Fifty-five years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the United States remains locked in an existential struggle between white supremacy and a united nation. The 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA), which passed on Aug. 6 of that year, paved the way for millions of Black people to vote for the first time in American history. It led to the rise of the first generation of nationally elected African American officials since Reconstruction. The VRA paved the way for the rise of the Congressional Black Caucus, the late congressman John Lewis’s seat in the House of Representatives and the election of America’s first Black president, Barack Obama.
Yet as the nation prepares for perhaps the most important national election in history, the VRA is under attack. In the past several years, it has become harder to vote than in the first few decades following its passage. This year of American racial reckoning, protests and pandemic has illuminated how this nation remains burdened by an ugly history of anti-Black racism and white supremacy.
The period of Reconstruction provides one example of how white supremacy blocked African Americans’ access to the vote. The 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution abolished racial slavery, institutionalized birthright citizenship and guaranteed Black men voting rights. Between 1865 and 1877, free Black women and men helped to reimagine American democracy by organizing churches, schools, towns and communities. They erected public schools, infrastructure and social welfare in parts of the South devastated by the Civil War. Black elected officials, whose numbers at the local, state and national level swelled to more than 1,400 during this period, helped to usher in a new age of American democracy centered on the achievement of Black dignity and citizenship.
Racial terror, violence and illegal policies were the tools originally deployed during Reconstruction to prevent Black men from exercising their right to vote. Poll taxes, literacy tests and racial violence appeared during Reconstruction and flourished in the aftermath of the withdrawal of Northern troops from the South after the contested 1876 presidential election. In return for the ratification of the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes’s presidency, the party of Lincoln agreed to abandon the protection of Black voting rights.
It took nearly a century to overcome restrictions on Black voting rights. During the 1960s, civil rights activists made voting one of the cornerstones of their activism. Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper from Ruleville, Miss., turned voting rights leader, helped to organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The MFDP, led by Hamer, challenged the seating of the Magnolia State’s racist delegation at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City in August 1964. In a riveting testimony broadcast on live television, Hamer recounted the beatings, harassment and death threats she received for trying to register Black Americans to vote.