Study Guide

Voting Rights Act Historical Context

By U.S. Congress

Historical Context

Oh boy. Here we go. Put on your galoshes, because we're going to be wading through the muck of How the U.S. of A Has Done Some Really Terrible Stuff.

That's right; we're going to be looking at racism in America.

Get Out the Vote

Technically speaking, African Americans were legally allowed to vote (er, specifically African American men) as early as the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870. And, during the Federal occupation of the South during Reconstruction, Black people were flexing their right to vote, bigtime.

Between the end of the Civil War and the end of Reconstruction in 1877, over 2,000 Black government officials were elected into government roles up and down the system. Which was considered awesome by anyone with a head on their shoulders—even forgetting about the whole history of slavery (which: bad idea), these government officials represented the actual demographics of the American South at the time.

But because this is history we're talking about, not everything thought this was democratic and hunky-dory. The Ku Klux Klan formed during this time period, cutting a swathe of vigilante violence and domestic terrorism through any Black community that aspired to be anything more than a hired hand. But, with Federal troops still in place, the more unsavory denizens of the South couldn't officially change the rules.

Jim Crow Rears Its Ugly Head

However, when Rutherford B. Hayes traded Reconstruction for the Presidency in an infamous back-room deal—check out the details here—Southerners found themselves once again ruling the roost. And, in classic American fashion, they set out to ignore laws they didn't like in the best way they knew how.

Exploiting loopholes.

Literacy tests for voting were instated, rigging the deck against newly freed African Americans who would have been beaten brutally for having the audacity to try and learn how to read. Those who passed the test ran into another bit of legislation: the Grandfather Clause.

Yes, the Grandfather Clause was something specific, before it was just the legal protection that lets you keep your Unlimited Data Plan from Verizon. Under the very literal Grandfather Clause, anyone could skip the legal minefield of voting tests and taxes if they could prove that their Grandfather was also able to vote before 1867.

Which astute readers might have already guessed excluded every single slave freed by the Civil War.

These kinds of state ordinances created the Jim Crow South. While Federal Law made overtures towards general equality, Southern states were able to preserve their racial hierarchy through a cavalcade of local laws that disenfranchised Black voters every which way.

Civil Rights; Voting Rights

The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing during the 1960s, and America's racism problem was the national elephant in the room—especially during the Cold War, where the Soviet Union was all too ready to use America's racial segregation problems against them. President JFK had spoken out against racism and moved to pass the Civil Rights Act after pressure from civil rights activists began to mount.

However, he didn't manage to get the law through Congress before he was assassinated on November 22nd, 1963.

After Kennedy's death, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson stepped into the Oval Office. A huge advocate for civil reform, Johnson used the national mood of mourning to help pass a huge amount of legislation in JFK's memory. With the martyred president in his court, Johnson passed a huge swath of civil rights legislation and social benefit policies that he dubbed his Great Society plan.

This act was passed as a part of his other policy moves, and all told it would have sealed his reputation forever as an all-time great president…if he didn't inherit the war in Vietnam alongside the Oval Office. (But that's another story.)

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