The Voting Rights Act, 45 Years Later
On the anniversary of President Johnson's landmark legislation, The Root talks to those who fought the good fight in getting black folks the vote.
"A few years ago, people could not vote simply because of the color of their skin," recalls Georgia Congressman John Lewis, former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). "You had to count the number of jelly beans in a jar or the number of bubbles in a bar of soap. Black teachers and college professors could not pass [those] literacy tests."
Lewis, who spoke recently at a small political dinner in Jacksonville, Fla., was jailed 40 times as a young man fighting for the right to vote. As a freedom rider, he was beaten bloody by a white mob in Montgomery, Ala. And a police beating while he was protesting the denial of voting rights in Selma gave Lewis a concussion. Congressional colleagues call him the Legend. His efforts, and those of his colleagues, not only led to the franchisement of African Americans but also contributed to unprecedented numbers of black political leaders being elected into office across the country.
The Voting Rights Act, signed into law August 6, 1965, dramatically increased black voting strength, especially in the South. In Alabama, there were just 53,336 black voters in 1960; three decades later, there were 537,285 -- a tenfold increase. Selma's notorious Sheriff Jim Clark was voted out of office in 1966 (and in 1978 was sent to prison for smuggling marijuana).
Acutely aware that Southern soil is soaked with black people's blood, Lewis said he cried tears of joy when Barack Obama was sworn in as president. However, warned Lewis, "We can't stop now. If we don't do what we must do, we will not be crying tears of happiness, but tears of pain."
Lewis was in Jacksonville to support Congresswoman Corrine Brown's efforts to get Florida voters to reject two "Fair Districts" constitutional amendments on the November ballot. The amendments would redraw state legislative districts; Brown describes the legislation as "bleaching" her district.
But new challenges to black power are not the only concern of activists who fought and organized for voting rights. Talk to them and you often hear something between weariness and worry and even outright anger at black elected officials. "Most look like a band of hustlers to me," says Muriel Tillinghast, who in 1964 directed a voting rights drive in Issaquena County, Miss. "The courage of Mississippi blacks" is what remains strongest in her mind. "I don't think people understand what Mississippi was like." She lives in New York City now, "and when I talk to New York blacks, they are awash in excuses about everything." She sighs. Winning voting rights was an important battle, but "it takes two or three generations to win the war."