To the Teacher:
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 became law during a civil rights movement that pressed for African American rights long denied and an end to whites' repressive, brutal behavior—both official and unofficial. The first student reading below provides a reminder of this history. The second discusses a recent Supreme Court decision on a section of the Voting Rights Act, the drawing of voter district lines, that continues to affect the political participation of African Americans and the election of representatives of their choice.
Student Reading 1:
Voting Rights Act of 1965
The words of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution (adopted on March 30, 1870) could not be clearer:
"The right of the 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."
But by the late 1800s, 10 white Southern state legislatures were approving constitutional changes that required votes to take literacy tests and pay poll taxes. Both of these official rules were designed to prevent African Americans from voting. The poll tax required black voters to make a payment most could not afford. Using the literacy test, officials could easily bar prospective African American voters from the polls by claiming that their interpretation of a passage in the state constitution was incorrect. White voters who were deemed illiterate were allowed to vote if their grandfathers had voted. But allegedly illiterate African American voters could not claim their grandfathers had voted; most had been slaves.
There were also unofficial barriers erected to keep blacks from voting—like intimidation. In August 1964, a group of African Americans in Tallahatchie, Mississippi, accompanied by civil rights workers and Justice Department representatives, came to the courthouse to register. They found 25 or 30 white spectators standing outside with several county law officers.Each applicant was photographed as he approached the registrar's office. After each group took a test, they were told to wait outside in the yard.
In their book The Negro In 20th Century America, John Hope Franklin and Isidore Starr quote a black witness to the scene, Jesse Brewer: "When we got back out there, there were about 65 gathered around there. A lot more white people drove up there in pickup trucks with gun racks in them...One ranch wagon comes with three white men with guns and they told us, "you niggers get away from the courthouse. You don't have any business up here."'
When Jesse Brewer got home, two pickup trucks drove up. "After they passed the house, they stopped, parked, got out and turned around and came back and drove around slow, and between that time and night I reckon seven, eight cars came in, pickups, and all of them had these same gun racks in the back of them...All night after twelve o'clock they would come in. Sometime they would have the lights off, so when they got up near the house they would flash the lights on, go on by and cut them back off. That went on regularly for three weeks, I know."
Other African Americans learned of Jesse Brewer's experience and decided not to try to register. Brewer said, "They got scared and in fact they didn't go into the fields for about the next week. They stayed hid in the woods, everybody."
As a result of such barriers, in the early 1960s only 6.7 percent of African Americans were registered to vote in Mississippi. In Alabama the figure was 19.3 percent, compared with 69.2 percent of whites.
But by then the civil rights movement was underway. One of its key moments came on March 7, 1965, when 600 people protested barriers to African American voter registration and the killing of a civil rights worker by marching on the statehouse in Montgomery, Alabama.
"'It was so orderly, we were so peaceful, we were so quiet walking 600 strong,'" said Rep. John Lewis, then a young civil rights activist, today a Georgia congressman. "When the marchers reached the highest point on the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River, they faced 'a sea of blue,'" said Lewis.
Alabama police and state troopers, some on horseback and brandishing billy clubs, tear gas and whips, ordered the marchers back. Instead, the marchers, people of all races, knelt in prayer. Then the police advanced. "They were beating us with nightsticks, trampling us with horses, releasing the tear gas," Lewis told MSNBC in an interview. "I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a nightstick. I thought I was going to die. I was going in and out of consciousness, and I could hear people hollering and crying, the horses' hooves on the pavement."
This march and two more Selma-to-Montgomery marches finally outraged and galvanized the country. Five months later, on August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Section 1 of the Act states its main purpose: to prevent states from imposing any "voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure—to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color."
The effects were dramatic and immediate. The number of voting-age African Americans registered to vote in Mississippi jumped from 6.7 percent to 66.5 percent in four years. Nationally African American registration levels climbed from an estimated 23 percent before the Act to 61 percent by 1969. This led to the election of African Americans in local, state, and national offices.
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. Why was the 15th amendment to the Constitution necessary?
3. What methods did 10 Southern state lawmakers use to subvert the intent of the 15th amendment? With what results?
4. Why did people organize civil rights marches in Alabama in 1965? How did the police and state troopers respond to them? Why?
5. What was the purpose of the Voting Rights Act of 1965? What were its results?
Student Reading 2:
The importance of voter district lines
Lawmakers in every state have the authority to map voter district lines and to redraw them. Lines may be redrawn to reflect changes in population growth; to ensure as much fairness to all voters as possible; to improve the lawmakers' own chances of winning elections; or to limit the possibility that minority candidates will be elected to office. But Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act prohibits any voting practice or procedure that has a discriminatory result. Specifically, it prevents officials from drawing district lines in a way that dilutes the strength of the minority vote.
But does the Voting Rights Act require a state government to divide a county into two districts to maintain the power of minority voters even if they represent less than half of all voters? This question was argued recently before the Supreme Court in Bartlett v. Strickland.
North Carolina lawmakers maintained that the answer should be yes. They argued that the VRA required them to create a voter district that included about 39 percent of the African American voting-age population. "The theory was that the law protected black voters who joined with white 'crossover voters' to elect a candidate of the black voters' choice," reported the New York Times. "The district was the consequence of an effort to preserve minority voting powers..." by dividing a county into two districts.
The North Carolina county sued. It argued that "the Voting Rights Act did not require the creation of districts in which minorities are less than 50 percent of the voting-age population."
The Voting Rights Act does not state what percentage of potential minority voters is required. Courts are supposed to decide on "the totality of circumstances" and whether some groups "have less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice."
On March 9, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of the county. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said, "Racial discrimination and racially polarized voting are not ancient history." But the goal of the Voting Rights Act is "to hasten the waning of racism in American politics" rather than to "entrench racial differences." The justice said that a state legislature may still create a district that has less than 50% of a minority group, but the VRA does not require one. The Supreme Court, he wrote, has made "an objective, numerical test" that "draws clean lines for courts and legislators alike." (New York Times, 3/10/09)
In a dissent to the majority decision, Justice David Souter wrote that the result of it will be to increase racial polarization because it will require states "to pack black voters" into districts in which they are the majority." This, he said, will result in "contracting the number of districts where racial minorities are having success in transcending racial divisions."
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. What are voter districts? Who determines them? How? For what purpose? How may they result in discriminatory results against minorities?
3. What was the voter district issue argued before the Supreme Court?
4. How did the Court decide? Why? How does it affect African Americans?
5. What were the arguments pro and con over this decision?
Imagine that you are a Supreme Court justice and must vote on Bartlett v. Strickland. In a well-developed paper, explain the reasons for your vote.
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: firstname.lastname@example.org