keep making progress. Let us keep getting in good trouble, necessary trouble.
“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
— John Lewis, 2018