The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted to reverse the effects of state disfranchisement and secure equal voting rights for all citizens. The legislation was a victory for racial minorities, especially African Americans in the South, because many had experienced social opposition to their voting.
After Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan and other organizations used violence and intimidation to limit African American voter turnout. South Carolina’s African Americans faced legal challenges as well. Beginning in 1882, the Eight Box Law functioned effectively as a literacy test. In 1896 statewide party primaries that barred African American participation were introduced. With South Carolina firmly under white Democratic control, African Americans were excluded from politics, and voter registration plummeted: in October 1896 only 5,500 African Americans were registered to vote in the state.
In the presence of a growing national civil rights movement, President Lyndon Johnson issued a call for strong voting rights laws in 1965. The Voting Rights Act, signed into law in August 1965, suspended literacy tests and provided for the appointment of federal examiners with the power to register qualified citizens to vote. South Carolina immediately challenged the law’s constitutionality in South Carolina v. Katzenbach. South Carolina, supported by briefs from other states, argued that Congress could not authorize federal officials to impose themselves on state affairs in the manner outlined by the act. The United States Supreme Court rejected that argument by an eight-to-one vote, declaring that Congress acted within its authority to enforce the goals of the Fifteenth Amendment. For the court’s majority, widespread discrimination constituted “exceptional conditions” that allowed Congress to pass legislation to protect voting rights.
On being signed into law, the act had an almost immediate impact. In South Carolina the number of American Americans registered to vote rose dramatically. In 1964, 38.7 percent of voting-age African Americans were registered. Four years later that number climbed to 50.8 percent. There were also gains in African American political participation. Twelve black South Carolinians attended the 1968 Democratic National Convention as delegates. In 1970 three African Americans were elected to the General Assembly, the first black legislators since the 1890s. Less than a decade after the passage of the act, the number of African American legislators had risen to thirteen.
According to the United States Justice Department, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as extended in 1970, 1975, and 1982, may be the most significant civil rights legislation passed by the United States Congress. Now blacks in South Carolina register to vote at about the same rate as whites. Enforcement of the act provides opportunities to challenge election methods that may weaken majority voting strength—for example, at-large elections, racially gerrymandered districting plans, or runoff requirements. Recently, leading civil rights organizations, through the National Commission on the Voting Rights Act, conducted hearings across the nation about the status of African American, Latino, Native American, and Asian American voters. Its report, presented to Congress in February 2006, documented the act’s achievements as well as the need for the reauthorization of those portions of the act due to expire in 2007.
Davidson, Chandler, and Bernard Grofman, eds. Quiet Revolution in the South: The Impact of the Voting Rights Act, 1965–1990. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.
Grofman, Bernard. Minority Representation and the Quest for Voting Equality. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Hudson, David M. Along Racial Lines: Consequences of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. New York: Peter Lang, 1998.