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A Brief Visual History Of The Voting Rights Act

The Voting Rights Act was signed into law 55 years ago. It's more relevant than ever today.

Posted on August 6, 2020, at 12:35 p.m. ET


Before 1965, it was perfectly legal in Louisiana to be denied voting rights if you had a child out of wedlock. Across the South, literacy tests, citizen tests, and poll taxes were common, designed explicitly to restrict Black and nonwhite Americans from voting. After the Civil War, the 15th Amendment prohibited denying men the right to vote based on their race, but it did not grant automatic voting rights (women had to wait another 50 years for the 19th amendment in 1920).

While some men and women could and did vote, laws demanding certain requirements to be met in order to vote led to widespread disenfranchisement, leaving Black Americans in particular with very little say in how their communities were governed. Equal access to voting was a central focus of the early civil rights movement — "Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights," Martin Luther King Jr. said in a 1957 speech. The focus on voting rights sharpened after peaceful marchers demanding suffrage, led by John Lewis, were attacked by state troopers in Selma, Alabama.

The footage of Bloody Sunday, as the attack came to be known, shocked the nation. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law on Aug. 6, 1965, which made it illegal to impose restrictions on access to elections at all levels. The act has been renewed twice since, with 25-year extensions being signed into law by former presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

Nonetheless, there is not universal suffrage — felons, undocumented citizens, and permanent residents cannot vote in all states — and in 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that restrictions were allowed, undermining the original intent of the Voting Rights Act.

An elderly black man at the ballot box while a line of white and black people in overcoats wait behind him
Corbis via Getty Images

An elderly Black man fills out his ballot with a voting machine as onlookers watch in Washington, DC, 1942.

A group of black people at a table look at books
Afro Newspaper / Getty Images

A young woman registering to vote witnessed by three people sitting at a table and a Black woman standing next to her, Oct. 2, 1943.

Black men line up, holding hats and dressed nicely, in a room where they are watched by white people
Bettmann / Bettmann Archive

Black voters go to the polls in South Carolina, the first time since the Reconstruction that they were able to vote after the Supreme Court ruled they could not be deprived of the franchise, Aug. 11, 1948.

Lyndon Johnson leans on his hand in front of a pile of papers on the table in front of him while Martin Luther King Jr. leans in to talk to him
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

President Lyndon B. Johnson discusses the Voting Rights Act with civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., 1965.

Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife lead a march of black and white people dressed nicely down the street
Robert Abbott Sengstacke / Getty Images

American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, lead others during on the Selma to Montgomery marches held in support of voter rights in Alabama, 1965.

State troopers beat black men in front of a mattress company in Alabama
Unknown / AP

A state trooper swings a billy club at John Lewis, chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, to break up a civil rights voting march in Selma, Alabama, March 7, 1965. Lewis sustained a fractured skull.

A group of five men, four black and one white, walk arm in arm down the street with an American flag
Robert Abbott Sengstacke / Getty Images

American newspaper publisher John H. Sengstacke, his son Lewis, and others during on the Selma to Montgomery marches held in support of voter rights in Alabama, 1965.

A line of police officers is seen from behind as they face a crowd in front of the capitol building in Alabama
William Lovelace / Getty Images

A line of police officers on duty during a Black voting rights march in Montgomery, Alabama, 1965.

A crowd of black men and women carrying American flags are seen from behind as they stand in front of the capitol building in Alabama
Bettmann / Bettmann Archive

Civil rights marchers arrive at the Alabama state Capitol in Montgomery, after a 50-mile march from Selma to protest racial discrimination in voter registration, March 25, 1965.

President Lyndon B. Johnson sits at a desk surrounded by white men in suits

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in a ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, Aug. 6, 1965.

A Black family is seen in a living room watching television
Bettmann / Bettmann Archive

A Black family watches President Lyndon B. Johnson on television speaking before a joint session of Congress on the right to vote.

Washington Bureau / Getty Images

President Lyndon B. Johnson hands a pen to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. during the signing of the Voting Rights Act as officials look on behind them, Washington, DC, Aug. 6, 1965.

A one-legged man on crutches is helped into a courthouse by two young men

Jim Dyous is helped by two young people into the Sumter County Courthouse in Americus, Georgia, to register to vote, Aug. 6, 1965.

Black men and women stand at a table while white men sit behind it with registration papers.
Photoquest / Getty Images

Citizens register to vote in Greensboro, Alabama, 1965.

A long line of people in coats stand in front of the courthouse
Bettmann / Bettmann Archive

Black people, led by Martin Luther King Jr., line up in front of the Dallas County Courthouse in Selma, Alabama, to register to vote, 1965.


A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.