On Exhibit: Voting Rights Act of 1965

Today’s post comes from Alex Nieuwsma, an intern in the National Archives History Office in Washington, DC.

The Voting Rights Act, August 6, 1965 (signature page). (General Records of the U.S. Government, National Archives)

The Voting Rights Act, August 6, 1965 (signature page). (General Records of the U.S. Government, National Archives Identifier 299909)

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a milestone in American history. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it on August 6, 1965, marking the culmination of decades of efforts toward African American equality.

The 15th Amendment, passed in 1870, clearly stated that “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.”

In response, many southern states issued voting tests to African Americans that all but guaranteed they would fail and be unable to vote. Furthermore, the Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), upheld the “separate but equal” doctrine permitting racial segregation. While African Americans were legally citizens of the United States, they commonly had separate drinking fountains, stores, bus seats, and schools.

The civil rights movement grew immensely after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. The Board of Education ruling in 1954, which struck down the Plessy v. Ferguson decision and deemed the segregation of schools to be unconstitutional.

The leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., further propelled the movement.

A Baptist preacher in Alabama, King became a national face of the civil rights movement following his nonviolent marches and protests in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Photograph of President Lyndon Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act as Martin Luther King, Jr., and other Civil Rights Leaders in the Capitol Rotunda, Washington, DC, April 6, 1965. (National Archives Identifier 2803443).

Photograph of President Lyndon Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act as Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders look on, Washington, DC, April 6, 1965. (National Archives Identifier 2803443).

It was during one of these marches, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, that King gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Two years later, King was back in Washington, DC, to watch President Lyndon Johnson sign the Voting Rights Act into law. The bill passed in the House of Representatives by a 328-74 vote and in the Senate by a vote of 79-18.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 immediately changed the political landscape of America. 250,000 new voters were registered by the end of 1965. More than half of all African American citizens were registered by 1967.

The Voting Rights Act will be on display at the National Archives from July 31 to September 16, 2015. It will be featured in the Landmark Document display of the Rubenstein Gallery.

 

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