FOR 40 YEARS, the Voting Rights Act has prohibited certain racially discriminatory election practices and given the federal government supervisory powers over states that used such practices.
Before its enactment Aug. 6, 1965, few blacks could vote, making the promise of democracy as hollow as was the promise of liberty to slaves in the Declaration of Independence. The 15th Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1870 specifically to address this issue, did very little. The right to vote, therefore, must be considered the Super Bowl of the civil rights struggle.
Great moments for the right to vote include passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 prohibiting voting denial because of gender and the 26th Amendment in 1971 guaranteeing the vote for 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds. Although Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 is the most celebrated case in civil rights, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 deserves its rightful place alongside Brown and these other momentous occasions.
Hiram Revels of Mississippi was sworn in as the first African-American in the Senate in 1870. Not only did his admission suggest the imminent possibilities of political equality for black Americans, but the fact that he took the seat previously held by Jefferson Davis, who quit the Senate in 1860 to become president of the Confederacy, reflected just how much of a radical change had taken place. Over a dozen other black members of Congress would soon follow. By 1903, however, that double-digit number had dwindled to zero.
In that year, North Carolina Gov. Charles B. Aycock said: "I am proud of my state ... because there we have solved the Negro problem. ... We have taken him out of politics and have thereby secured good government under any party." In a democracy, how do you take as much as 40 percent (in some states) of the population out of politics?
The short answer is by perversion of the democratic process through such devices as grandfather clauses, in which voting eligibility was limited to those whose grandfathers voted in 1860; poll taxes, in which eligibility was based on a fee; and literacy tests, in which blacks, who in the not-too-distant past were executed for learning to read, were required to meet insurmountable reading comprehension standards. When these devices failed, murder was used.
Thousands were killed when they tried to vote. Maceo Snipes, the only black to vote in the Democratic primary in Taylor County, Ga., in 1946, was shot and lynched soon thereafter. Harry Moore, who organized a voter registration drive in Florida in 1950, was killed by a bomb placed under his home on Christmas Eve in 1951. In Philadelphia, Miss., election workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney were murdered a year before the Voting Rights Act passed.
These individuals are merely a small sample of those who died in the fight for blacks to secure the right to vote. Without the Voting Rights Act, the sacrifice would have been in vain.
In signing the law, President Lyndon B. Johnson termed it "a monumental law in the history of American freedom." He was right. The impact has been substantial. Shortly after the law was enacted, 800,000 blacks registered to vote. Today, there are about 10,000 elected black officials; in 1965, there were about 300.
Despite this progress, the Voting Rights Act is not the panacea. Since 1965, its protections have been strengthened on three separate occasions. Even with these revisions, voting irregularities in the 2000 and 2004 presidential races in Florida and Ohio, where there were allegations of discrimination due to faulty machines, police intimidation and purging of voter rolls, suggests that additional protections against racial discrimination may be necessary. With such problems looming, it is hard to believe that conservative Republicans, including President Bush, question the need to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act in 2007.
Yet there is much to celebrate. Rep. George Henry White of North Carolina, the last black congressman from the Reconstruction era, said in his final speech before Congress in 1901: "This, Mr. Chairman, is perhaps the Negro's temporary farewell to Congress. But let me say, Phoenix-like he will rise up some day and come again."
Mr. White's prediction, of course, came true. Today, 43 African-Americans serve in Congress. On this 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, it is important to remember that without this democratizing legislation, the "Negro's farewell" may have been permanent.
Michael Higginbotham, a professor of law at the University of Baltimore, is the author of Race Law.