The Fight for Voting Rights, from Selma in 1965 to Today

The movie Selma depicts the struggle for voting rights for African Americans that led to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In this lesson, students examine a primary source document to help them understand why so few southern blacks could vote in 1965. Students explore why voting rights were so important to equal rights and how that struggle 50 years ago relates to voting rules today. Students who have seen the movie Selma are invited to share thoughts, but the lesson does not depend on students having seen the film.  

Learning Objectives

Students will

  • read the 15th Amendment and explain why there was still a need to fight for voting rights in 1965
  • analyze a primary source document to learn how African Americans were frequently denied the right to vote
  • compare past efforts to suppress voting to current voter registration restrictions
  • take action to protect voting rights in their state


Write on chart paper or the board the Fifteenth Amendment:

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.  --1870

Ask a student to read it aloud; then ask:  How would you say this in your own words?

Make sure students understand the meaning of the amendment, and point out that it became law in 1870.

Tell students that now you will move ahead nearly 100 years, to 1965. Have them read the following.

Background Reading:
Before the Selma-to-Montgomery March

After World War II, the modern civil rights movement challenged racism in the United States, particularly in the South.  Lawyers argued before the Supreme Court that school segregation was unconstitutional. After the Court agreed, courageous black students began integrating schools. Residents of Montgomery, Alabama, boycotted the city’s buses for an entire year, and succeeded in putting an end to bus segregation there.

In addition to these well-known actions, everyday people across the South challenged injustice in many ways for many years. Their efforts often met with violent resistance from white Americans who opposed equal rights. Among many bloody incidents, police attacked nonviolent protestors in Birmingham, Alabama, and a bomb exploded in a church there in 1963, killing four young black girls.

As a result of both the activism and negative reactions to the violent responses to it, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The new law outlawed discrimination and segregation. It also called for equal access to jobs and to the right to vote.

Despite these guarantees, many African Americans were still prevented from voting. Local organizations and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced "Snick") joined forces in Selma, Alabama, in the early 1960s to challenge these restrictions and get black Alabamans registered to vote. In 1965, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., joined their efforts.

The work in Alabama culminated with a march from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery, and ultimately to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The months leading up to this march are the focus of the movie Selma.

Why couldn’t blacks vote in 1965?

Ask students to share any questions or comments they have about the reading.

Ask: What prevented blacks from voting, even after passage of the Civil Rights Act?

Tell students that they will investigate this question by looking at an Alabama voter registration application from the 1960s. Explain that in order to vote in elections—in the past as well as now—a person must register. Registering involves filling out a form that shows that the person lives in the voting district. Remind them that the Constitution leaves the details of voting, such as registration requirements and voting sites, up to the individual states.

Ask them to look at this Alabama Voter Registration Application. Students can either view it online, or you can project the image to the class or print out copies.  If viewing the document online, students will see that the document is annotated with yellow "comment" bubbles, which explain the deeper meaning of many of the questions in the application.  In addition, have students look at this sample test that was given to African Americans who tried to register to vote.

Have students, working in groups or as a whole class, read the registration application and the sample test and make a list of the different requirements that might present obstacles to a black resident registering to vote. Ask students to share their list. The final list should include: poll taxes, literacy tests, vouchers, threats, and intimidation.

Ask: How do you think these obstacles affected African Americans in states like Alabama? If students have seen Selma, they can refer to the part of the movie where Annie Lee Cooper attempts to register to vote, and the part where activists discuss which challenges to address first.

Now ask: Why did civil rights activists believe that it was so important to continue to fight for the right to vote?  

Write the following quotation on the board or chart paper.

"The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave Negroes some part of their rightful dignity, but without the vote it was dignity without strength."
-  Martin Luther King, Jr., 1965

Ask students, working alone or in groups, to write down what the quotation means. Then work with the class to agree on the meaning of the quote. 

Ask: Why did Martin Luther King, Jr., think that voting was so important? If students have seen Selma, they can refer to the part of the movie where they talk about the need to elect people to public office who will represent African Americans and affect legislation.

Connecting Past and Present

Ask students what they know about voting rights today.  What do they know about recent debates over access to the voting booth?

Have students find out what the voter registration laws are in your state.  Help them answer this question: Are voting rights for African Americans and others restricted or threatened?  Sources of information include the ACLU and the National Commission on Voting Rights.

Ask students to think about how we might fight for voting rights today. Have them plan and take an action, such as a letter-writing campaign, a rally, or a public relations effort to raise awareness. Students might also draf legislation to protect voting rights and present it to your state representative.

Additional Resources

Selma to Montgomery March, MLK Research and Education Institute
Summary of the march from Selma to Montgomery, including background about the struggle for voting rights and details about the coalition of civil rights organizations that worked on voter registration in Selma.

"Selma and the March to Montgomery" Civil Rights Movement Veterans
In-depth explanation of the 1965 struggles for voting rights, including data about numbers of African Americans registered to vote in Alabama, a chronicle of the events in Selma from January 1965 through the march to Montgomery, and links to primary source documents.

22 States Have Passed New Voting Restrictions Over the Past Four Years
June 17, 2014 piece from the Washington Post describing the current situation regarding voting rights regulations in the United States.