Politics

What backlash to landmark voting law tells us about debate today

Ronald Reagan praised the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as “vital.” Bill Clinton deemed it a “triumph.” George W. Bush said the law “broke the segregationist lock on the ballot box.”

When the U.S. Senate reauthorized the law most recently, in 2006, it passed by a vote of 98 to 0.

And even Chief Justice John Roberts, in a Supreme Court ruling to gut a key enforcement mechanism of the law in 2013, wrote that “there is no denying that, due to the Voting Rights Act, our Nation has made great strides.”

For decades now, America’s political class has heaped praise on the VRA. But later, nearly unanimous support obscures how contested the law was at the time it passed. It provoked a fierce backlash from governors’ mansions to newspaper editorial pages, where it was painted as unconstitutional and unfair to Southern states. 

An examination of newspapers from 1965 and 1966 — when the Supreme Court upheld key provisions of the act — shows that arguments against the VRA then have parallels in today’s debates about voting, nearly six decades later.

A voting law ‘primed to explode’

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act on Aug. 6, 1965, following attacks earlier that year by law enforcement on peaceful civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama. The act outlawed literacy tests in elections, and shortly after it was filed, the federal government sued four states over poll taxes.

The VRA used a formula to determine where its provisions applied: Jurisdictions that had literacy tests and where less than half the population was registered or voted in the 1964 presidential election qualified. At the outset, the formula covered Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia, as well as a number of counties in four other states.

Those places (and others that fell under the formula over time) would be required to “preclear” voting laws with the Department of Justice or a D.C.-based federal court. The preclearance provision was one of the act’s most powerful tools but received scant attention at the time. 

Instead, front page stories tracked the now-forgotten work of federal registrars, who arrived in Southern states to register Black voters in the days after the ink dried on the Voting Rights Act.

In one “hot and dusty room” in Louisiana’s East Feliciana Parish, a team of six federal registrars added 2,100 Black voters to the rolls, raising the rate of Black voter registration from 5 to 51%, according to a wire report in the Miami Herald Sun. The story detailed how registrars arrived at the Magnolia Motel in Jefferson Davis County, Mississippi — named for the president of the Confederacy — and “cut connecting doors in the walls, moved out furniture and moved in registration desks.” Sixty-eight-year-old resident Joe Ella Moore was finally able to register to vote on her eighth attempt, having been rejected the previous seven times by local officials.

The scenes — the paper dubbed them a “silent revolution” — were repeated in towns across the South. By the time the VRA was upheld at the Supreme Court in March 1966, more than 80,000 Black voters had joined the rolls with the aid of federal registrars. Nearly a quarter million more had registered through more typical means.

Black newspapers followed developments closely. In the days after the law passed, The Miami Times reported on the Justice Department’s actions to “deal a death-blow to poll taxes … and make it easier for Negroes to vote.” The Pittsburgh Courier noted that just 6% of eligible Black voters were registered in Mississippi and called the VRA “one of the initial steps which must be undertaken in order to free a large section of this country from a reign of terror.”

A headline from the Miami Times, a Black newspaper, reads,
The Black-owned Miami Times ran a front-page story on Aug. 13, 1965, about the impact of the Voting Rights Act.

In the white press, the Voting Rights Act was sometimes met with open hostility.

Readers of many publications were informed that the wronged party was not Black voters denied the franchise, but rather the Southern states that fell under federal supervision. “Somewhere, Satan is Smiling,” declared the headline of an editorial printed in North Carolina’s Rocky Mount Telegram on May 1, 1966. “The Voting Rights Act can discriminate, and there is no appeal,” the newspaper said.

Journalists applied scare quotes liberally. The Hattiesburg American in Mississippi referred to the “vengeful and radical leaders of the ‘civil rights movement.’” The Greenville News in South Carolina questioned the constitutionality of “the so-called ‘voting rights law.’” And a wire story that ran in several Virginia papers referred to the law, incorrectly, as “the new Negro Voting Rights Act.”

The anger found an outlet even in items that had little to do with voting rights. A story in Virginia’s Rappahannock Record veered from reporting that the Garland family, with 550 acres and 100 cattle, were named 1965’s “farm family of the year” to comments from a local official calling the law “a blunderbuss or blockbuster, primed to explode indiscriminately across whole states.”

Public officials pushed back on nearly every aspect of the VRA. Many focused on the idea that illiterate voters might join the rolls — an argument made by South Carolina’s secretary of state and attorney general. In Texas, the attorney general insisted that anyone who couldn’t pay a poll tax of $1.75 “is not intelligent or competent to manage the affairs of government.” And the editorial board of the Durham Morning Herald wrote that “the literacy test fairly administered is a bulwark of democracy.”

(The tests, needless to say, were not fairly administered. The Rev. Lorenzo Harrison was able to register in Alabama after the VRA passed, but he had been turned down six times previously, despite having attended two years of college, the Associated Press reported.)

Black residents of Selma stand in a long line inside a courthouse.
Black residents trying to register to vote wait in a long line in a corridor of a courthouse in Selma, Alabama, in January 1965. Several weeks later, a march from Selma for voting rights was halted by violence from law enforcement. That August, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in response. (Bettmann via Getty Images)

Papers also drew a line to federal involvement in Southern states in the post-Civil War period. Both eras featured a President Johnson (Lyndon signed the VRA, while Andrew was in office from 1865 to 1869) but were separated by a century. Alabama Gov. George Wallace — who would run for president in 1968 on a segregationist platform, winning many of the states originally subject to the VRA — called the law “as bitter as anything enacted by the Reconstruction Congress.”

In his syndicated column “Sensing The News,” Thurman Sensing predicted the act “may result in a disastrous situation, with local portions of state government reverting to the near barbarous conditions prevailing during Reconstruction.”

If that was too subtle, other papers made the threat to white control more explicit. “The prospect,” The Greenville News said in an editorial, “is that in some areas the White minority, or even the majority, may be inundated by a flood of ignorant mass voters or carefully organized minorities who have been brought together in a conspiratorial coalition.” In Prentiss, Mississippi, the AP noted that “the whites … are still in a state of shock” after Black voter registration rates jumped from 5% to 19%.

The notion that undeserving or uninformed voters would swing elections was widespread, with Sensing writing in 1966 that “the voting rolls of Southern states will be so packed by illiterates who can be manipulated by the liberals on election day, that the proven quality conservative leadership will be defeated next fall in the congressional races.”

Such comments were not limited to Southern publications. The Wall Street Journal editorial board took a strikingly racist tone after the VRA passed, and following the Watts Riots in Los Angeles one week later. In an editorial reprinted from New York to North Carolina to California, the paper argued that “The high Negro birth rate alone is cause for pessimism … In the face of such circumstances, a voting rights act appears almost as an irrelevancy.”

Parallels to present voting conflicts

In recent years, debates over the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — an effort to reinvigorate the Voting Rights Act — have carried echoes of the backlash to the original 1965 law.

In an October 2021 hearing, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley called the bill “yet another attempt at a federal takeover of state and local elections. It wrestles control of elections away from the states and into the hands of the Biden-Harris Department of Justice and partisan lawyers.”

Grassley is one of 17 Senate Republicans who voted for the reauthorization of the VRA in 2006 but opposes the Lewis bill, The Washington Post reported in 2022. The partisan dynamics of voting rights have changed considerably since the ’60s, when the VRA was passed by a bipartisan group of legislators and opposed largely by Southern Democrats.

A number of conservative officials and activists have argued that the 1965 law was a landmark — but that the practice of preclearance is now unnecessary, unfair or outdated. These critics have included Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita and attorney John Eastman, the latter of whom testified in 2019 that states are “not to be treated as children under the constant ‘mother may I’ advance preclearance supervision of the federal government.”

Eastman was subsequently a key player in Donald Trump’s failed effort to overturn the 2020 election. He’s fighting the potential loss of his law license in California.

The jurisdictions covered by preclearance have changed significantly over the decades. Under the criteria set out in the Lewis bill, several Southern states, including Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, would very likely be covered — but so would Democratic strongholds including Los Angeles County, California; Cook County, Illinois; and Cuyahoga County, Ohio.

Arguments from the 1960s about who deserves the vote, and the panic over illiterate voters, are echoed in 2021 comments made by Arizona state Rep. John Kavanagh, a Republican, that “everybody shouldn’t be voting” and that “quantity is important, but we have to look at the quality of votes, as well.”

The sentiment that it is too easy for some voters to cast a ballot also resurfaced in a 2023 recording of GOP attorney Cleta Mitchell telling donors that election officials near college campuses “basically put the polling place next to the student dorm so they just have to roll out of bed, vote, and go back to bed.”

Other recent efforts that have been advanced under the banner of “election integrity” mirror post-VRA tactics. “You have 10 days to challenge those registered by federal registrars,” South Carolina’s attorney general told local officials in 1965, imploring them to “take a good look.” In Georgia in recent years, a small group of activists have done something similar, filing 100,000 challenges to the eligibility of voters.

In neutralizing the preclearance provision in 2013, John Roberts argued that the country had changed. Several opponents of the Lewis bill today argue that the country has already done enough. 

A similar sentiment prevailed in 1965. Columnist David Lawrence wrote that the 14th, 15th and 24th amendments of the U.S. Constitution already barred poll taxes in federal elections and discrimination in voting, so the new law wasn’t needed. He called Aug. 6, 1965, when the VRA was signed, “a day of infamy.”

The article featured in this post was originally published on Center for Public Integrity and parts of it are included here under a Creative Commons license CC BY-ND 4.0

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