The Most Important Voting Rights Law In American History Turns 47 Today

On March 7, 1965, six hundred civil rights marchers began what was supposed to be a fifty mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in order to demand the right to vote. Six blocks later, they reached the crest of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and discovered that their path was blocked by what march leader and future Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) describes as a “sea of blue” — row after row of Alabama state troopers on foot and on horseback, armed with billy clubs, bull whips and tear gas. Within minutes, the troopers set upon the marchers, choking the marchers with gas, trampling them with horses and beating them with their weapons. Lewis still bears the scar from a blow that fractured his skull, and seventeen marchers were hospitalized for the crime of demanding something already guaranteed to them by the Fifteenth Amendment of to the Constitution.

Footage of the police’s cold and systematic brutality soon led national newscasts, some of which can be viewed here:

Within a week, national outrage reached such a crescendo that President Lyndon Johnson, a Southerner with a very mixed record on race, could no longer remain silent. On March 15, 1965, a president who voted against every single civil rights bill during his first 20 years in Congress — including bills aimed at ending lynching — entered the House Chamber to speak to a joint session of Congress. In the half hour that followed, a clearly reformed President Johnson laid out the framework for what became the Voting Rights Act of 1964, and he twice uttered the rallying cry of the Civil Rights Movement — “We Shall Overcome.”


Lyndon Johnson signed that law 47 years ago today, and with it dealt one of the final and most penetrating blows to American apartheid. Yet it is also true that Jim Crow had many executioners. One was a law Johnson signed just a year earlier banning discrimination in workplaces, public facilities and many places of business. Another was the growing determination of the Civil Rights movement, buttressed by a national sense of outrage, as Americans repeatedly watched peaceful protesters willingly submit themselves to brutality.

And many of Jim Crow’s executioners wore black robes.Twelve years after Brown v. Board of Education revived the constitutional guarantee of “equal protection of the laws” that had been stolen by eight justices from another era. Southern states asked the Supreme Court to invalidate the Voting Rights Act based on arguments closely resembling more recent attacks on Congress’ power to address national problems. Like the Affordable Care Act’s opponents, the Jim Crow states insisted that extending the promise of democracy to all Americans exceeded the national government’s power. And like the Affordable Care Act’s opponents, they insisted that the law must be unconstitutional because it was in many ways unprecedented.

Pointing to the Voting Rights Act’s requirement that Jim Crow states preclear any new voting restrictions with the Justice Department or a federal court, South Carolina complained that “there is no precedent in the history of the Union for such an abuse of [] power.” Virginia’s amicus brief attacking the law claimed that the power to set voter qualifications “remains with the States . . . and it has never been lodged anywhere else.” Alabama’s brief warned that this power “has never been delegated to the Federal Government.” And Georgia called it “the most drastic law ever proposed.”

The Supreme Court rejected these arguments, with every single justice but one joining the majority opinion in full.

Today, however, America has a very different Supreme Court, and several states have filed new lawsuits similar to the ones that failed more than four decades ago. These lawsuits are widely expected to succeed in a Supreme Court that has shown little regard for voting rights, or for preserving the hard fought gains of the Civil Rights era.


As these new lawsuits proceed, we will certainly have a lot to say about how they endanger voters’ ability to protect their own voting rights, and how they will embolden conservative lawmakers backing new efforts to keep unwanted voters from voting. On this anniversary of the most important voting rights law in American history, however, we remain deeply grateful that the Roberts Court did not sit in the 1960s — and that the viability of the Voting Rights Act was never truly in doubt when it faced its first challenge in the Supreme Court.