Gloria J. Browne-Marshall

The 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act is marked on Aug. 6. In 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Act surrounded by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights martyrs. Untold Black lives paid the price for all citizens to cast a ballot free of intimidation. Yet, today, too few know how many obstacles had to fall in order to gain the right to vote, including the abolishment of poll taxes in 1964 among other milestones.

The Voting Rights Act protects the right to vote in spite of governmental oppression. It was signed after several tumultuous years of civil rights protests leading to a showdown in Selma, Alabama in March of 1965, when new cameras captured Alabama State Troopers brutally beating hundreds of peaceful African-American protesters, who only wanted to gain the right to vote, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

The bridge, named for an Alabama politician, who was also a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, became a symbol of America’s crossing from segregation to full political inclusion. As a result, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act as bi-partisan legislation in the House (328-74) and Senate (79-18), enabling Black politicians to seek office without fear of retaliation and giving Black voters the opportunity to support candidates without fear of reprisal.

However, the NAACP is presently fighting voting rights cases that challenge the use of photo identification. The organization played a major role in the fight for voting rights for 100 years.  In 1915, the NAACP fought against the Grandfather Clause – making a citizen ineligible to vote if earlier generations, their grandfathers, had not been eligible to vote – in the case of Guinn and Beal v. United States.

Even though, the Voting Rights Act does not give the right to vote, it can protect that right against unfair and discriminatory voting laws. With an expiration set in 1970, the Act was reauthorized by the Senate and expanded. However, it has not been without legal challenges. By 2009, the Supreme Court warned, in the case of Northwest Austin v. Holder, that the Act was nearing the end of its usefulness.

In 2013 the Supreme Court outlawed a section of the Act in the Shelby County,  Alabama v. Holder case, where Alabama challenged the sections of the Act which gave the federal government the power to oversee, or pre-clear, proposed changes in voting laws despite a history of racially discriminatory voting practices. The Court agreed with Alabama and struck down the formula that placed Alabama under the preclearance section of the Act.

Within days of the Shelby County ruling, Texas enacted the most rigid voter identification laws in the country.  North Carolina followed suit. Despite little evidence of voter fraud to support such laws, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Texas in Veasey v. Perry upholding legislation that allowed only a passport, military, state, and gun license as valid forms of voter identification. Voting rights activists believe that photo identification laws are a new form of poll tax.

However, the fight to maintain political power is ongoing. In March, the Supreme Court struck down Alabama’s scheme to pack the majority of Black voters in large districts thereby diluting their voting strength in other districts. That case, Alabama Black Legislative Caucus v. Alabama was a victory in the face of challenges leading into the 2016 Presidential election. During that same month, President Barack Obama stood at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who, as a student, was beaten unconscious on that fateful day in Selma.

“The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men,” said President Johnson.

Gloria J. Browne-Marshall is a writer, associate professor at John Jay College, and legal correspondent for AANIC (African-American News & Information Consortium).