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.

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
A group of black people at a table look at books
Black men line up, holding hats and dressed nicely, in a room where they are watched by white people
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
Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife lead a march of black and white people dressed nicely down the street
State troopers beat black men in front of a mattress company in Alabama
A group of five men, four black and one white, walk arm in arm down the street with an American flag
A line of police officers is seen from behind as they face a crowd in front of the capitol building in Alabama
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
President Lyndon B. Johnson sits at a desk surrounded by white men in suits
A Black family is seen in a living room watching television
A one-legged man on crutches is helped into a courthouse by two young men
Black men and women stand at a table while white men sit behind it with registration papers.
A long line of people in coats stand in front of the courthouse

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